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A successful life created by a community

Mai Na Lee’s story

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Mai Na Lee’s story


Mai Na Lee and her family didn’t really have a choice to stay in Laos or not. Like millions of others around the world, they were forced from their country by war and left to search safety and another home.

From 1955 to 1975, Laos was enduring a civil war that was fuelled by the global Cold War, and tens of thousands of men, women and children died as a result.

Mai Na and her family, members of the Hmong minority, and her own father a member of the resistance, finally fled Laos in 1979. They first arrived in Thailand, where Mai Na recalls “everyone was starving, people were sick, and we had no food.”

They decided to go to the United States, and were eligible to be relocated in 1980. Today a history and Asian American studies professor at the University of Minnesota, and the first Hmong person in the US to earn a PhD in history, Mai Na credits a lot of her personal and professional success to the people who so openly welcomed her.

Here is her story.

“In Thailand, we had to be ‘trained’ to come to the US. We had come from a lot of suffering, and Hmong people were not used to modern conditions.

I was too young, but my parents and older brother had English classes, and they were taught how to use electricity, how to use stoves, what refrigerators are for, how to take a bus. We arrived to the US in July 1980 to a small little town called Omro, in Wisconsin. The population was around 700.

There was a lot of effort to try to make us feel at home.

We had two sponsors to welcome us, the communities from the Presbyterian church and the St. Mary Catholic church.

They gave us furniture, arranged for tutors for us kids and English language tutors for our parents, donated groceries and helped my father secure various odd jobs.

I really remember my tutor, Mrs Alder, an elderly retired schoolteacher. Arriving at the age of ten, I had only known the war, and the refugee camps. I had no opportunity for an education, and I had never even held a pencil in my life. She taught me everything from A to Z, how to navigate the school system, and she really supported my educational pursuit. Even after my family had left the town, she helped me develop my reading and writing skills by corresponding with me until her passing in early 2000.

We moved to a bigger town, St Paul, Minnesota about a year later because we found out we had family there. We had to go. Hmong people’s identity, their socio-economic and spiritual practices are very much tied to their clans and extended families.

Our sponsors were really sad to see us go. I remember the two pastors from the churches, “Father Joe” and “Father Bill”, crying when they found out we were leaving. We didn’t have the language to explain to them that a Hmong family could not exist in an isolated town without the social support of the extended clan. I think our sponsors were really hurt we left.

It was definitely much harder in St. Paul.

We didn’t have a support system, we didn’t have money. My family joined a church and that community did help us get on our feet a little. Eventually my parents found work. My mom was paired with a tutor, who would come to our house on weekends to teach her English.

I’m a member of the 1.5 generation, moving to another country as a child. I’ve made my way here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t face discrimination. Often my neighbours, for example, assume I don’t speak English. They contact city inspectors, who harass me, always looking for any city code violation, like if I left my trash can out beyond the day of trash collection. Even my children have been requested to go into classes for students learning English as a second language, yet English is their first language. My eldest daughter, as a third grader, read English at seventh grade level, but this request was still made.

Finally, she was placed in a class for gifted children by the first black teacher she had.

So the discrimination is there. It’s not always overt, but I would say it’s more discursive, and sometimes even hidden with a smile. I don’t know which of my seemingly friendly neighbours continually complain about me to the city.

There’s no denying that immigrants and refugees are going to continue to come to America.

Immigration is driven by the processes of imperialism and colonialism. Wars create refugees and immigrants.

You have a choice between hating newcomers silently and overtly, or embracing them and helping them integrate and being a really big impact on their life.

For me, my teachers, and other people who reached out to me, have had a much bigger impact on my life than the haters. They also made me a better citizen, and became models of how I should be and how I should treat other immigrants.

There needs to be a new narrative created.

We need to get rid of our stereotypes and prejudices about immigrants and refugees. Each one of us comes here hoping for a chance at a new life. For my family, coming here was a choice for life rather than imprisonment and death.

There is a humane factor that is often missed in the anti-immigrant narratives, and we often miss the perspective from the immigrants and refugees themselves—their hopes and their dreams.

Nobody comes here thinking ‘I’m just going to sit back and let the system support me.’ Their hope and their dream is to be here and better the society, to be good citizens, to be independent, to do something for our new country, as per the words of John F. Kennedy.

My hopes and dreams for my children are just the same as other Americans: which is just to let them have good educations, to let them have the opportunities in the future to find good jobs, access to higher education if they want, and to let them grow up to be good people and good citizens.

My personal success is due to my own struggle and my own motivations, but it is really due to the support system that I had.

As an American citizen now and a teacher, I see it as my role is to help my kids obtain their dream.

My parents, as refugees who didn't speak a word of English, could not have provided the skills to help me achieve my hopes and dreams. They helped me to survive by providing food and shelter, and they were models of hard work and diligence, but they had their own struggles.

Much of my career success came from outside guidance: teachers, coaches, counsellors, neighbours and friends. They're the ones who really allowed me to see beyond basic survival, to hope and to dream. Many gave me the skills to navigate the system, which is so essential for success in any area. The haters do not factor much into my life, but the givers truly have made in impact.”

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.