As our organization, Minors*, continues interviews with Minnesota and other Hmong-Americans about their experience as refugees, there are themes that emerge. For many of the older folks, food security weighs heavily in their recollections of everything that happened after the war, and details are still very clear in their memories.
Food, or the lack of it, was a dominant reason for many leaving Laos after the war.
“General Vang Pao left and we figured we’d soon be without much to eat, and then starving. That’s why many people left Laos at that time, so my husband and I thought that we should run away also, as we wouldn’t have food if we stayed.”
Others recall food as the most essential element of their lucky escape.
“We didn’t bring guns, but we packed clothes and food. We knew that we were going all the way to Thailand, so we packed enough food for our family to survive. When we had reached the camp, our food is almost gone but it was still enough for us.”
For thousands of others the journey was not so uneventful.
“When we were about to leave from Laos, we packed a bit of food for us, but as time went by, we didn’t have food left so we would just eat whatever we could find in the forest while running away. We ate bamboo and tree branches and wild potatoes if we could steam them… but while we were hiding, cooking fires were not allowed. If there was smoke in the air, the Vietnamese airplanes would fire at the location.”
“There was no food, and in the jungle, we were scared of the Vietnamese soldiers so we could only carry a little, so sometimes we just starved. We lived there as if we were animals and had nothing to eat. When we had no food in the jungle, we came out of hiding and sneaked into the fields for food. We lived like that for a couple of years and then escaped to Thailand. That’s what the beginning was like.”
Some families separated over the search for food.
“We were one of the groups that sort of came last. Most husbands would leave to go find food in the forest for the family to eat. Since the wives and children stayed behind waiting for the dads to come back, the Vietnamese probably killed some and others must have run away, causing the husbands and wives to separate. If they were lucky, they were able to find each other and came to America together.”
Once in the refugee camp and registered, families were able to receive food rations. According to a UN report at the time, rations in Ban Vinai camp of Loei province in the mid-1980s, distributed under the Thai Ministry of Interior, with UNHCR funds, included:
Daily Rations of Rice were about a pound a day for adults and half that for children under age 9.
Monthly Rations: About two pounds of Meat, two and a half pounds of Fish, three pounds of Vegetables, small amounts of Fish Sauce, Salt, Chili Peppers and cooking oil.
Rations in Ban Vinai camp, as summed up by one gentleman we interviewed:
“We went to Section 4 for rice once a week – 3 bowls per adult, 2 per child. Just enough. We collected meat and vegetables near the soccer fields every three days. Not enough.”
Other questions we are asking bring food related responses as well: “Were you able to celebrate Hmong New Year in the refugee camp as you had traditionally done in Laos?”
“We were still living in the same side of the world, so customs were still the same, but at the time we were poor so when it was New Years, there was no celebration. If it had been the real tradition, we would’ve eaten chicken and pork and done everything fully with all of our relatives. But since we were poor, when it was New Year’s we just got two chickens to call our family’s spirits and that was it”
Know anyone in these photos? Please ask them to contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or: Minors, Box 17131, Saint Paul, MN 55117
Please visit our website: https://www.minorsasia.org/
*Minors is a 501 c 3 organization based in Saint Paul, working for over three decades to support Hmong and other highland ethnic minority children at remote mountain schools in Viet-Nam and Laos. These photos and interviews are part of our project to develop educational materials including books in Hmong and English, and photo exhibits, to help preserve Hmong heritage and history.