Hmong Community Struggles to Face Future Without Losing Sight of Past

Hmongs, PTSD, Refugees
Hmong leader, Yee Leng Xiong, believes his community needs to confront mental health care issues if it is to move forward. (Duke Omara/MEDILL)

By Duke Omara

WASAU, Wis. – Fifteen-year old Dylan Yang had stabbed and killed 13-year-old Isaiah Powell after the two became involved in a Facebook feud.

But what seemed like a teenage gang killing last February struck some as being symbolic of something much more malignant.

Dylan belongs to the Hmong, a community of war refugees and their descendants who relocated to the United States from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. Isaiah was Hispanic.

And as the murder trial evolved, it exposed a community with many concerns, among them rampant illegal drug use, a festering mental health problem, and a sense of isolation that is fed by a deep reluctance to air community and private woes.

“A lot of the older folk (from the Vietnam War era) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The use of alcohol and opiate drugs like heroine, and heavy use of methamphetamines is on the increase among the youth, although tobacco use has decreased,” Yee Leng Xiong, a local Hmong leader explained.

Xiong sits on the D.C. Everest School Board in Marathon County and is one of only 12 elected Hmongs nationwide. Xiong, now 22 years old, was elected at age 19.

Seeking mental health care carries with it an unwelcome stigma, a reality that further complicates the community’s problems.

“If you are a Hmong person and somebody came up to you and said you need mental health care, the person would take it you are calling them crazy and nobody wants to be called crazy,” said Xiong.

These societal problems have also manifested themselves in other worrisome ways, as the Dylan Yang case and the protests that roiled the Wisconsin community showed. Hmong members protested at the Marathon County courthouse, saying Yang should receive leniency because of his status as a juvenile.

At his trial, the youth claimed self-defense for killing Powell as allegations surfaced that the two were in competing gangs. On October 21, he was convicted of first degree reckless homicide and sentenced to 13 years confinement and 17 years of extended state supervision.

The killing of Powell— and the subsequent trial— was an intrusion for this populace that has long shied away from overt publicity, even as it struggles to integrate itself into the wider world it lives in.

The allegations of gang activity were particularly worrisome for a community also facing simmering tensions between its older generation and an ascendant group of younger leaders who are clamoring for more clout.

It became a clash of ideas and leadership styles but one solution both sides agreed on was the need for Hmongs to exercise their power at the ballot box.

Hmong women
Hmong women in traditional regalia pose for a group picture during the community’s New Year celebration in Wasau, WI., Oct. 22. Social changes are forcing the community to be more open to the outside world. (Duke Omara/MEDILL)

“In the past, the Hmong community never really voted. They never participated in elections, not even in local politics,” said Xiong.

The University of Wisconsin student is working to change the isolation the 50,000 strong Wisconsin community has lived in for the past 40 years and he is doing so by reaching out to the highest levels of state government.

“I don’t think state officials, especially those who are running for office, know that much about the Hmong community. I don’t think they know the needs of the community, nor do they take the time to try and find out,” Xiong said.

To illustrate his point, Xiong says he only knows of two Hmong events the current governor, Scott Walker (R), has ever attended. Both happened when Walker was running for re-election.

“I want to see the elected officials reach out more to the community and ask about their concerns and what their needs are because our needs are a lot different than what those in the community at large,” he said.

Confronting these problems and taking a more active role in politics is the only way the Hmongs will be able to move forward as a community, Dr. Shoua Yang, a professor at St. Cloud State University, in St. Cloud, Minnesota said.

“We still have a lot of work to do. We need more elected officials, more judges and these are the things we need to work on,” said Yang who is related to Dylan Yang by clan.

Politically, the community is very divided and no one should assume the Hmong vote as a bloc, Yang added.

The older generation, he explained, is likely to vote Republican because the party has a good reputation for handling foreign policy.

In contrast, the new generation — untested by the adversities of armed conflict — tends to lean Democrat because the party is better at handling domestic issues and is generally more inclusive of minorities, Yang said.

Although the community has skewed towards the Democratic Party in past elections, their vote should not be taken for granted. Trump is still a force to be reckoned with in the community, according to Yang.

“A good number of the Hmong are business owners, and many are middle and upper class and Trump captures their interest. His economic policies, lower taxes and the way he articulates these plans is one way he captures numbers in minority communities, especially among those who are better off.”

Like Xiong, Yang complained that neither party is doing enough to reach out to the Hmong, which contributes to minimal political influence at almost every level of government. However, he says, the community is partly to blame due to its lack “of political participation, contributions, and decision makers. Politically the community is asleep.”

The new generation has to get involved and reach out within and outside the community if they are to have a stronger voice, Yang said.

Today, the Hmongs of Wisconsin are still coming to terms with the Dylan conviction but there is a sense among some of them that Dylan — who was charged as an adult — was somehow let down by a community that hasn’t figured out its political and social significance yet.

“If the notion holds true that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ then as a community we failed,” Xiong, the school board member, said in a petition letter to the court that would ultimately decide Dylan’s fate.

“We hope this petition will also call upon all of us as parents, school administrators, law enforcement, youth social workers, and county officials to reexamine the roles we played in this tragedy,” he added.

Hmong leader, Yee Leng Xiong, believes his community needs to confront mental health care issues and the use of illegal drugs if it is to move forward. (Duke Omara/MEDILL)