Health equity advocate, father, Hmong refugee and 2018-2019 Outstanding Refugee Award recipient
“I was part of an early wave of Hmong refugees. I came to this country in 1976 when I was just 1 year old. I have a picture where you can see my brother and me without shoes, my mother with my sister in the womb, just stepping off a plane. We were the first Hmong family in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“Hmong people were a nomadic hill tribe in the mountains of Laos. We had no nation-state. We had no citizenship. Because of where we resided along a critical supply route called the Ho Chi Minh trail, the CIA recruited us to become a surrogate guerrilla army. We were part of this covert operation. The CIA approached my people with guns, medicine and protection. When Laos and Vietnam fell to communism, Hmong people were seen as traitors fighting for a foreign power – the United States. The Communists declared genocide and began persecuting my people. We fled to Thailand, and from there many came to America.
“Growing up in Eau Claire – a flat, cold Midwestern climate – you couldn't imagine a more different physical and social environment than where we had come from: the highland mountains and jungles of Laos. There were noble and kind people who received us, who took care of us as sponsors, but there was also resistance to our being in the town. One of the first things my parents were told was we may feel that some people did not welcome us. My mother was astonished. She wondered why they would be afraid of us, especially because of our people’s sacrifice. We were displaced from our homeland because of war waged by the United States, and she had just lost her father fighting for the United States military.
“The refugee experience doesn't allow you to take for granted a homeland or even just the present moment. I’m now expecting my second child. I'm more mindful of the passage of time and anticipation of future time. There is a saying that I take very seriously: ‘We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ It's clear to me in my immediate and ancient ancestry the sacrifices, the struggles, the hopes and the dreams of those who have made my path possible.
“When I graduated from college, my dad said to me, “That's not your degree; that’s my degree.” My community has a deep sense of intergenerational connection. It sees individuals in relation to their family, their community and their village with a sense of shared prosperity. My definition of success is living up to my values, honoring all that was sacrificed for me and staying connected to the courageous history of my ancestors.”