Ka Vang - Director of Impact & Community Engagement at American Public Media

My name is Ka Vang. I am a writer, poet, playwright, storyteller, and social justice activist. I am also a Hmong refugee and this is my story.

My story starts in Long Cheng, Laos. I was born on a CIA military base located in Laos in April of 1975, near the time when the Vietnam War officially ended. The US government was engaged in Laos due to the Vietnam War, thus for the reason for a CIA military base being present in Laos. Initially, Laos was supposed to be neutral but ended up supporting the United States in the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited Hmong people to fight for them. My father, a major in the Royal Lao Army, joined and fought with the Americans until the end of Vietnam War.

After my birth in 1975, my family and I had to relocate to a refugee camp in Thailand. My family and I stayed in the refugee camp for five years but the memories are still vivid for us. The conditions of the camp were terrible. Thousands and thousands of people were condensed into such a small space that it would only ensure inhuman conditions. I remember having to eat garbage due to the lack of food available, even with my father being one of the leaders within the camp. People suffered from loss of hope so people became violent and began to exploit vulnerable people for their resources. Young children and women were abused and the themes of violence became a theme that was accustomed to.

A refugee camp is not a good environment to raise a family, especially one with a newborn. Thus, my family entered the refugee lottery process to come to America. My parents decided that with my father’s skill set and language skills that we would have the best chances to succeed in America. Thus, we applied for visas to enter the United States. My mother’s side of the family thought with their ability to speak French and France’s long linkage to Laos and its people that they would succeed in France. My grandfather from my father’s side decided not to leave the refugee camp for any other country except for Laos. He believed that it was only time until the country would stabilize and he would not leave his homeland before it happened. My grandfather and many other Hmong people shared the same mindset and now I truly understand. How could you leave the land you’ve known for your entire life? It was a hard decision for my parents but it was ultimately, in their eyes, the best environment in which my siblings and I could be raised.

My family applied for the application to resettle in America around the time of my birth in 1975 and we finally got admission in 1980. My entire life in Thailand was essentially a waiting period. But while our family waited for our admission to the United States, our family had to go through “American” culture classes so when we eventually did come to America, we would not receive a significant culture shock. At least that was what we were told. We were not taught the life skills essential for a refugee coming to America such as opening a checking/saving account, learning how to use public transportation, filling out a job application, etc. Instead, we were subjected to McDonald’s advertisements and how if we decided to eat out in America, we would go to an establishment like McDonald’s where they sold “American” food. In these culture classes, my siblings and I were also taught the “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” song “America the Beautiful”. Those songs were played over and over again to ensure we had memorized the songs, word for word. We watched a lot of American movies and documentaries that had an emphasis on the beauty of the parks and mountains in America. I remember Pine’s Peak being a landmark that was constantly featured through a lot of the movies our family watched. This was our family’s first introduction to America and what it had to offer.  

Growing up in America, my experience was quite different. I was stuck in between generations. I was not a first generation child because I was born in Laos but I grew up, like most children, in America. The experiences, in particular to the Hmong refugee experience, are different based on gender. My main challenge was managing to live in two different worlds simultaneously. In one world, I was held to the traditional Hmong cultural expectations for a woman to cook and clean for the family while obtaining great marks at school. In another world, I was going through the normal teenager challenges of going on dates, playing sports, and maintaining a social life. For me, I was trying to have two different teenager experiences and that became very difficult for me. At points in my teenager years, I started to hate being Hmong. I hated the identity and the clashes it was having with my American identity. This experience when I was a child truly crippled me from reaching my true self until later in my life. I now find deep comfort in being Hmong American and have learned not to disregard either of my identities but to embrace them. Being a proud Hmong American has made me a much stronger and courageous person. My identity of being Hmong used to be something I hid within myself but has been an anchor for myself because that identity also carries values, heritage, and memories that I could not obtain from anywhere else.

My advice for refugees would be to embrace your experiences and tell your story. It will be empowering for you to tell your story and it will not only benefit yourself but helps other refugees and your community. It took me a while for me to understand this but I am proud of my identities and experience and it has truly become a true source of comfort. Be proud of your stories, experiences, culture, heritage, and identity because it is not a means of dividing each other but as a means for us to connect with one another.

Felicia Philibert