Saturday, May 26, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry


Vietnam war refugees show the power of immigrants

DETROIT — State Rep. Harvey Santana made a pitch last week to make Michigan as immigrant-friendly a state as possible. “Our goal is that the brightest people move here, work here, create jobs and products here, and pay taxes here,” the Detroit Democrat said.

Immigrants, he told his colleagues, were far more likely to be successful and start businesses than almost anyone else.

The week before, I had a poignant reminder of just how true that is. Thirty-one years ago, I met a family of Hmong immigrants who had just arrived in Toledo after suffering in exile for years, mainly because they supported America.

Supported America, that is, in the first war this country ever lost. The Hmong, a tribal people and an ethnic minority in Laos, did what they could to help Americans during what we think of as the Vietnam war. When the war ended, we basically abandoned them.

Say Yang Lee, who was sort of the head man of his village, was forced to flee with his wife and children. Two babies died in Laos before they could get out. Seventeen-year-old Chong died in exile in Thailand, as did a year-old son, Xa.

Finally, the parents and their six surviving children made it to Toledo, thanks to the sponsorship of an amazing couple, Denis and Carol Eble, and their local Roman Catholic parish.

I met the Lees then and wrote about them for a magazine article I was doing about two refugee families from Indochina.

None of the family spoke much English then. They had no money and few skills that I thought would be marketable in modern society. I thought their prospects were dim.

I was wrong. I didn’t keep in touch with the Lees, but last month I suddenly heard from Mr. Eble. Say Yang, now in his 70s and retired, was recovering from a serious liver operation.

His children had scattered to the four winds, but their father’s illness had stirred up old memories, and they wanted to meet me. The Blade’s Sunday magazine had put their family’s photo on the cover. A framed copy hung in the family home all these years.

One of their daughters, Kia, a gap-toothed 6-year-old in the photograph, wondered about the then-youngish reporter who had told their story so long ago. They wondered whether I wanted to know what had happened to them.

I did indeed, and met with the Ebles and one daughter in person and two others via Skype two weeks ago.

Say Yang not only learned to speak fluent English, he worked at a number of jobs before spending two decades at the University of Toledo, where he became head of maintenance before he retired.

He and his wife, Khoua Kha, had two more daughters and a son. Nearly all the children have at least some college education. Today, they are scattered among Ohio, Michigan, California, and Colorado.

Frances, 28, is working in a bank and thinking about graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Christina, the youngest, trained as a nurse before “hopping on the Silicon Valley bandwagon.” Today, she is an event coordinator for a company that provides Internet cloud-based phone systems for businesses. Perfectly bilingual, at home in two cultures, she says: “I couldn’t be happier; being with a fast-evolving company is a great feeling.”

Kia grew up to have movie-star looks and become a high-powered marketing and sales coordinator for a California firm. Like several of the older girls, she married a Hmong boy while still in her teens — then divorced him and eventually married an American of European descent. “I’m currently a very exhausted but enthused homemaker,” she says.

The Lee children have produced more than 30 grandchildren. The Ebles noted that the family added a lot of wealth to the tapestry that is America.

Christina, the youngest, thinks it was easiest for her. “My parents had time to ease into the U.S. culture and learned the American ways” before she was born, she said.

The key to the children’s success, Christina said, was that her parents “made sure we know that they love us unconditionally and would go to extremes to make sure we are safe and happy. My goal is to continue to comfort, care, and support them as much as they did for all of us.”

Eight years ago, Kia, now Kia Lee Germino, took her parents back to Laos and Thailand “for the first time since they fled the secret war by foot through the dense jungles.” It was a highly emotional trip for all of them. “When we left, I was saddened, as was my father.”

She knew they all could easily have died there. The United States, she said, had not treated her people well then. Yet the Lees had done well in this nation.

“When the U.S. left the most controversial war in history, they left thousands of loyal Hmong men, women, and children vulnerable to horrible executions,” Kia told me. The Hmong — the word means ‘free’ — would do just about anything to keep their culture, their people, alive.”

After a lifetime here, Kia said she finally realizes that freedom “was why they fought alongside the U.S. It makes a lot of sense.”

Representative Santana thinks the best way for Detroit to regain prosperity would be to welcome a flood of new immigrants. The Lees make it hard to see how anyone could disagree.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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