RI's Hmong Community Celebrates 40 Years in the US

May 13, 2016

Providence residents Ger V. Xiong and his daughter Mailee Kue tell RIPR's Chuck Hinman the story of their family's migration from the mountains of Laos to Rhode Island.

They are preparing to celebrate their community's history and heritage at Bryant University on Saturday at the "National Recognition Day Commemoration: Celebration of 40 Years of Resettlement Progress in the U.S." 

The Hmong are an ethnic group from the mountains of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They came to Rhode Island, as well as other parts of the United States, at the end of the Vietnam War.

Hmong soldiers had been working with the CIA, fighting in secret against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. When the United States left the region, thousands of Hmong soldiers and their families were left to scramble to find refuge where they could. Many ended up in Rhode Island.

Ger Xiong says he got his wife and kids to a refugee camp in Thailand, and from there, he found a sponsor stateside to facilitate their immigration to San Francisco, or so he thought. 

“But when we arrived in New York, our sponsor died," Xiong explained. "And they say, you have to go to Rhode Island.”

And Xiong has been here ever since. His daughter, Dr. Mailee Kue, is now the executive director at Bryant University’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

Kue was 3 years old when the family made the long trek from the refugee camp to Rhode Island. Her first memories are of the family home in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood. 

"I remember being in that home and listening to my parents singing, and reminiscing about Laos and some of their fears, but I actually don’t have any memory of the move coming over here," said Kue. "This of course was a very chaotic process and people were very afraid and very anxious, boarding an airplane and really just not knowing what to expect for their future, because they were leaving their country forever. And so those are the things he would talk about growing up.”

Kue estimates that 2,000-3,000 Hmong currently live in Rhode Island, down from a high of 9,000 in the early 1980s. Many of them will gather on Saturday to highlight the story of the soldiers of the Special Guerrilla Unit, or SGU, who fought for the U.S. in the CIA’s Secret War against Communist forces in Laos. 

“All the men who were soldiers will come in their uniforms," said Kue, adding that the commemoration will be a bittersweet moment for many of them.

"It’s a sad story because, I think, they want some level of recognition. And their story is sort of coming to an ending with many of the youth such as myself or even my children not knowing much about the story," said Kue.

The event will include some of that history, said Kue, and a celebration of Hmong cultural traditions such as music and dance.  She also plans to discuss the current status of the Hmong community in the United States.

Today, Hmong people are scattered around the globe from Australia to Canada and Providence. Ger Xiong, the former SGU soldier, remembers his first job in America, in a local factory. It paid $2.38 an hour.

Eventually Xiong found work with the Providence Police Department, in their communications unit. He was there for almost 27 years before he retired. Asked about how he feels about his experience  in the United States, Xiong said, "I'm okay."

His daughter is a bit more philosophical, citing a Hmong adage to explain her feelings about the Hmong presence in America:

“The Hmong people also have a saying that says, ‘You can do what you want, because you were not born with a rock on your head.' That speaks even truer in America, because it really says that Hmong people can be whatever they want in America," said Kue.  

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Ger Xiong was a soldier serving with Hmong General Vang Pao in the SGU, the Special Guerrilla Unit working with the CIA. His daughter, Dr. Mailee Kue, is the executive director at Bryant University's Center for Diversity and Inclusion. They will join others at Bryant's Fisher Center on Saturday for the commemoration event. Doors open at 11am, lunch is at 11:30 and the program begins at 12pm.

The event is sponsored by Hmong and Lao SGU Veterans of U.S.A, Hmong United Association of RI, Free Lao Corps and Bryant University.