I've known Ly Vang for nearly two years. When she walks into a meeting you can feel her positive energy, and voices rise in unison to greet her (a la Norm in Cheers). She is rarely without a smile and quick to hug. I knew she had a difficult past, as many refugees and immigrants do. But I hadn't heard the details of her life until Saturday morning when she was a keynote speaker at the Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference.
An RN during the Laotian Civil War, Ly went to school during the day and worked nights at a hospital. She was barely an adult when she ran the triage unit, deciding which wounded soldiers needed attention first, and which might die before they saw a doctor. She practiced her English with the CIA, whose secret war tore families apart. Ly spoke about the repercussions of that war. Her entire culture was broken down, she said. She came to the United States with refugees who lost parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Highly skilled professionals became underpaid housekeepers, as is typical of an immigrant story.
Ly's message reminded us of a refugee's struggle and transformation. In the US she spent days and nights on the bus, shuttling herself and her two small children from home to daycare and to classes at the University of Minnesota. All the while, she understood the differences between herself and other women who didn't have her educational resources. "Women were not allowed to [go to] school. They helped parents raise the family." Ly developed her own survival skills and then decided it was time to assist other women who were struggling to make new lives in Minnesota.
Ly became the first Hmong interpreter in the Twin Cities. In 1978 she helped form the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota (AAHWM). The group provided support to a community who didn't come to the United States believing this would become their permanent home. (Too many of us forget that the refugee experience is different from an immigrant's. Immigrants come to America looking for a better future. Refugees escape from a land they intend to return to once circumstances permit it.) Ly sought to empower her community through education, employment training, and drivers education.
During the 1980's Ly's group began seeing their mission as pro-rights advocacy, and their work continues to evolve in order to meet the changing needs of the community. "Today is a better life, but not as [good as] it should be," Ly explained. By the 2000's AAHWM began assisting a few dozen farm families in Hugo who were having issues with landowners. Farmers needed interpreters to assist them with land access rights and USDA information. Today the struggle continues because many farmers don't understand the rules and regulations of US agriculture. But they continue farming in spite of the hardships. For a majority of immigrant farmers, only one to two years pass before their businesses fail. This creates huge problems within families. Depression, embarrassment, shame, and loss only add to the failure, and families find themselves worse off than they were before.
Ly told the farmers that their service to the wider community is too valuable to put a price on. We receive their food and benefit from their healthy and nutritious products. The farmers I met at the conference share a dream: they want to feed their neighbors healthy, tasty, beautiful food and they want the work that they do to be valued by those of us they feed.
"We came her with bloody tears. We watched our families killed, or [waited] many years until [we were] reunited. We crossed the river. We go through the jungle," Ly reminded the refugee farmers of where they came from. "Your vision, mission, and leadership have made a big difference in the community. You are role models of opportunity and financial success." Many farmers maintain their farms even if they are not making money. "You have your own journey and strong culture. I encourage you to move forward and become greater farmers in the future. Nobody sees you. We have limited support. But today you are here. You play a very important role today. You show the government that you want to be citizens... We serve our country and protect the land and natural resources."