Listen: Laotian refugees in Minnesota

MPR’s Tom Meersman reports on Laotian refugees arriving in Minnesota. Meersman highlights struggles and adjustments the refugees face.

Minnesota is now home for refugees from Indochina. Most are from Laos and Vietnam, with about sixty percent living in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. More than a third of Minnesota's refugees are from the mountains of Laos, from an ethnic group called Hmong.


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TOM MEERSMAN: [? Ling ?] [? Wang ?] was helping a fellow Laotian refugee fill out an adjustment of status form to apply for permanent US citizenship. Wang works with Lutheran Social Service as an information and referral worker for Indochinese resettlement programs in Minnesota.


TOM MEERSMAN: [? Wang ?] was a military officer in Laos working as an interpreter between his commanders and US military advisors until the Laotian Communist Party came to power in 1975. On May 14 of that year, [? Wang ?] and 3,000 other officers designated as high-risk personnel were airlifted to Thailand. There they waited one year in camps until relaxed US policies on Laotian refugees permitted their entry into this country four years ago.

Minnesota is now home for nearly 7,000 refugees from Indochina, 2,000 of whom arrived during 1979. Most are from Laos and Vietnam. About 60% live in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area, and all have been matched with volunteer sponsors through Lutheran Social Service, Catholic Charities of Saint Paul, International Institute, and Church World Service. [? Ling ?] [? Wang ?] works with the refugees daily, referring them and their sponsors to agencies who will help them find jobs, receive medical attention, enter language programs, and begin their new lives here. Their biggest liability, he says, is language.

SPEAKER: The language problem is something that limited the needs of the refugees as well. For example, if they are not speaking good enough English, they won't be able to find the kind of job that they want and so on along with the skills as you see that our people are not skillful in the area of factories and professionals and things like that. And we are only able to find factory jobs that are not paying well. In other words, we are only being able to find low-paying jobs for the refugees and that they have a very large family size.

TOM MEERSMAN: More than a third of Minnesota's refugees are from the mountains of Laos from an ethnic group called Hmong. Their problems are even more severe according to Wang because most Hmong people are illiterate. The nearly 2,000 of them living in St. Paul, most of them in large families, have had their worst resettlement experiences in locating suitable rental housing. And the Hmong people arrived in this country behind the first great wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975, putting them at some disadvantage in employment and housing.

But despite their problems, Minnesota is a popular state for refugees. Director of the State public Welfare's Indochinese Resettlement program Jane Kretzmann says that her office is noticing secondary migration. Refugees originally brought to other states are coming to Minnesota to join their families. And even though the refugee population is increasing, according to Kretzmann, the number of Minnesotans willing to be sponsors is meeting the demand.

JANE KRETZMANN: One of the things that I think has been frustrating to people who have offered to sponsor is that according to the agencies, they're having to wait for families and other individuals to come from overseas, which doesn't match the great need that we're all aware is there. I think that there's as well as we can tell that the problem seems to be due to processing delays overseas. And that makes the refugee flow a little bit unpredictable. But we have a sense of how many sponsorships, and we have a sense of when the people arrive that are sponsored. So, as I say, the people are still volunteering to help.

TOM MEERSMAN: So as the strife in Southeast Asia continues, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, Hmong people, Laotians, and Vietnamese are all finding new lives for themselves in Minnesota. And as the 1980s began, Cambodian refugees are sure to follow. I'm Tom Meersman.


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