Hmong-American community responds to national push for "Lao-Hmong Recognition Day"

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by Priscilla Luong

MILWAUKEE-- Before he became a jeweler-- Nyajtoua Her, was a soldier in Laos.

Sitting in his shop near West Allis, he still remembers what ran through his mind when the communists took over.

"I'm not going to survive," said Her.

Her left Laos with his family in 1978 to escape persecution.  His nationality was Laotian, but his ethnicity-- Hmong, made his family targets for political oppression.

"We are Hmong, we have our own group," he explained.

When his family settled in the US, they sought political asylum and opportunity.

 "We don't know what the future is going to be," said Her, as he recalled their arrival on American soil.

For Her and his family, Wisconsin-- became home.  The state now has the third largest Hmong population in the US, behind California and Minnesota.  This makes Hmong-Americans the largest ethnic group among Wisconsin's Asian Americans.

Nearly four decades later, Hmong families are still trying to keep their heritage alive.

"For us, it's even more challenging," said Charles Vang, Executive Director of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce.

Many Asian cultures have a country to call home, but leaders in the Hmong-American community say for them, not so much.  Aside from Laos, people of Hmong culture are spread among China, Vietnam, and Thailand.

"We don't have a country," explained Vang, "and it's harder for us to keep that heritage."

May marks Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month-- as the month comes to an end, Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) joined other lawmakers urging President Obama to designate July 22nd Lao-Hmong Recognition Day.

For Her and his family, it's a day to celebrate how far Hmong-American families have come.

"I built my life from nothing," said Her, "so this is good for me and my family."

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