When Aaron and I were first married in 1994, we were almost immediately assigned to a Hmong refugee branch of our church in St. Paul, Minn.
I was in charge of the young women aged 12-18, and Aaron was in charge of the young men in the same age group. We served for two years, finishing our responsibility not long after Tori was born. It was the greatest adventure that I can imagine for a newly married couple.
I had always dreamed of being a missionary, but thought I was going to miss out when I married at the tender age of 19 (and a half!). To our joy, our local area authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a policy of calling (assigning) newly married couples to one of several refugee branches of the church to serve for a period of two years. There was a Laotian branch, a Spanish branch, and a Hmong branch.
We knew absolutely nothing of the Hmong language or culture, but we got a crash course in the Hmong way of living. The people were astounding. They had suffered so much in Laos and Thailand, and many had come to the US by way of refugee camps in Thailand and France. The Hmong had worked with the U.S. military in anti-communist efforts in Southeast Asia, and were brought to the U.S. in a belated effort to thank them for their service, after their enemies had wreaked havoc on their population. The Hmong had a polygamist society, and when many of the men were killed, there were large populations of families without a father. This left them in a precarious situation when they moved to the U.S.
This was a vulnerable population, if I had ever heard of one, but their tenacity and grit and strong familial ties were instrumental to their success in the U.S. The country’s population of Hmong are centered in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with other large groups in California and the South.
As the Young Women’s and Young Men’s leaders, we tried to do everything we could to help the teenagers learn English, do well in school, get jobs, get into the University of Minnesota, and acclimate to their new home. We taught lessons in church on Sunday, led mid-week activities on Wednesdays, took them on temple trips to Chicago, and even had several of the young men live with us. This wasn’t just a Sunday calling. Our lives were centered on these kids. We would drive them around in our beater Dodge car, have them over for dinner as often as possible, and think about them constantly. We fiercely loved the kids we served, and did whatever we could to help them gain the skills they would need to succeed in the U.S.
These kids set the bar pretty high for our understanding of what a teenager was capable of achieving. More than a few spoke French in addition to Hmong and English, and their work ethic in school put me to shame. These kids had big dreams, and they followed them. There were gangs in the Hmong community in St. Paul, and we were ever vigilant about helping the kids feel like they had a place in the larger society and had opportunities that would keep them from being drawn into the gang life.
Starting our marriage in service to a refugee community that demanded a huge portion of our time and attention was a brilliant way to start our partnership. We were able to learn so much about each other, and develop a habit of service from the very beginning.
This experience, at the very beginning of our family life, influenced our choices later on about what was important to us. It set the stage for our family taking off to South America 10 years later, in an effort to show our kids that people are the same everywhere. We wanted our kids to grow up knowing that they had the same hopes and dreams as kids across the globe. We all want a happy family, enough food to eat, fun and relaxation with our friends, and safety and security.
As we have settled into a routine complacency, Aaron and I have been discussing how we can shake up our kids’ understanding of life. There is so much more to learn and understand than we can get from being immersed in our own culture. The challenge to serve refugee communities that came from the LDS General Conference these last two weeks has sparked a light in our family. We have already discussed ways that we can help, especially those ways that include our kids. Ike has some ideas to have a garage sale and bake sale to raise funds, and our neighbors are discussing the possibility of a neighborhood sale to benefit the refugees right here in Utah.
We were never refugees, but we are very familiar with the feelings of confusion of being a stranger in a strange land. We lived in Uruguay, Brazil, Egypt and Thailand, and had to try to decipher the culture without knowing the language. We are hoping that these experiences have distilled a broader understanding of the world in our own kids’ lives. But we have to do more. There are people right here in our state who need help, and we can do our part to make their journey a little easier.
There are so many resources and ideas that we can draw from, and I’m excited to see what my own kids will come up with to benefit their refugee brothers and sisters.
Here are some organizations that could use your help in making life better for refugees right here in Utah. What will you and your family do?