I have not been glued to the TV for the Olympics this year as much as I have been in the past, but one athlete in particular has captured my attention. That is Sunisa Lee, the gold medal winner of the all-around individual gymnastics competition, and bronze medalist in the uneven bars. (She competes for the balance beam tomorrow).
Sunisa Lee is a Hmong American. Her parents came to the United States as refugees from Laos when they were children. Now they are part of a large Hmong community in St. Paul.
In the 1980s I worked in a refugee camp in Thailand, at a time when thousands of people were fleeing Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The camp I was in was unique because it was not along the border. Everyone in our camp had been accepted to immigrate to another country. Save the Children, the organization for which I worked, had a contract with the US State Department to provide the required English language and cultural orientation classes to those coming to America. Since Sunisa’s grandparents and parents came through Thailand there is a good chance that at some point they were part of that program.
I don’t know the details of Sunisa’s family’s story, but I have a pretty good idea what they went through. The Hmong are a nomadic, tribal people who go back 8,000 years in the mountains of China, Laos, Viet Nam, and Thailand. For centuries they crossed the borders of those countries freely. They were not considered citizens of any nation, but members of a tribe. They lived in remote villages in mountains and jungles.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA began recruiting the hill tribes people of Laos to help fight against the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao, the Laotian communist party. Almost 60 percent of the Hmong men in Laos aided the Americans. They helped get supplies to Viet Nam, carried out raids against the communists, and rescued downed American pilots. The CIA referred to this as the Secret War because it was carried out without the knowledge of the American people. (One surprising fact is that we dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, more than in all of World War II.)
After the communists took over in Laos and the Americans withdrew, the tribal mountain people were targeted because of their aid to American soldiers. Whole villages were wiped out. Thousands of Hmong fled the country. It was not an easy journey, walking through the mountains at night to escape notice, hoping that a child’s crying wouldn’t alert soldiers to their presence. Then they had to cross the Mekong River to Thailand, where they were usually arrested by Thai police or soldiers and taken to refugee camps. Some stayed there for years.
It is hard for us to imagine the difference between living in a remote mountain village in Laos and living in St. Paul. As part of the cultural orientation curriculum we did everything from introducing them to flush toilets, electricity, and American kitchens to learning about grocery stores, money, public transportation, and social security, among many other things.
Here is an example of how different the cultures are. I was in a classroom and everyone had on a watch. I asked one (adult) student what time it was, and he had no idea what I was talking about. I quickly realized that none of them knew how to tell time; they wore watches because they had seen that all the Americans wore them. When I tried to explain they were amazed that we broke down the day into hours and minutes. Why would anyone need to be that precise? They told time by the sun.
Those are some of the challenges and obstacles that I am sure Sunisa Lee’s family has gone through — from a remote village in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand to immigrating to St. Paul to winning a gold medal in the Olympics in Japan — all in three generations. What a tribute to perseverance and the best of this country.
One of Sunisa’s family members put it this way to The Washington Post: “This means everything to the Hmong community. Yesterday we were fighting with the U.S. secret army in Southeast Asia, becoming refugees. And today we are your doctors and lawyers, and now Olympic champions. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
I’m hoping tomorrow brings Sunisa Lee another Olympic medal. And I’m hoping that this country will continue to be enriched with the blessings of people who seek refuge here.