When Yusuf Ali hosted a dinner to launch a new Somali community nonprofit, he brought in a Hmong attorney as the keynote speaker. When Ehtaw Dwee needed advice on keeping his kids connected to their Karen heritage, he turned to a Hmong elder. And when Ali Hashi looks to stock up on fresh lamb or goat, he’ll head to Long Cheng, a local Hmong butcher shop he recently discovered.
This year, the Minnesota Hmong community celebrates the 40th anniversary of its arrival in the state. One testament to its progress: The community has increasingly become a resource and a model for newer refugee and immigrant arrivals.
From the Hmong, these groups are learning how to avoid clashes between tradition and the law, navigate changing gender roles and start successful businesses. In recent years, more Hmong nonprofits and businesses have reached out to a diverse mix of newcomers — a move that’s in turn helping them stay viable and relevant.
Still, leaders see much work to be done — both to address challenges within a Minnesota Hmong community of more than 77,000 and to foster relationships with others.
“The Hmong have paved a lot of roads,” said Chong Bee Vang, the Hmong head of the Karen Organization of Minnesota. “There is also more we can do to be more intentional in supporting those other refugee communities.”
When Dwee arrived in Minnesota a decade ago, he and others in a pioneering group of Karen refugees experienced intense culture shock, he recalls: “We were lost in the jungle, and now we were lost in the city.”
Then, they met the Hmong. They felt an instant affinity. An ethnic minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the Karen faced military persecution and spent years in Thai refugee camps. Before them, the Hmong, an ethnic minority in Laos and American allies during the Vietnam War, made their way to Thai camps as their homeland’s military retaliated after the war.
Dwee sought out Hmong people and heard crucial cautionary tales. In America, obeying the law trumps clinging to traditional cultural practices such as underage marriage. Spousal conflict is not always the family’s private affair.
“The Hmong people told us, ‘This is how we got in trouble because we didn’t know,’ ” Dwee said. “I brought this to my people.”
From the Hmong, the Karen learned how to start a day care, a parent-teacher association and a grocery store, Dwee says.
Meanwhile, the Karen Organization, which advocates for about 8,000 Karen refugees in the state, tapped Vang as its executive director. Vang says thanks to decades of working with the Hmong community, metro law enforcement and other agencies have a cultural sensitivity — an interest in educating as they police — that’s helping newer arrivals, as well.
Three years ago, Chong’s nonprofit mediated with the Ramsey County Attorney’s office in the case of a young Karen man facing criminal sexual charges over a relationship with a 14-year-old. The couple, with their families’ blessing, married in a cultural ceremony and split their time between their parents’ homes.
After months of discussion, the office dropped the charges, on the condition the man earn his GED and find a full-time job. County Attorney John Choi says his office made a difficult decision after weighing the consequences for the girl and her young child if the man was convicted and deported.
Choi says his staff has since worked with Karen leaders to spark community conversations about underage marriage. Choi also took time at a recent Hmong community event to explain why the state goes after domestic violence offenders despite the embarrassment they might suffer.
“We’ve come to recognize that being proactive and educating immigrant communities is really important,” said Choi.
At the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, Pahoua Yang, the community mental health director, says her organization has learned from serving the Hmong, as well. Wilder staff once struggled to work with a culture that lacks a vocabulary to talk about mental health and places a stigma on mental illness. Hmong interpreters without a health care background sometimes offered overly literal translations.
“People had a strong response to being told they should see a ‘crazy doctor,’ ” Yang said. “We’re much better now about finding the right language.”
Catching up to the Hmong
Ali, the Somali community leader, reflected on the Hmong experience as he planned his Somali Community Relations Council. He says the Hmong contended with many problems plaguing the Somali community, from youth gangs to high unemployment. Today, the Hmong have a firm middle-class foothold and influential leaders, such as St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao. (Last year, a Somali-American joined the Minneapolis City Council for the first time.)
“The big lesson is hope: It can be done,” said Ali. “But you have to have a strategy and a plan to pull through.”
The Hmong have indeed made strides since settling in Minnesota, though they still face gaps with the state population as a whole. According to U.S. Census data, 60 percent of Hmong Minnesotans lived below the poverty threshold in 1990; a third did by 2013. Five percent of Hmong Minnesotans 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1990; more than 20 percent did by 2013.
“We’ve made tremendous gains and progress,” said Bao Vang, president of the Hmong American Partnership (HAP), which Ali used as a model for his nonprofit. “But there’s a lot we still have to work on.”
In recent years, Hmong organizations such as HAP have increasingly opened up their doors to other refugees and immigrants, as the Hmong community’s need for some services has waned. More than a third of students in HAP’s classes that prepare adults to earn their GED this year are from Myanmar. More than 30 percent are Somali, with a sprinkling of students from Bhutan, Ethiopia, Mexico, Sudan, China and other countries. The nonprofit also offers employment services to a clientele that’s 40 percent Karen and almost 10 percent Somali.
With Karen job service clients, staffers work to create a joint employment plan for husbands and wives, and set career goals as a family. That’s because HAP has experienced a “déjà vu of the things we struggled with,” Bao Vang says. In both cultures, women traditionally did not work outside the home or take on leadership roles; the arrival in America triggered a gender role shift that can breed conflict and sometimes violence.
HAP pairs Hmong couples with Karen newcomers to prepare them: Here, both spouses might have to work outside the home. It’s OK for men and women to carpool together.
At St. Paul’s Hmong Cultural Center, enrollment in English and citizenship classes was slipping when a marketing consultant last year suggested reaching out to other immigrants, says the center’s Mark Pfeifer. The center printed fliers in Somali for its citizenship class and launched satellite English classes at St. Paul’s First Baptist Church, with its large Karen congregation.
“The Hmong are the ice cutters, and the passage is much easier because of them,” said Pastor Bill Englund.
Meanwhile, the Hmong Chamber of Commerce in Minnesota networked with its Somali counterpart and other immigrant business groups at a recent Maplewood mixer. Hmong entrepreneurs shared tips: Don’t look Hmong customers directly in the eye, and always accept offers of food before talking business deals.
“I believe being a resource for businesses outside the Hmong community will be key going forward,” said Chamber head Chue Vang.
The chamber urges members to broaden their clientele. Vang points to South St. Paul’s Long Cheng Hmong butcher shop, where owner Pao Yang says 40 percent of his customers are not Hmong, but a mix of immigrants drawn to the selection of fresh goat and lamb, and the chance to buy the entire animal.
“We tell our members they can’t rely on the Hmong market alone anymore,” Chue Vang said. “It’s big, but it’s not that big.”