BY NHIEN NGUYEN
When Hmong war veteran Nhia Yia Heu arrived in Seattle in 1980 from war-torn Southeast Asia, it was like he was born again, he says through a translator, starting his life “from zero.”
“What am I going to do with no skills and no education?” Heu asked himself when he arrived in America. Growing up in an agrarian culture in the hills of Northern Laos, he was so dependent on his sponsors to help him get settled into his new home in America that it was like “starting to learn how to walk again.”
Twenty-five years and 40 grandchildren and great grandchildren later, Heu still misses his country and feels like “a dummy” who doesn’t know what to do with himself in America and hardly ever ventures anywhere around town.
Heu, 73, is like many other Hmong war veterans who were recruited by the CIA to fight for America in the once-secret wars in Laos and found themselves fleeing to escape persecution from the Communist government. The United States had promised to help the Hmong in exchange for their assistance in the war, though, in reality, much of their lives in America have been spent facing challenges on their own with help from families and their communities.
The vets will be officially recognized for their contributions to the U.S. war efforts for the first time in Washington State at the Hmong New Year celebration at the Seattle Center on Saturday, Nov. 5.
“We want to let them know that their contributions have not been forgotten,” says Xee Yang-Schell, chair of the Hmong New Year event which marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Yang-Schell says that the coordinators of the event hope to educate the public about what happened to their people, since so little is written about how the Hmong vets played a big part in the war and why there came to the United States as refugees.
“Some people think we came because of the opportunity,” says Yang-Schell, “but it was because we were trying to escape persecution and mass killings.”
Yang-Schell adds: “The vets sacrificed so much; so many people died and people don’t even know who we are.”
Like Heu, Blar Tau Soung wondered what he would do in America when he arrived in Texas in 1979. Working with the United States in the army since 1957, he worried how he would start over at his age and with no education, he says through a translator.
Soung moved from Texas to Kansas and then to Seattle in 1984, where he brought his wife and children under the support of his oldest son.
Soung, who was 61 when he came to the United States, knew that the skills and knowledge in America was very different than where he was from. When he got to America, he thought he was just “too old to learn everything.”
Both Heu and Soung speak limited English – a barrier to life and opportunities in America.
Luckily for Youa Bee Chang, he came to American equipped with a working knowledge of English. As an army recruit at age 14, Chang learned English in order to communicate with his American counterparts. His duties in the war included dropping supplies from a chopper for those on the frontlines and taking care of dead bodies.
When Chang first arrived to Hawaii in 1976, the government helped pay for his rent and utilities, but only gave his family of four $20 a week for food. After three weeks living on the meager allowance, Chang knew it would be necessary to find a job to feed his family.
Chang lived in Hawaii for five years, and came to Seattle where relatives and friends lived and more job opportunities awaited him.
Chang managed to fit in a few night classes to improve his English. Now, at age 55, he translates for members of the Hmong community, like Heu and Soung.
Some of the Hmong vets stay connected to their community through activities with the Hmong Senior Club under the Pacific Asian Empowerment Program where 100-150 Hmong, Khmmu and Mien gather at least twice a week.
When Chang thinks of this Hmong New Year marking the 30th anniversary since the end of the Vietnam War, he reflects that “a lot of good people were lost.”
Many Hmong vets, Chang says, sit quietly in their homes in America and let things go.
Though the U.S. government fell short of their promise to provide for Hmong in America, these three Hmong vets don’t harbor resentment. They understand that there were a lot of refugees in need of services back then, but do wish that more assistance could have been given.
At age 87, Soung still thinks about his time in the war.
“Day by day, year after year, those bad times still stay with me,” says Soung.
Yang-Schell says that many Hmong men in their 50s, 60s and 70s died during the war. There is a gap of men missing in that age range because of the war.
Yang-Schell, who was only two years old when she left Laos, says this event is a chance for myself and others to know the vets and their stories.
“They don’t talk about it much,” says Yang-Schell, who got to know more about the details of the vets’ stories through their widows.
Yang-Schells says the New Year event shows that “this is what we did, this is what we suffered, and this is what we endured.”