New Hmong center is saving lives

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Der Vang has no photos of her childhood, her parents or her siblings, because all of her belongings were burned at one of the Laotian refugee camps during the Vietnam War.

"Because of the war we have to move from place to place within the country and then escape to Thailand," explains Vang, with the help of translator Mai Xong Vue.

Vang was just 10 years old. She remembers her family of six struggling to find food and moving from camp to camp.

"I live a very poor life where I don't have clothes, and I literally have to use pins to pin each hole of my pants and skirt to cover myself," she explains as she recalls the trauma of her childhood.

After a year, Vang fled to Thailand, where she lived in a camp for 20 years. She did needlework to make money for food, and eventually married and had 8 children.

"In Vinai for that 20 year was a little bit better because you can find wood for fire, you can do things to help yourself," Vang recalls.

Then in the late '90s, Vang and her family were given a choice: go back to Laos or move to another county. In their case, it was the United States.

"I came here in older age, so I can't learn another language to read and to write," she explains with sadness in her voice, "And that part I'm just really sad for myself."

Vang says adjusting to our society has been hard from the language barrier to the difficulties her kids experienced to healing from the trauma of the past.

"I think about it like an onion," explains Mai Xong Vue, the Board President of the Hmong Institute, "The U.S. policy for refugees coming to the United States is not, let's deal with what you have been through so you can assimilate cleanly and have a fresh start. With that kind of policy, we never peel that onion off."

Vue says there are 6,000 Hmong living in Dane County, and the new Hmoob Kaj Siab center works to eliminate gaps in services by offering refugee trauma informed care.

"There's a lot of things that are trauma, not just war. It can be poverty, homelessness, and the whole assimilation, not understanding, not speaking the language," adds Anesis Therapy Executive Director Myra McNair, "So that's just really hard to say hey, let's treat you for this past experience, when you're having ongoing things going on too."

The center offers a daily meal, exercise, space for activities like needlework and monthly excursions.

"They can escape that stress to be in a place where their peers are there to help them laugh and rekindle relationships from the past," says Vue about the center's importance, "Something to keep them lively and stress free."

The center also offers culturally specific individual and weekly group therapy with Hmong therapists.

"It's important not just having the language and the culture but really understanding the client and be able to just say, you're a human, too, and I understand you," explains Vue.

Der adds, "The stress and the thoughts of thinking about.... my goodness, only if I was born either before the war or after the war, then I wouldn't be subjected to so much pain in my life. If we don't have a place like Hmong Kaj Siab, I would have hung myself... the support group, the women, the counselor helps me deal with my stress, helps me cope with my stress and that's how I can cope with my issues every day."

The center needs to raise $150,000 to sustain the new location.

If you'd like to support their efforts, there is a Hmong Gala Dinner being held on Saturday, April 20th at Madison College.