Refugees of War


Before bed one night, I read The Whispering Cloth, by Pegi Deitz Shea, to my children. It is a story about a little Hmong girl, named Mai, who lives with her grandmother in a refugee camp in Thailand. This story takes place after the Vietnam War. Mai learns to embroider her own story cloth while watching her grandmother and widows sewed their stories into paj ntaub (flower cloth).

When we discussed this book, my children spoke as if Mai’s story is something of a distant past, something that you only hear about in storybooks. Because that is not true, I let them know that many refugees of the Vietnam War are closer to them than they may realize. My kids looked at me with inquisitive eyes.

Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, what do you mean?”

“Well,” I began. “What I mean is your Niam Tais (Grandmother), although she did not make a story cloth, her story is very similar to Mai’s.”

My children’s ears perk up. Mini Mermaid, laying in bed, about ready to fall asleep, sat up. Both children looked at me to continue.

Niam Tais was born during the Vietnam War in Laos. After the United States pulled out of the war, Niam Tais Laus (Great-Grandmother) took her family, your Niam Tais included, and fled the soldiers the same way Mai’s grandmother did.” I turned to Mini Mermaid, my 5-year-old, “Niam Tais was about your age. Dab Laug Suav (Uncle Soua) was only a tiny baby. They were captured and lived in Vietnam for several years. When they escaped, they trekked across Laos and swam across the Mekong river to get to the refugee camp in Thailand.”

“Was that where you were made?” Little Mermaid asked.

“Yes. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and I lived there until I was almost 3,” I replied.

MB & Brother

Although I’ve told my children my birthplace many times before, I had not told them the circumstances about why I was born in Thailand and why my family came to the United States. It always seemed weird to them that I was foreign-born since their father and they were born in the US.

My kids looked at me for a couple of seconds in silence. The wheels in their heads turning. Finally, Little Mermaid said, “What happened to Niam Tais‘ daddy?”

“He died in the war. He was a soldier and fought on the American side.”

“He died like Mai’s parents?”

“Almost like that,” I replied.

I tucked my kids in bed, gave them kisses, and said good night. As I turned to walked away, Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, is that why you guys came to America? Because there was war and people died?”

“Yes. We came to America because we had no other place to go. This was the only place in which we saw freedom. Now go to sleep. We can talk in the morning,” I said as I turned off the light.

It is hard for me to answer my children’s questions about death, war, or any negativity in the world. If I could, I would close them up in a bubble and never let them know about all the bad things out there. But that is not to be. My children hear and learn things. They ask questions. I have already had to explain what war is to them earlier this year. I realized during that conversation that I cannot tell them my immigration story without talking about death and war. If I exclude both from my story, my mother’s, grandmother’s, or father-in-law’s story,  it would mean that our stories do not exist. Sometimes I wonder if my children know that the long pauses between explanations is me holding and gathering my emotions before proceeding so my voice doesn’t shake too much or so that I do not start crying.

“Hunted Like Animals”

In 2006, there was a hype in the Hmong community about the documentary by Rebecca Sommer, “Hunted Like Animals.”  The film synopsis on Rebecca Sommer’s website states that:

Hunted Like Animals is an eye-opening documentary about an ongoing, but unknown, genocide — against the Hmong people in the jungles of Laos.  Coerced into joining the CIA’s anti-communist efforts during the Viet Nam war, this ethnic minority became a Secret Army.  When the U.S. pulled out of Southeast Asia in 1975 and the Lao kingdom was overthrown by the communists, the Hmong became targets of retaliation and persecution.  Hundreds of thousands fled the country; others ran to remote mountainous regions of Laos.  Over thirty years and two generations later, the Hmong in hiding are still mercilessly hunted, attacked, raped, tortured and killed by the military.  Since 2004, the crackdown has intensified and those who can escape seek refuge in Thailand.  The traumatized refugees have not been promised protection or help.  Instead, they are threatened with deportation back to Laos, the very place from which they barely escaped.  In this documentary, the refugees speak for thousands of voiceless people still trapped in the jungle, surrounded by Lao and Vietnamese soldiers — and hunted like animals.

When I tried to watch the film in 2006, I couldn’t sit through it.  I wasn’t ready to know the truth about those left behind.  The brutality.  The pain and suffering.  The helplessness.  The silence.  I got very emotional and turned off the documentary.

Fast forward five years.  “Hunted Like Animals” was ready to be played on my laptop.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch it alone, so I tried to recruit anyone.  My youngest sister said she had already seen it with Grams on YouTube; she didn’t want to sit through it again.  My other sister thought I was talking about the Hmong movie “Caub Fab (Jao-fa).”  She got excited until I told her it is the documentary not the movie.  Finally, I asked Dear Spouse.  I braced myself as we sat down together to watch the film.

I choked back tears as I watched Hmong refugees in Huay Nam Khao (White Water), Thailand speak up about the atrocities in Laos.  Chemical bombings, killings, rape, torture, starvation.  Being constantly on the move to escape Laotian and Vietnamese soldiers and not having a place to call home.  No medicine.  No food.  Relying on whatever the jungle has to offer.  Having only weapons left from the Vietnam War to protect themselves.  No one to rescue them.

Screenshot of boy taken from Hunted Like Animals

Although the stories the Hmong in White Water told are horrendous, it was much more traumatic to see footage of how the Hmong in hiding (called Caub Fab—pronounced Jao Fa) live.  The image of the little boy whose abdomen was blown open with his stomach and intestines hanging out has been burned into my brain.

At first I thought the men were carrying a dead body, but I was shocked (with disbelief, sadness, and anger) when the boy told his mother that he was in pain.  His mother was crying, asking what happened.  The boy explained to her through shallow breaths and a blank expression that the soldiers attacked.  He was hiding and when the shooting stopped, he thought it was safe to come out.  Unbeknown to him, the soldiers were still there and they shot him.

No matter how much I want to erase it, the image will always be there.  For days, all I could think about was this poor innocent little boy and the painful slow death he must’ve gone through.

As a mother, I cannot bear to think about my child in that condition.  The heartache that little boy’s mother must’ve gone through is unimaginable.  You could hear the concern and love in her voice as she spoke to her son, “What is Mom going to do about her boy?”  What are you suppose to do?  You don’t want to lose your child, yet you have no choice.  He is barely alive, but should you prolong his pain and suffering?

The life of this little Hmong boy and those killed in the jungle of Laos shouldn’t have to be wasted.  Sometimes, I wonder: What if the Hmong people hadn’t gotten involved in the Vietnam War?  Would we be living peacefully in the lands our forefathers migrated to?  Or would we be under the oppression of communist rule?  We will never be certain of the answers to those questions.