The University of Iowa

Reflective commentary on refugees in the heartland

March 25th, 2013

Guest opinion by Kao Kalia Yang for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang

My grandma, Youa Lee, an old Hmong woman who traveled from the mountains of Laos, through the refugee camps of Thailand, to the hot fields of California and the cold factories of Minnesota, was 93 when she died. My grandma was a refugee from America’s Secret War in Laos. A widow with nine children, she raised seven sons into men and two daughters into women. She would become the root of a tree that carries the fruit of more than 300 descendants.

In her last days, staring out the window, with a pair of my uncle’s thick reading glasses on, a large needle in her hand, a stretch of fabric on her lap, my grandma would say to no one in particular, “Life is nothing more than moments strung on the thread of Time. In the end, it is our memories that we speak to — when the places where we have been, the foods we’ve tasted, the people we’ve loved — all these things are no more. In the end, it is our stories that are our gifts to the world.”

It has been 10 years since my grandma died. Her words and her life legacy live on through me. My grandma was born on the mountains of Laos at the beginning of the 20th century. She never learned how to read or write. All my life with her, she signed her name with a shaky “X” that stood in for Youa Lee. Her biggest fear was that she would be forgotten.

This is why I am so grateful for opportunities like the University of Iowa’s Refugees in the Heartland conference (April 4-7) and the WorldCanvass program on refugees (April 5) for calling to the fore lives like my grandma’s and my own. There are so few opportunities to speak and think creatively and critically about the issues and challenges that plague our lives as refugees in a new country, sojourners on a journey to citizenship and belonging.

As a first generation Hmong refugee daughter from Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, who is making her home in Minneapolis, this conference and the people who will convene, from around the nation and the world, are the foundations of my life here in the Heartland and our communal work to be one people from many different places. I am proud and humble to be among such a distinguished and thoughtful group of people from across the spectrum of expertise and lived experiences.

What I find so exciting about the Refugees in the Heartland conference and WorldCanvass is their proactive and progressive approach to bringing light to the historical and current realities of refugees in the Midwest through a holistic and diverse collage of voices, perspectives and strategic plans for cultivating learning across cultures and within them.

There is room for words like my grandmother’s and perspectives like mine — right alongside individuals such as Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, who’ll be giving the keynote address April 4; Amy Campos, field office director for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; Dr. Michele Devlin, professor of health education at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the Iowa Center for Health Disparities; and Bassel El-Kasaby, chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association-Iowa and Nebraska Chapter, among many others.

The April 5 WorldCanvass will feature experts in the field of refugee relief and resettlement as well as refugees like me — including supermodel and UN Goodwill Ambassador Alek Wek, formerly from South Sudan, and refugees who’ve made their new lives in Iowa.

Come and join us. Let our memories meet, and let us make new ones, and strengthen our stories for the gifts we stand to give each other.

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American writer from Minnesota. Her first book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, was the winner of the 2009 MN Book Award for Creative Nonfiction/Memoir and Book of the Year.