Laos Refugees and Exile in Fresno, CA

When we travel we begin to focus on the countries and cultures we have seen.  Laos was one of the places I visited this past winter with other friends.  We asked one older woman we met in a small village if she had family in the United States.  ‘Fresno!’ she exclaimed, and was pleased we knew it, and that Hmong people were there.

Hmong Garden

Mee Yang in the Hmong garden in Fresno, CA

Mee Yang in the Hmong garden in Fresno, CA

Not all are happy, though.

 Like Scotch broom and dandelions, despair can be invasive. This is why, every Monday, Lee Lee, a Hmong refugee, puts on her sun hat and flip-flops, grabs the hoe handmade by her father and brother in Laos and heads to the Hmong Village Community Garden here, where she tends rows of purple lemon grass, bitter melon and medicinal herbs along with other Hmong women.

“It lightens the load,” said Ms. Lee, whose depression has led her to think about suicide. “It brings peace, so I do not forget who I am.”

The garden, on the scraggly outskirts of town, is one of seven in Fresno created for immigrants, refugees and residents of impoverished neighborhoods with mental health money from the state

… On a recent morning, Yer Vang, 53, sang a plaintive song about loneliness as she worked her rows of “zab zi liab,” a medicinal plant used to treat high blood pressure. Across the way, Mee Yang, a 65-year-old shaman, weeded long beans beside makeshift scarecrows made of rows of T-shirts slung over a wire. She said she suffered from diabetes and depression and worried about making ends meet (about 45 percent of Hmong children in Fresno County live in poverty, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Asian Law Caucus).

[During the Vietnam War, many Hmong experienced rape, starvation and the murder of family members. Mrs. Yang survived by eating longleaf jungle plants, “the kind Americans put in the mall to decorate,” she said.]

“This is my happiness,” Mrs. Yang said of the garden. “You feel the world in this place, and it brings you back home.”

NY Times