the journey

presented by ITVS

presented by NAATA

Paja Thao
Paja Thao
Paja Thao is a member of the Hmong tribe, an ethnic minority group known for their strong work ethic, communal self-reliance and independent spirit. He was born in a small village in the mountains of Laos about 65 years ago (the Hmong did not keep birth records or celebrate birthdays in Laos, so his age is an estimate.)

Like many other Hmong, Paja Thao served as a soldier of the Hmong army against communist forces in Laos for three years before returning to his village. When the communists prevailed, he was forced out of his village forever. Former Hmong soldiers and their families were targeted in particular. Paja, his wife and their six children abandoned their farm and fled into the jungle. They walked for 15 days until they reached Nam Yao, a refugee camp in Thailand. Without a homeland to return to, they lived with thousands of other refugees for eight years.

Paja Thao making drum
In America
On August 17, 1984, the Thao family arrived in America sponsored by Paja's cousin. The family found themselves in an alien world, living on the eighth floor of high-rise tenement house in Chicago, Illinois. In 1985, Paja and his family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, home to a large Hmong population. He is the father of 13 children. The oldest son still lives in Laos.

Today, Paja continues as a respected leader and healer in the Appleton community. Each weekend he is called to perform elaborate shamanic rituals for the young and old.

The Journey

The Vietnam War
For thousands of years, the Hmong have maintained a distinctive culture, including dress, oral literature and religion, valuing their autonomy and close-knit community above all. In pre-war Laos, the ethnic identity of the Hmong remained intact, because they lived high in the mountains and had little contact with other people. They farmed in the highlands and harvested enough crops for their own needs. Opium was their only cash crop.

In the late 1960s, when the Vietnam War spread into Laos, the United States recruited the Hmong to fight against communism. Wanting to hold on to their land and the independence they had maintained for thousands of years, the Hmong saw communism as a threat to their autonomy. Hmong soldiers, totaling over 30,000 men, fought the ground war, flew combat missions, directed air strikes, rescued downed American flyers, fought behind enemy lines, gathered intelligence on the movements of North Vietnamese troops and more. They suffered heavy casualties for their brave involvement in the war: Hmong soldiers died at a rate ten times as high as that of American soldiers in Vietnam.

Before the war, between 300,000 and 400,000 Hmong lived in Laos. Although there is disagreement over how many died during the war, estimates range from one tenth to half of the Hmong population was killed. Some were soldiers, but most of the dead were civilians felled by mortar fire, land mines, grenades, postwar massacres, hunger and disease. One hundred and fifty thousand Hmong have fled Laos since their country fell to communist forces in 1975.

After the War
Displaced from their villages, which were either bombed out or burned by the North Vietnamese and the new Lao communist regime, many Hmong became refugees in their own country. U.S.-sponsored food drops - fifty tons of rice a day - fed more than 100,000 Hmong, whose land and livestock had been destroyed by the war.

In February 1973, the Vientiane Agreement was signed, calling for a cease-fire in Laos, a coalition government and the end of U.S. air support. American relief programs ceased, and the Lao's People Party declared the Hmong enemies of the state. Between 1,000 and 3,000 Hmong, mostly high ranking army officers and their families, were airlifted to Thailand, while thousands more who had fought for the CIA or remained neutral in the war were left behind. In a ravaged country strictly controlled by the North Vietnamese, many Hmong were forcibly relocated to lowland areas and assigned to state-owned collective farms. More than 10,000 Lao intellectuals, civil servants, teachers, police officers and other suspected royalist sympathizers were interned in "seminar camps" for forced labor and political indoctrination. Fearing retribution and famine, most chose to migrate to Thailand on foot, journeys on which many Hmong died from disease, starvation, exposure and drowning while crossing the Mekong River which borders Laos and Thailand.

refugee child
Refugee Camps
Once in Thailand, most Hmong were placed in Ban Vinai camp on the Thai/Lao border in the northeast part of the country near the Mekong. The camp had no electricity, running water or sewage disposal, and was severely overcrowded. At its peak in 1986, Ban Vinai had 42,858 residents, 90 percent of whom were Hmong. The Thai government closed Ban Vinai in 1992.

Immigration to the United States
Because of their American military ties, many Hmong who left the refugee camps chose to come to the United States. The best educated Hmong and Lao were allowed entry into America first. The U.S. government gradually allowed more refugees as years passed. Around 200,000 Hmong currently live in the United States, most of whom reside in Minnesota, central California and Wisconsin.

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