Emerging Voices: Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans

By Huping Ling | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Role of Ethnic Leaders
in the Refugee Community
A CASE STUDY OF THE LOWLAND LAO
IN THE AMERICAN MIDWEST

PAMELA A. DE VOE

The Lowland Lao came into the United States predominantly as refugees after the mid-1970s. In spite of their small numbers and significant socio-cultural-economic incongruities with the American society, they adjusted to their new environment and, through their interaction with the larger society, brought a higher level of understanding about their cultural traditions to their multiethnic American neighbors. In order to understand how this was accomplished, this chapter looks at a Lowland Lao community in the Midwest, their leaders, and the role their leaders played both in helping the community adjust and in developing a bridge between their community and the dominant society.

Two critical events opened the Lowland Lao’s path of immigration to the United States. The first was the designation by the United Nations (UN) after World War II of a special category of people: refugees. Refugees are those people who fled their home area and those who fled their home country in fear of persecution. Once this special category of people was determined, the UN was able to set up systems and processes to assist them—in particular, refugee camps where people would come and live until they either decided to return to their home country or until a third country volunteered to resettle them. The second critical event was the end of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. government acknowledged a sense of responsibility for those who fought on its side and who were likely to suffer at the hands of the newly empowered Communist government. While the American media made people aware of the large number of Vietnamese who came into the United States as refugees, Laotians and Cambodians came into the country under the same system.

As a result, working through the vetting process of the UN refugee program, the United States began resettling large numbers of Southeast Asians in 1979. Unlike the normal immigration process where the concern was for economic viability, employment ability, and generally a certain level of “fit” between the potential immigrant and the American socioeconomic system, the new criterion was

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