On Sunday night I attended a compelling, informative and beautiful event at Bowl 91 in downtown Appleton. In celebration of World Refugee Day (June 20) World Relief Fox Valley hosted this sold out evening of great food and storytelling to help people in our community better understand what it means to be a refugee and to celebrate the beautiful partnership our community has supporting refugees and helping them to thrive here in America.
Yee Lee Vue of Bowl 91 went out of her way to serve up some of the best Asian food I’ve tasted in the Fox Valley. Vue, owner of Bowl 91, was very excited to partner with this special event. She also came as a refugee to the United States in 1991 and wants to do everything possible to help refugees feel welcomed in our community and to help them become self-sufficient.
After a lovely meal of fish and vegan curries, spicy pork and tasty sweets, four refugees from the Appleton area shared their stories.
Dr. Pam came as a refugee from Laos in 1976. Her dad assisted the American government with food aid distribution during the Vietnam war. When the Vietcong took over Vietnam, Pam’s dad and her family became an enemy of the state. They were on a kill list. Terrified for their lives, they fled Laos. Pam’s dad escaped first and spent a harrowing time locked in a Thai hotel room waiting for his family to be tracked down and rescued. A scout found the family, and she escaped with her mom and little brothers, one who was only 4 months old. They hid by day and walked through the jungles at night, constantly fearing for their lives. Pam vividly recalls a man screaming at them to get in the boat quickly when they crossed the Mekong river into Thailand because Thai guards and Vietcong guards would shoot them on the spot if they were caught.
As Pam stressed, “Refugees don’t have a choice when they are fleeing for their lives. If they don’t come here — they will die. They come here because they have no other choice.”
Overnight, Pam went from a war-torn third world country into the most advanced country in the world. Settling first in Houston, Pam’s family soon moved to Wausau to be near cousins. In Wausau, Pam learned about cancer and racism and resilience. Her cousin went to Mayo Clinic to be treated for cancer and came back bald with his hair falling out. The family was terrified that he was being used in an experiment to test horrible chemicals. They learned to trust that the medical doctors were taking good care of them and did not want to harm them.
However, they also learned about hatred and racism in the United States. When they arrived in the United States, they had no clue about how unpopular the Vietnam War had been. Because people thought they were Vietnamese, some people spit at them when they went to the store. Though the worst act of hatred happened when Pam’s dad got his fingers chopped off from a machine at work — his coworkers had sabotaged the safety mechanism so he would deliberately be injured. Pam’s dad taught her that from every tragedy something good comes out of it. The family believed that there were good people in the United States and refused to be defeated or to give up on the goodness of people. As a result of her dad’s tragedy, the family started the Hmong Mutual Association in Wausau to help other refugees settle in America. She became an advocate.
Pam got married, earned her B.A., then went on to get her Masters and a PhD in business. She was the first person in Appleton to hold the role of Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, back in 1997, and now teaches as an adjunct professor and works in the business sector.
Jacqueline from the Democratic Republic of Congo was the next person to speak. Jacqueline grew up in a helpful, loving family with a mom and a dad who looked out for the food, education and daily needs of their children. But that all changed when war broke out in Congo, and her father was killed.
Her mother, accustomed to working only around the home, had to go to work to support the family. This was very difficult, but Jacqueline’’s biggest struggles happened as a young adult when the country had become engulfed in war and violence. Her family was also on a kill list. In one day both her husband, her oldest son and her brother were murdered.
Jacqueline knew she was next, so she gathered up her six young children and fled to neighboring Uganda for safety. She lived in Uganda for the next seven years, but she wasn’t safe. The Ugandans hated the Congolese and didn’t want them in their country. Once while she was staying with a Ugandan family, they decided to turn her in. Jacqueline was terrified. She had heard many stories about people who had been butchered at night by Ugandan people who hated the Congolese. It was a very confusing time of great emotional upheaval for Jacqueline and her children. She was truly alone, trying to raise little children in a hostile country without help of family and friends.
But she escaped and came as a refugee with her six children to America. Initially, she was afraid that Americans would hate her and try to hurt her like the the people in Uganda did. But she was warmly welcome here in the United States. She had nothing but positive words of thanks and praise for the United States government, the churches and individual people who helped her family settle in America.
Soupanya (Larry)'s family came as refugees from Laos in 1983. His parents came with two children and literally nothing else but the clothes on their backs. He was born five months after his parents arrived in America, making him the first US citizen in his family. He escaped the horrors of war and life in a refugee camp and never experienced what his family had to endure. However, he sees himself as a living representative of his family’s tenacity to survive. He is incredibly grateful for the many sacrifices his family went through to give him life, and he wants to do everything possible to make his family proud.
When the United States finally left Vietnam in 1973, they left behind a country that had been decimated by war -- With 2 million tons of bombs and 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, the region was the most bombed country in history per capita. They also left behind thousands of Hmong people who had faithfully served them during the war.
Larry’s dad was one of those people. He left his family, whom he never saw again, at the age of 10 to join the Royal Lao Army and later trained as a United States ranger at Fort Knox. When the United States left Laos in 1973 the Hmong people had to fend for themselves. The new communist government committed atrocities against the Hmong people that continues as a humanitarian crisis to this day.
Because Larry’s dad had fought against the communists, he was sent to a reeducation camp. Finally released in 1980 for good behavior, his two daughters didn’t recognize him when he was reunited with them. Larry’s dad, who never cried, sobbed all night. He was free, but he was not safe. The communists continued to persecute him. His wife insisted that they flee the country and seek a better, safer life. The family hired coyotes to help them swim across the Mekong river. To this day, Larry’s two sisters still suffer PTSD from the harrowing events of swimming the river under constant threat of death.
Once across the border, the family spent the next 1.5 years in a Thai refugee camp. Life was filled with fear in the refugee camp because the Thai guards regularly beat and raped the refugees.
In 1983 the family came to the United States. A beautiful caring family and church in Oshkosh helped them settle in and helped them survive in America. His sisters were placed in lower grades in school and the family members were called chink and gook. In spite of the hardships, they thrived. Larry’s parents worked several blue collar jobs to make ends meet and make everything work for the family.
Larry’s oldest sister is a PhD Economist working for the Department of the Treasury, his other sister is a local entrepreneur/restaurateur in Appleton. All the children have college degrees and and doing well. Larry said. “This is what happens when you open your doors to refugees. Refugees are people who want a second chance at life. They are able to flourish when you give them a chance — They have experienced great tragedy but they are humans, just like we are -- and all they want is a chance at a better life.
The evening ended with a story from Heritier, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Heritier has been in the United States since 2015. He is married and he has a child, but both his wife and child remain in a refugee camp in Burundi. He has been waiting for over three years to be reunited with his family.
Congo is a beautiful, large country in Africa. Before the war life was somewhat easy and good. But in 1996, war broke out in Congo and then life became very difficult. Many people were being killed and people had to flee from Congo to other countries. Heritier and his family fled to a refugee camp in Burundi. He was just a little boy when he arrived at the refugee camp, but his family was forced to stay in the refugee camp for 15 years.
Life in a refugee camp can be very difficult. Heritier regularly saw people who died of hunger and disease. There was some opportunity for elementary education but a high school education and college were not available. The refugees, especially the young people, didn’t have a chance to move forward in life. People didn’t have enough to eat and they constantly had to think of creative solutions just to earn money to stay alive. Heritier’s family did this for 15 longs years.
Heritier believes that he is a living testimony of the goodness of God -- despite all that he went through and what he has seen with his own eyes -- he didn’t die. Life in a refugee camp goes on and people just wait -- never really knowing when they will be given permission to go to another country. Heritier fell in love, married but then was told he could leave. So after just three months of marriage, Heritier left his wife for America. It would have been too complicated and lengthened the process considerably to link his wife with his refugee file.
Though Heritier and his family went through cultural training for life in America while still in the refugee camp, they knew there were many challenges ahead of them. They were very frightened about coming to America. Life outside the camp is very different from life in the camp. In many ways, people had forgotten how to work. They had learned dependence because there was nothing really productive to do in the camp and no trades to learn so they were not used to working at a job.
Heritier’s family has worked hard since coming to America. They understand that this is their chance for a better life and they want to make it work. This is the only solution for their family to have a better future. They are very grateful to America, World Relief and the many individuals who have helped them tremendously since they arrived in America three years ago.
Heritier is proud that his family is making it and expressed his gratitude for all the help they received. He said, “This showed me that there are still people in the world who are kind and friendly.”
As each refugee shared stories, the theme of gratitude came up again and again. Admittedly, these are people who have experienced very harrowing things in their lives. They have suffered greatly and have lost friends and loved ones on their journey. But instead of bitterness, there is gratitude -- instead of defeat, there is an incredible will to not only survive, but to thrive. Again and again, each person thanked strangers -- who became friends -- for taking care of their family and showing them love and kindness. They thanked the United States government for welcoming them to resettle and start over in America. They thanked churches and family and individuals and teachers and city officials for supporting them and giving them a second chance. They thanked World Relief Fox Valley for welcoming them and connecting them and helping them settle and find jobs.
In the end, it’s important that we understand that refugees are people just like us -- people with hopes and dreams for their future. They are just like other people, but they no longer have their own homeland where they can see these dreams come true.
Heritier summed up the hopeful tone of the evening when he called everyone to action to advocate on behalf of refugees, “Now that we are welcomed in America — we can do great things — we can contribute to the society. We still have friends and family suffering in the camps. They don’t have people who can raise their voice. But we can do something and raise our voices.”
Guest blog written by Nadine H. Mohline -- friend of World Relief Fox Valley