- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — As a way to earn money in the refugee camps in Thailand, Hmong women and men created brightly colored textiles with hand-stitched images of war, a journey across a river, or other scenes that told the story of the Hmong people.

But a new tapestry weaves a different sort of tale — using pictures of a car stuck in a snowbank, mittens and an icy lake — to teach new Hmong immigrants how to stay safe during the brutal Minnesota winters.

Chau Vue, multicultural outreach coordinator for the Minneapolis area chapter of the American Red Cross, uses the images stitched on the “story cloth” to talk about safety with people who never witnessed snow or felt below-zero temperatures.

“I experienced the same thing when I first arrived in the U.S.,” Miss Vue said, recalling arriving in Minnesota from a refugee camp in Thailand as a teenager in the late 1980s.

“At the airport, they said, ‘Put your coat on,’ ” but Miss Vue didn’t do it — only to be shocked by the frigid winter air.

“This is good for the refugees to prepare for the winter,” she said.

The story cloth works as a teaching tool because the Hmong culture is historically oral and visual; the present-day Hmong alphabet wasn’t created until the 1950s. The Hmong traditionally used needlework and symbols sewn in cloth to convey messages.

“The Hmong just had not had the luxury of time nor expertise to convert from the stroke of the needle to the pen/pencil like the western converting from the feather to a writing utensil,” said Tzianeng Vang, with the Hmong Archives and Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.

The idea for the new story cloth was developed about three years ago when the Red Cross wanted to relay safety messages in a way familiar to the Hmong, said Sally Newbury, senior manager with the local Red Cross chapter. The Volunteers of America found a group to make the textile, and the sewing began this fall.

The story cloth, which will be framed and put on display at major events and celebrations, contains four different scenes.

In addition to the winter panel, one square shows images of a swirling tornado, lightning and other spring weather dangers.

Another relays messages of fire safety — showing a fire extinguisher and a person testing a smoke alarm. One block contains a summer scene, reminding people to dress in lightweight clothing instead of the traditional layered Hmong dress. Many tiny stitches of colored thread are used to form the images.

“The story cloth really tells the story,” Miss Newbury said. “For Hmong people who are used to, in a sense, interpreting in their own mind what the story is about, they’ll see the symbols.”

The Hmong, an ethnic minority group, helped U.S.-backed forces fight communist insurgents during the Vietnam war. After communists won in 1975, more than 300,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, fled to camps in Thailand, where they lived for decades.

Most of the Hmong have since been repatriated to Laos or resettled in other countries. Many came to the United States as refugees, with the majority settling in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin.

Mr. Vang said that while Hmong women had a tradition of sewing textiles, the first true story cloths were born in refugee camps, as the Hmong began using stitches to create pictures documenting their dangerous journey from Laos.

The cloths were “a way for them to cope and to, hopefully, heal from being homesick and being in a controlled environment such as the refugee camp,” he said.

The story cloths also helped pass the time and were sold to tourists as a way to earn a living. They are made in many sizes, and can be displayed as wall hangings, bedspreads or tablecloths. Depending on the design, a larger cloth could cost between $300 and $1,000, Mr. Vang said.

It can take weeks to make a story cloth, and Mr. Vang said most Hmong women don’t sew them in the United States because they don’t have the time they had in the camps, where days dragged on.

Cloths can still be found for sale in some international markets, including one in St. Paul.

Yia Xiong, 48, a member of the sewing group in Minneapolis, said she made many story cloths with pictures of farm animals when she was in Thailand. Her winter scene is the first story cloth she’s made since arriving in the United States in 1996.

“Many people come to this country, they no longer [sew] because of jobs and school,” she said through an interpreter. “I think it’s important to pass this on to younger generations, and my grandchildren.

“In my age, it’s important for them to know that this is what I’ve done. That it is made by me,” she said. “It’s good exercise for my hands as well.”

The new story cloth has been copied on posters, which are shown in safety presentations to day care providers, schools and other groups that work with new refugees. Miss Vue said that during a presentation, she will often ask attendees what they see in a picture.

An image of a car stuck in a snowbank created much discussion. Many Hmong in the group didn’t know they should be prepared for winter driving, Miss Vue said, and that they should have warm-weather blankets, snacks and other survival gear in their vehicles.

While the story cloth serves as a teaching tool, it also has given a renewed sense of belonging and purpose to some of the elders — who beamed proudly as the cloth was shown to a group at the Volunteers of America center.

Mai Chao Lee, 68, joined the sewing group because she wanted to help tell a story, but she also wanted to leave something for her grandchildren.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to live,” she said through an interpreter, “but when they see this story cloth, it reminds them about me.”

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