Dai Thao - St. Paul City Council member, Mayoral candidate, and Hmong Refugee
I’m an IT professional by trade for over 16 years and a community organizer by passion.
I’ve been on the Saint Paul city council since 2013. My family came here as refugees in 1983, an action that made all of these experiences possible. In the refugee camps, we were extremely poor. I remember following people through the marketplace, just in case they threw away a chicken bone which would become our meal for the night. During our exile, I lost two sisters and a younger brother. I saw my sister die in front of me. I always thought the U.S. would be paradise. When we came to America, I was called “chink” and “gook” and told to go back to my country. As an eight year old, I still couldn’t speak much English but I could sense the hate in their language and it pained me. I could take it because I had gone through so much already, but when I saw other immigrant or refugee kids getting beat up and bullied at school, I would go and protect them. I didn’t want them to experience the same type of hurt that I did.
I grew up in roach and mice-infested public housing. My dad went back to join the resistance, so my mom raised the rest of us on her own. We had little money, so several of us lived in a tiny, two bedroom apartment. I remember getting a free small fry coupon from McDonald’s when I was young. I walked several blocks down Lake Street and ordered french fries for the first time. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. So I ate one … and then another … and a few more. Eventually, there was maybe half left and I knew I had to stop. I needed to bring what was left back to my family because it was so good and I wanted them to experience it too. Today many families still struggle like that. I always thought that it would get better as I got older; society naturally would progress. As a kid, I was an idealist, regardless of our living conditions. As an adult, a policy maker, and a realist, I look at our community and see families that are living in even worse conditions than I grew up in. Many don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night. It never made sense to me that people have to suffer like this when we live in a country that is so rich. This wasn’t the America that I imagined.
We transitioned from the jungles of Laos to the urban neighborhoods of South Minneapolis. As Hmong people, we are peaceful. We don’t start trouble. We listen to our parents. One time, I was outside with my sister and our neighbor catching grasshoppers. There were two girls across the street who kept yelling and gesturing towards us. I didn’t know what they were talking about because I still didn’t speak much English. We went back to playing and, suddenly, one of the kids was standing in front of me. She knocked the grasshoppers out of my hand, slapped me, and spit at me. I was so scared that if I hit her, my mom would find out and give me a whopping. I was more scared of my mom than of the violence I was being subjected to. I began to ask myself, what did I do wrong?
Many times, I went into our kitchen and cockroaches would scatter everywhere because one of my siblings had left our food out overnight. I would be so angry because nobody could eat it and we’d have to throw it out. There was a whole meal, gone. Our house was so hot in the summer we would go sleep downstairs where the rain would flood the whole basement. The only place we could sleep was on the island in the center of the basement. The cockroaches got flooded too and they would come and try to take refuge with us. They crawled all over us but we had no choice but to try and get some rest. As a kid, I felt less than human. I remember thinking that, in this country, people treat their pets better than us. I couldn’t understand this blatant oppression and ignorance. I was raised in a culture that says, in order for my family to do well, I have to fight for you and yours first. If you benefit, that’s my success too. If I don’t have something, I can always come knock on your door and you can do the same so we don’t starve together.
I believe that my purpose is to serve. I know I’m not going to be here forever; nobody is going to get out of life alive. I will be at peace when I know that I’ve done everything I can to lift as many people up as possible. I think the easy option is to serve. The hard thing is always scheming to keep others down, like many in power do. These are people who constantly plan new ways to oppress our communities for their own benefit and privilege. I think it’s easier to love, to forgive, to be kind, to be benevolent. I want to try to use this lifetime to do that. Hopefully, if there is a next life, it’ll be a better place.
When Donald Trump passed the travel ban, I knew I had to take action. I didn’t want my Muslim brothers and sisters, my Latino neighbors, all other marginalized communities to feel like no one was really looking out for them. I have a daughter that’s one year old and waiting for a marrow transplant. I am fortunate to have healthcare through the city, but there are many families who are not as lucky as us, which is why I championed earned sick and safe time. From a policy standpoint, I am proud of the work I have already done to help my community and the work they have done to help those around us. We call that power-sharing. Power-sharing is about sharing responsibility, about making sure that everybody is at the table using their voice. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
To immigrant and refugee youth: There’s nothing wrong with you. I always thought that something was wrong with me because I didn’t have the Star Wars lunch box or the brand new Nikes. I wasn’t white, I didn’t know English. I always thought somehow my parents weren’t good parents because they didn’t do all of the things that the white parents did. I didn’t understand that they were struggling. My advice is to honor your family; they’re doing everything they can to help you. I also want to stress how important it is for you to never forget your history. Don’t let your culture slip away. It doesn’t mean you have to be isolated from other communities, but if you learn your culture, you’re going to be able to learn and respect the cultures of those around you. I believe that, if you know your history and your culture, you begin to develop a sense of identity and have something to be proud of. At some point in your history, your ancestors were Kings and Queens. Warriors. Proud and strong. You had sovereignty, your own language, songs, dance, stories. It was taken away by white supremacy and colonization. It’s important to never forget this. Once you have this identity, you can understand where you need to go and why you need to work hard. Why you need to take the pain and sacrifice to move the community forward. You do this by integrating your culture into Western society. You add culture which means you add value. You are an American and you bring strength to American society. You’re not here to take things from white people or those before you, you’re here to add to what they already had so that we can all rise together.
Writer: Felicia Philibert