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Hmong strive to preserve culture while living in a new world; to celebrate new year here Dec. 14

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two part series about Hmong families forging a life in the Twin Ports Area. The second part of the series will reveal more about the Hmong's diverse culture, past struggles and present challenges.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two part series about Hmong families forging a life in the Twin Ports Area. The second part of the series will reveal more about the Hmong's diverse culture, past struggles and present challenges.

Since the end of the Vietnam War thousands of Hmong people have been living in a strange and unfamiliar world in America.

Most Hmong immigrants who come to the United States speak no English and have no literacy. Finding a job to support a family is tough. Everything here, from the climate to the homes they live in to family dynamics, is different from their traditional way of life.

Although faced with what seems like insurmountable challenges, the Hmong's resilience, courage and family bonds give them the strength to persevere and forge a new way of life in the United States.

On Dec. 14 and 15, the Hmong Families of Duluth will hold a Hmong New Year's Celebration. The event serves two purposes -- to teach Hmong youths, who are growing up in a modernized world, about Hmong tradition and to raise awareness about who the Hmong are and why they are living in the United States.

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"We are not what people think we are. They just absolutely have no idea," said Ong Vang, a 26-year-old widow raising three children. Vang was an infant when her family moved from a Thailand refugee camp to live in Minnesota. She is a full time student at Lake Superior College and serves as a community ambassador and interpreter for the Hmong families living in the Twin Ports.

"We just want people to be aware we are our own kind of people," Vang said.

Roughly 160,000 Hmong people live in the United States, with most concentrated in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Approximately 25 Hmong families live in Duluth and Superior combined.

The Hmong existed for thousands of years in the mountains of Laos as an independent, agrarian culture. They were a people isolated from the inventions of modern society.

That all changed when the Laotian Hmong were asked by the CIA to assist the United States during the Vietnam War by rescuing downed American pilots, disrupting supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail and guiding U.S. soldiers through the jungle. Many Hmong who helped fight communism were as young as 12 years old.

When the last Americans left Southeast Asia, the Hmong people were abandoned. They lost everything and suffered unspeakable atrocities as punishment for siding with the United States. Those who escaped Laos lived in Thailand refugee camps. Around 1975 Hmong people started resettling in the United States.

Vang said the biggest challenge for Hmong is learning the English language.

"Even though we are scared of what we don't know, we are focused to work hard, get a job and be educated," Vang said. "We have come to identify what we need and go from there."

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Bea Larson, an instructor at the Adult Learning Center, teaches English as a second language. Many of her students are Hmong adults.

Larson said there are only two forms of literature in Hmong culture, one is oral and the other involves stitching stories into elaborate storycloths. A writing system for Hmong was finally introduced late in the 20th century.

"Everything out of that culture is an art form," Larson said.

Besides teaching them English, Larson also strives to help the Hmong be independent while at the same time preserving their own culture.

In 1998, Larson helped the Hmong publish a book called "Hmong Roots." Included are the history and customs of Hmong culture and personal stories told by elders. By the end of this school year, another book will be completed called "The Hmong Roots Paperdoll Project."

"I love having Hmong people in my life. They're so generous and kind," Larson said.

The community is encouraged to attend the New Year's Celebration and learn more about the Hmong culture. The event is free and will include traditional Hmong music, food, skits on Hmong history, dancing, a fashion show modeling traditional Hmong clothing and much more.

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