- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The influx of Hmong refugees into the Great White North hadn’t caused much of a disturbance until Nov. 21, when, authorities say, 36-year-old Chai Vang fatally shot six fellow hunters in the Wisconsin woods.

Mr. Vang, who has pleaded not guilty to murder charges, maintains he shot the hunters in self-defense after he was showered with racial epithets and accosted, a claim of racial abuse that other Hmong have begun saying is common in this city that is home to the highest concentration of the Laotian refugees in the United States.

“After the shootings, a lot of people around here came out and said they had been harassed before,” said Cheu Lee, 40, editor of the Hmong Times, based in St. Paul. “Some people have been harassed for years, I am told, and my father even said he has been harassed when he was hunting.”

A posting on the Internet discussion site of Hmong Times made clear how some local Hmong feel — the shootings were brought about by “white racism.”

“If Chai Vang was a white country boy, the incident wouldn’t occur as it did …,” the poster wrote. “Let me be crystal clear — he shot them because he is proud to be Hmong.”

The racial overtone has led some to debate the cost of the United States’ becoming home to the Hmong refugees, who fled Laos after the Vietnam War, fearing retribution for their help to U.S. forces. Nearly 150,000 came to the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s with the help of the U.S. government, primarily to California, Wisconsin and Minnesota. St. Paul has an estimated 60,000 Hmong, both native- and foreign-born.

“There are questions about the cost [of the Hmong refugees],” said Wisconsin state Sen. Robert Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the area where the shootings took place.

“There are pockets of resentment, but the fact of the matter is that they have been relocated, and we as state citizens have a responsibility to provide social service assistance and educational help to make their adjustment as positive and fruitful as possible.”

Despite the “pockets of resentment” and the racial element to the incident introduced by both the accused and the Web-surfing denizens, animosity from the white community has been light in the Hmong community in the area where the killings occurred.

A day after the deaths, the homes of three Hmong families in Menomonie, Wis., about 50 miles from the scene of the crime, were defaced with spray paint. A white man was arrested in connection with the incident.

“The Caucasian community, they know that this was the action of one man, an individual, and not all Hmong,” said Pao Vang, executive director of the Hmong American Community Association in Menomonie.

There has been no notable backlash, despite the initial fears of many after the shootings, said the Rev. Jerry Bernecker of First Lutheran Church in Rice Lake.

“There hasn’t been any kind of bad attitude toward the race,” Mr. Bernecker said. “I suppose the ultimate test is when the judicial stuff starts, but the people here have done a nice job.”

Last year,15,000 Hmong were brought by the government to the United States. About a third were sent to California, another third to Minnesota and a number to Wisconsin.

The first place that many of the new refugees in St. Paul settle is Frogtown, a 1-square-mile neighborhood of blue-collar homes and small businesses near the state Capitol that is about 40 percent Asian.

The Saigon Restaurant and Bakery, the Lao Family Community Center and Phu Chia Fashion and Gifts all beckon to the immigrants with the flavor of home.

On the Frogtown Family Resource Center building, a haggard Kerry-Edwards campaign poster still waves hopefully. There are social service agencies every two or three blocks, many with signs in both Spanish and Vietnamese.

The majority of Hmong have prospered in the United States, gaining elective office or becoming successful entrepreneurs. In this part of the heartland, they have benefited from the open-hearted nature of locals.

Each refugee was given $400 in public money to get started, with another $400 going to their resettlement agency on a per-capita basis.

The resettlement agency — in Wisconsin, Lutheran Social Services — can opt to spend its share of the money on refugees.

“We help the refugee get signed up at the local job center, signed up for English classes and, if they qualify, for medical assistance and food stamps,” said Susan Gundlach, director of refugee and immigrant services at the Milwaukee office of Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

She said the effort to relocate these refugees is a “public-private partnership,” with the bulk of the funding supplied by the government.

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