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Finding refuge in central Wis.: Wausau man shares refugee experience

Published: Oct. 7, 2021 at 9:34 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Tucked amongst the tree and hills of Thailand near the Laotian border in the 1970s, a camp called Ban Vinai was the largest encampment of Hmong refugees fleeing the North Vietnamese. That is where Yauo Yang was born in 1980, but that is not where his story begins.

“Before I was born, my parents, they were living in the country of Laos and after the Vietnam War, the communist takeover was happening in the country of Laos and they were trying to kill as many Hmong people as they could because of our alliance with the Americans during the Vietnam War,” Yang said.

His parents and their three children were among the thousands left in Laos after American troops left the country. They knew if they remained there they would be killed.

“By the time that my parents decided that they wanted to leave the country of Laos and before they got into the country of Thailand, my parents ended up having to bury my three older siblings because of disease, malnutrition, and starvation.”

As his family escaped through the jungle, his mother carried Yang in her womb. Of the upwards of 300,000 Hmong people living in Laos, anywhere from a tenth to a half of the population is estimated to have been killed during the war.

“So, if my mom would have been a statistic, I would not be here today,” Yang noted.

He and his family lived at Ban Vinai for seven years. At times, his father would leave the camp to continue fighting the guerrilla war. Yang has vague memories of his time there.

“I just remember a lot of poverty. Just not enough food, clothing, shelter, you name it just living the first seven years of my life in complete poverty.”

That experience has shaped who he is today. His family was granted asylum in the U.S. Like many other Hmong refugees, they were sponsored by church groups. Yang’s family arrived at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee in 1987.

“It was just a really strange feeling because never in my entire life had I seen blonde hair and blue eyes. So that was just really scary.”

He explained he would try to talk to people from the area, but they could not understand him and he could not understand them. Learning English, he said, was his biggest challenge, though he faced many others.

“We were no longer living in the refugee camps, but by American standards, we were still living in poverty.”

By the time his family arrived, he was the oldest of nine children. His first home in America was in a two-story duplex in Merrill. His family lived on the upper level. His parents had one bedroom and the nine children shared the other. He said it was infested with cockroaches.

“It was just really difficult trying to survive here in America.”

In addition to learning English and managing continued poverty, they were trying to learn the American culture. Yang credits much of his hope and who he is today to Anne Merryfield, his elementary school teacher in Wausau. Among many gestures, she invited his family over for Christmas.

“I learned that Americans like to bake cookies,” he smiled. “When you live in poverty, you don’t get to do that, and then at the end of the day she said, ‘hey, why don’t you kids come over here and look under the Christmas tree and there’s some Christmas presents and they have your name on it. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was American because I could open up my very own Christmas present.”

He said his parents worked very hard to get themselves out of poverty and they worked to ensure their children were set up with the same mindset to sustain stability into adulthood too.

“He just really impressed it upon us kids that here in America, this is the land of opportunity. You have the ability and the potential, with your education, to do something beyond what my father was doing at a factory job.”

He said there was a great stress for them to excel at school, “and for me to be able to excel at school, that just meant that I had to make sure that I was able to speak English well.”

The intense need and time required to learn English along with American culture caused his family to lose some of their Hmong language and culture in the process. He said they tried to speak English when they were at home and soon rarely used the Hmong language at all.

However, Yang loved immersing himself in his education and American culture to learn as much as he could. He said going to school made him forget he was poor. He joined as many after-school programs, clubs, and sports as he could. While many Hmong children would stick within their cultural group, Yang said he would often be the only Hmong person in whatever program he was in, whether it was basketball or Boy Scouts.

Boy Scouts, he added, was a difficult group for his parents to support him being a part of because he said at the time Hmong gangs were becoming a problem. His parents did not want him to become part of a gang. He ultimately was allowed to join the scouts.

He said the people he interacted with were kind to him. That kindness and generosity helped to teach him that he could love all people no matter what they looked like or their background. It also gave him a sense of home, that he was American; this was his country.

After he graduated from Wausau West High School in 2000, he went to college at UW-Stevens Point. During that time, he witnessed the September 11 attacks and it hit him hard. He talked with his family and Hmong friends about going into the military to defend the country. He said many did not understand why he would want to do that given that he was not considered a U.S. citizen.

“I might not have that piece of paper, but in my heart, I’m an American and the right, American thing to do is to sign up to defend and protect my country from these terrorists,” he would explain to them.

In 2002, he enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. In 2004 he was sent to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and was there for a year. He said he got the opportunity to help Iraqi people “to secure a better future for their nation.” While he had numerous positive interactions, he said there were several instances where he could have been killed.

“I made a promise to God and said, ‘God, if you can get me out of Iraq alive when I come back to Wausau I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

Two members of his unit were killed. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When he returned to the Wausau area, got his citizenship. He became a teacher with the D.C. Everest School District. He said life was good, but in 2015, he wanted to keep up his end of the bargain he made with God. He talked with two pastors who thought he would make a good church planter, someone who starts up a new church.

He prayed about what kind of church he should create, and he felt a conviction to create a multi-ethnic, nondenominational Christian church given his positive experiences in his youth. He started The Cross and shortly thereafter began connecting with people who are homeless in the area.

He also goes to the county’s jail to do Bible study with inmates. He became the director of the Joseph Project, which helps people find jobs. He is also the executive director of The Gospel TLC, where he is working to raise $2 million to create a “transformational living center.” He said it would be a “Christ-centered, long-term, 12-18 month free residential facility for people who are battling addiction and are broken.”

Yang recognizes there is still a long way to go, more work to be done, and more dialogs to be had in order for the people of the Hmong and American cultures to understand each other. He believes part of what needs to be better understood throughout the community is why the Hmong are in the community in the first place. His impression is that there are a lot of people who still do not know or really understand why they were brought to central Wisconsin. Some people have told him they think the Hmong people are here to milk the system or take advantage of programs.

“I like to tell people that we as the Hmong and the Americans, we have a history going back all the way to the Vietnam War that we were friends, we fought together and this is the reason why we’re here in America today is because of that alliance.”

In that way, he said the Hmong are similar to the Afghan refugees. Both fought alongside Americans in the name of democracy. Americans left those wars and the native populations faced death because of their alliance and aid to the U.S. too.

“For this next wave of refugees that’s coming over, there’s still going to be a lot of work that needs to be done in order for them to feel like they are fully welcomed and embraced in this community.”

He connects his actions and love for people today to the kindness and generosity that was shown to him when he was facing dire challenges as a refugee. He said he hopes as central Wisconsin prepares to welcome new refugees that that same welcome is extended to them; “we’ve done that, so let’s do that again.”

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