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Afghan Refugee Effort Prompts Reminders of Hmong Experience

Wisconsin has a Hmong population of nearly 50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Stephen Barnes
Wisconsin has a Hmong population of nearly 50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

MADISON, Wis. - A Wisconsin military base remains the temporary home of nearly 8,000 Afghan refugees, and it isn't the first time the state has seen an influx of evacuees trying to carve out a new life.

Prominent Hmong leaders have said their people have made significant contributions after arriving in Wisconsin under similar circumstances. In the decades after the Vietnam War, Wisconsin's Hmong population rose to become the third-highest in the nation. The leaders have noted that, when given the opportunity, they found ways to assimilate and make contributions.

Pao Lor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay who chairs its Professional Program in Education, said it became pretty clear over time.

"Particularly in the 90s, Hmong American families started buying homes, and getting better jobs," he said, "and basically, the life in northeast Wisconsin almost transformed, you could say, overnight."

While there were challenges along the way, those who stepped into larger roles served as culture brokers, giving Hmong communities a bigger voice. Today, there are calls for giving Afghan refugees the chance to set a similar path, with support and aid. Some GOP members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation have raised safety concerns, but advocates have said these refugees have been vetted, and many worked for the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan.

Mai Zong Vue, an administrator at the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, said Hmong families have set down roots in many cities, including Milwaukee, Wausau and Eau Claire. She added that contributions will continue to come from future generations who were born here.

"Our future American taxpayers can only be as productive as what we seek for them in knowledge, in experience, in opportunities," she said.

Vue, who also is board president of Wisconsin's Hmong Institute, said preserving cultural heritage is a key part of shaping these descendents' futures, which can help give them a sense of identity. Both Vue and Lor expressed their thoughts at a recent panel discussion led by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Mike Moen is the Morning Edition producer and serves as a staff reporter for WNIJ. Every morning, he works with Dan Klefstad to bring listeners the latest Illinois news. He also works with the rest of the news staff on developing and producing in-depth stories. Mike is a Minnesota native who likes movies, history, and baseball. When most people hear his last name, they assume he is 100-percent Scandinavian. But, believe it or not, he is mostly German.
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