Cultures of Anchorage – Hmong through poverty to citizenship

Children in the Asian and Pacific Islanders communities of Anchorage are the most likely of all ethnic groups to live in neighborhoods that expose them to poverty, according to a study by the Harvard School of Social Work.

Walking through some of Anchorage’s poorest neighborhoods, bumper stickers and small business’s signs written in Mandarin Chinese, Korean and other languages are telltale signs of the residents in the trailer parks and aging apartment complexes there.

The history of how the Hmong people came to Anchorage sheds light on the unique paths they are treading now to support their community.

Arthur Yang is the executive director of the Hmong Center of Alaska, he immigrated to the united states from Laos in 1979.

“Hmong people are very hard workers, you can put you trust in the Hmong people, when Hmong people say they are helping you, they help you from the beginning to the end” Yang said.

Hmong fighters were recruited by the CIA to fight against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. An estimated 35,000 Hmong volunteers died and more than 100,000 were wounded.

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In return the United States has granted permission for some Hmong refugees to immigrate to the United States, as more than 200,000 have.

Leading Hmong General Vang Pao was laid to rest in Fresno, Calif. in a six-day funeral earlier this month.

Yang noted that the Hmong population in Anchorage is approximately 5,000.

“Many of those are refugees who came from Thailand and many of them have mental and physical trauma due to the (Vietnam) War,” Yang said.

Yang remembers his first job in the United States paid only two dollars and forty-seven cents per hour.

Searching for a safe place to raise his six children, Yang settled on Kodiak. Looking at it on the map, Yang remembers saying, “good, it’s a remote island.”

In 2003, Yang and his family moved to Anchorage and joined Bride Builders of Anchorage.

Yang explained many struggles the Hmong community faces in Anchorage. One example came when the Hmong community performed an annual spiritual ceremony in which they sacrifice a chicken.

“At that time one of the neighbors called APD they said these people torture the animal, ‘they violated the animal’s rights.’ The APD came and Bridge Builders stood behind the Hmong community, this is their spiritual religious and cultural belief,” Yang said.

Former Bridge Builders President Malcolm Roberts remembers responding to the incident.

“I said to the police they are having a BBQ, that’s about as American as it comes,” Roberts said.

Yang credits Bridge Builders of Anchorage with fostering understanding between diverse ethnic communities.

APD officers left the scene without pressing charges.

“Right now I am teaching a citizenship class for the Hmong refugees, last session we had 56 people enrolled, we don’t have a place to teach (the class,)” Yang said.

The Korean community in Anchorage is also finding unique ways to grow stronger.

S.K. Son, President of the Korean American Community of Anchorage. According to Son, approximately 7,000 Korean Americans live in Anchorage, operating more than 300 small businesses.

“We are from different places and we look different too, but when we put these differences together and work together too we become one big strong community and that is Bridge Builders,” Son said.

Recently they held their annual scholarship night and gave away $21,000 in scholarships. Korean Harvard Graduate Matthew Moon spoke to the crowd, which included influential public servants like Carol Comeau, superintendent of the Anchorage School District.

Investing in empowering second-generation immigrants has emerged as a key strategy for lifting up entire communities.

VIDEOS of speeches by Son and Yang can be found here: http://kasenna.uaa.alaska.edu/~tnl/?p=8830  and here: http://kasenna.uaa.alaska.edu/~tnl/?p=8833