Posts Tagged ‘refugees’

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The overlap of migration and military policy. Or how the Hmong came to the US.

January 18, 2011

This history lesson is a little long.  If you want, skip down to the longish quote from Fadiman and start there.  For those who are game, here’s a quick run through:

The Geneva Accords of 1954 recognized three states in what had previously been French Indochina.  These were Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (temporarily divided into North and South, intended to be unified later).  Laos was supposed to be neutral and, according to the Geneva Conference of 1961, the US, Soviet Union, North and South Vietnam and several other nations agreed to respect that neutrality, agreeing not to send in “any foreign troops or military personnel.”

Except that the we didn’t really want to respect that neutrality (to be fair, no one else did either).  The US had been providing covert support to the anti-communist Royal Lao army since 1955 as they struggled against the Communist Pathet Lao for control of the country.  But we wanted to step up our game, because Eisenhower, and then Kennedy after him, believed that if Laos fell to Communism, Thailand, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Burma would be right behind.

And so, a cadre of CIA advisors were sent in to train a secret guerrilla army of Hmong soldiers to fight the war by proxy.  Continued under Johnson and then Nixon, this secret army eventually grew to more than 30,000 strong.

There is a lot about this story that is complicated.  Some call the Hmong mercenaries.  And, for the most part, they were paid.  But it was $3 a month compared to the $200-$300 per month an army private in Vietnam received.  Not all of them signed up voluntarily as many villages had solider “quotas” they had to fill to avoid punishment.  And displaced from their farmland by the bombing in Northern Laos, few had real alternatives.

For a more detailed (and better!) summary, Anne Fadiman gives a stellar primer on the subject, as I alluded to here.  The story actually first broke in 1987 when a British investigative journalist wrote The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (which I haven’t read, but is supposed to be good).

Regardless, in 1973, the US signed the Paris Agreements, pledging to remove all forces from Vietnam.  In 1975, the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic took control, the party’s newspaper announcing that the Hmong “must be exterminated down to the root of the tribe.”

American planes airlifted between 1,000-3,000 high-ranking army officers and their families to Thailand, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable Hmong behind.  After the last American place took off, many of those remaining began the long and dangerous journey to Thailand, where they would spend years, even decades, in refugee camps along the border.    Others tried to stay and survive the Vietnamese persecution.  Some were successful, others ended up following the first wave to the Thai border.

About 10,000 Hmong eventually emigrated to France, Canada, Australia, Argentina, or elsewhere.  But most, because of what the Hmong refer to as “The Promise,” set their sights on the US.  For this, I’ll just quote directly from Fadiman as she says it better than I could:

Every Hmong has a version of what is commonly called “The Promise”: a written or oral contract, made by CIA personnel in Laos, that if they fought for the Americans, the Americans would aid them if the Pathet Lao won the war.  After risking their lives to rescue downed American pilots, seeing their villages flattened by incidental American bombs, and being forced to flee their country because they had supported the “American War,” the Hmong expected a hero’s welcome here.  According to many of them, the first betrayal came when the American airlifts rescued only the officers from Long Tieng, leaving nearly everyone else behind.  The second betrayal came in the Thai camps when the Hmong who wanted to come to the United States were not all automatically admitted.  The third betrayal came when they arrived here and found they were ineligible for veterans’ benefits.  The fourth betrayal came when Americans condemned them for what the Hmong call “eating welfare.”

And so.  We ended up with a sizable Hmong community in the United States.  And, well, no one really knows (or remembers) that that’s why they’re here.  Because we asked them to fight a war for us so that we could avoid international condemnation for violating the Geneva Accords we had, in fact, signed.

I don’t know; I wasn’t there–but I’d bet good money that when the CIA was enlisting the first Hmong military leaders, promising that they’d help if the war turned against them, they had no idea what more than 200,000 Hmong refugees and immigrants in the United States would mean 50 years later.

Military decisions catalyze migration decisions.  We’re terrible at anticipating them ahead of time.  But it’d be nice to at least see them acknowledged in hindsight.

Jonas

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

January 17, 2011

I just finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

As you can see, the front cover says, “A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures,” which is a rough but fair summary.

The Hmong child is Lia Lee, born with severe epilepsy; the book’s title is the literal translation of the Hmong phrase for the condition.  Since it was published in 1997, the book has been well-received (and rightly so); no excuses for why I’m so late getting to it.

I’ll start out by saying that it’s a well-written, well-researched, insightful, and compelling book.  But there is a lot that makes it exceptional.  There are a multitude of angles at work: Lia’s parents’ interactions with her doctors in the 1980’s; the subsequent efforts of the author to gain the trust of both the Lee family and the medical community to research the book; an ethnography of the Hmong belief system; a history lesson of how the Hmong came to migrate to the US in such large numbers (more on that later);  and a complex look at the process of assimilation–for both immigrant communities and the communities that receive them.

Unfortunately, discussions of Lia’s story often describe what happened over the course of her medical treatment as a series of tragic miscommunications and misunderstandings.  And, in part, that’s true.  Yes, miscommunications happened when an interpreter wasn’t present (or even when an interpreter was present as the Hmong language lacks vocabulary for even the most basic organs).  And minsunderstandings based on false information abounded on both sides.  But Fadiman’s writing reveals another layer beneath language and facts–what are often fuzzily called “cultural barriers.”

I can think of several instances when I was living abroad or working with immigrant or refugee communities here in the States when despite what I thought was a crystal clear explanation, followed by another crystal clear explanation, preceded and followed by lots of questions on my part and that of the other party to ensure comprehension, the other person then went and did the exact opposite of what I expected (or I did the exact opposite of what they expected).  Every now and then, I managed to unravel what happened.  But usually, I just walked away frustrated and confused.

Fadiman takes years of these interactions, after which both parents and doctors are so confused and frustrated that  their willingness to share their story at all is a miracle, and pieces together what happened in the spaces between expectation and disappointment.

Lia’s parent’s “non-compliance” with her medications serves as an example.  Fundamentally, Lia’s parents believed that her epilepsy was the result of soul loss that occurred when Lia’s sister slammed the door too loudly and Lia’s soul was frightened out of her body.  While they didn’t want their daughter to suffer unduly, epilepsy also confers status in the Hmong culture as it increases the likelihood of the child becoming a shaman.  So while they wanted medical attention for Lia when aspirating a food particle during a seizure lead to pneumonia, they didn’t actually want the epilepsy completely cured and thought that medicines with negative side effects were unnecessary and, well, almost cruel.  The parent’s worst fear (that Lia’s soul would never return) and the doctor’s worst fear (that Lia would enter into a continuous unstoppable seizure) were so far apart that the pursuit of each worked at cross-purposes with the other.  Even absent Lia’s parent’s suspicion of the American medical system (which the side effects helped to fuel), they simply didn’t believe the doctors knew what was best for their child.  In return, the doctors’ lack of faith in the competence and care of Lia’s parents eventually escalates into her temporary removal from their care by Social Services.

With Fadiman’s careful unpacking, it all makes so much damn sense.  And, as the reader, you find yourself deeply empathizing with almost everyone.  But the narrative is long and complex, and Fadiman is unfailingly evenhanded–throughout the book, you can see her choosing phrases and frames with the utmost care.  I don’t think I could have made sense of the story without such a skilled guide, and that admission reminds me of how far I have to go.  I–and so many others who work across cultures–need to read more and more of these accounts, until the two-way decoding becomes an in-the-midst-of-chaos instinct.

I’ll be deep into migration over the next four months.  Next up on the reading list are The Warmth of Other Suns and Arrival City.

Jonas

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Faking It

October 8, 2009

In what reads more like a Stuff White People Like post than the usual commentary on humanitarian aid, Michael Bear tells us how to sound like a expert on the “poverty-stricken, war-torn country of your choice.”

1. Memorize the names of various tribes and semi-obscure towns. Ask questions like: “But what do the [insert name of random tribal group] think?” Or “What about the situation in [semi-obscure town]?”

Both of which are best said with a thoughtful expression, verging on concerned. There’s nothing like seeming to agree with your interlocutor while subtly pointing out that his or her analysis is rather facile for ignoring said tribe or district.

2. Memorize the date of one significant or semi-significant event in the country’s history. Tie all current political and / or military developments back to that date: “You make an interesting point about Liberian politics, but it’s all really just an outgrowth of what happened on September 9th, 1990.”

Don’t deign to explain further; instead, act as tho of course everyone should know what happened in Liberia on September 9th, 1990.

3. Acronyms, acronyms, acronyms. Saying you dislike the Sudanese Government is one thing, but doesn’t really separate you from the crowd. Saying you dislike the NCP is better. Extra points if you can work NCP, SPLM, GNU and HAC into one semi-coherent sentence.

First, I’m nearly positive I had a conversation with someone last night who somehow managed to read this post before it was written.  We were talking about the most recent ethnic group from Burma to be granted refugee status (both of us having some organizational contact with refugees more broadly) and I swear he was following this formula (and Tip #1 quite well).  Suddenly that whole conversation makes more sense.  I feel enlightened.

But more substantively, it strikes me that this would more or less work for lots and lots of topics.

Nothing says “I know school reform” like talking about the synergistic momentum that NLNS, KIPP and TFA are creating (Tip #3).

And how many times, in talking to folks younger than forty about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina did someone say, “Gosh, this is just like 1965.”  Good grief folks, call it Hurricane Betsy and actually know a little something.  Yes, the levees failed both times, but there is a hell of a difference between 76 deaths and 1,836 (Tip #2).

Anyway.  My plan moving forward: follow up conversations like the one last night with a “Great to talk with you” email.  And a link.

Jonas