A struggle to be seen: Why Wisconsin’s Hmong American community continues to face discrimination | The Milwaukee Independent, W/ Prof. Pao Lor
Sheng Lee Riechers remembers attending Neenah school and community events where military veterans were asked to stand and be recognized for their service to the country. Her father, a Hmong soldier who fought communist forces under the direction of the U.S. government during the Vietnam War, would always hesitate to stand, unsure of how he would be received.“I was like, ‘Dad, get up. You fought in the war,’” Riechers recalled.
“It was always really awkward for him. I wish more people understood the history of why Hmong people are here and that Hmong people are truly American, if not more American than most Americans. They fought for the country, and they fought for freedom.”
Hmong soldiers are not officially recognized as U.S. veterans, but they were staunch allies of the U.S. and paid a heavy price during and after the war. Once U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam, the victors persecuted Hmong soldiers and their families for helping the United States.Hmong people fled their homeland in the mountains of northern Laos for refugee camps in Thailand, where they stayed, sometimes for years, until they were resettled in the U.S., France and other countries.Even today, Riechers’ father is not allowed back into communist Laos. His visa application to visit family in 2019 was denied by the government.The denial reinforced that Wisconsin, not Laos, is home for Riechers’ family and thousands of other Hmong Americans, and their presence is expanding and enriching life here in ways unforeseen before the Vietnam War.
(UW-Green Bay Prof.) Pao Lor, a 49-year-old Kimberly resident, was born in Laos and left as a child.
His family had sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. When the U.S. pulled out, his family went into hiding as part of the resistance to communist forces. His father was assassinated by the resistance after he left a hiding place to seek outside resources like rice and salt in violation of the group’s rules.
When Lor’s family fled Laos for Thailand, his mother drowned while crossing the Mekong River.
Lor spent time in the refugee camps in Thailand before arriving in Long Beach, California. In 1980, he moved to Green Bay, where his uncle had settled and the crime rate was lower.
“Many of us were 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old,” he said. “So for many of us, America was really our home. We could say, ‘This is going to be something where we’re going to stay for a very long time.’ Otherwise, prior to that, we were constantly moving.”
Lor graduated from Green Bay East High School in 1989, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a doctorate from UW-Madison. He is now an education professor and chair at UW-Green Bay.
Still, he does not associate his life with the American Dream — that path to upward mobility in a land of equal opportunity for all. Lor at times had no idea what he was doing and was merely trying to coexist as an immigrant.
“For me, that’s what I needed to do in order to survive,” he said, “so that’s what I was going to do.”
Lor’s journey is described in his memoir, “Modern Jungles: A Hmong Refugee’s Childhood Story of Survival.”