The men and women were camera-shy at first, bracing to tell their most wrenching stories. Quickly, they opened up.
Six Hmong elders recently starred in videos about their journeys to the United States — a project of the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, the Hennepin County Library and a Minneapolis day center for Hmong seniors. On the eve of next year’s 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the elders felt an urgency to preserve these stories, sad and violent but ultimately life-affirming.
“They were a little bit scared of the camera, but once they started telling their stories, they forgot about everything,” said Bee Vue, the director of the day center, who also participated.
A screening and discussion is set for 11 a.m. Monday at the center, 1505 Park Av. S. The stories are part of a larger U video project called Immigrant Stories.
The featured elders are members or staff at Hmong DayElders, run by the nonprofit Volunteers of America.
Manichan Xiong told of a turning point in her childhood when Communist government forces in Laos shot down a U.S. helicopter near her family farm as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close.
Xiong’s father had her secretly bring food to an injured pilot until he was rescued by another helicopter. But when local officials found out, the family’s home was destroyed and Xiong’s grandfather was killed.
Like all participants, Xiong showed a meaningful object: an embroidered blanket depicting the exodus of the Hmong to Thai refugee camps. Another participant brought a traditional baby carrier. She had strapped it to her back before she swam across the Mekong River into Thailand, only to find the swift current had claimed the baby when she reached the shore.
All participants said they wanted to save the stories for a younger generation — a sense of urgency heightened when one of them died in the weeks after recording the video.
“This project puts the power of storytelling into the hands of ordinary people,” said Erika Lee, head of the U center.