Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

October 13, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: American dream still alive

State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, made a pitch to make Michigan as immigrant-friendly a state as possible. “Our goal is that the brightest people move here, work here, create jobs and products here and pay taxes here.”

Immigrants, he told his colleagues, were far more likely to be successful and start businesses than almost anyone else.

The week before, I had a stunning and poignant reminder of just how true that is. Thirty-one years ago, I met a family of Hmong immigrants who had just arrived in Toledo, Ohio, after suffering in exile for years, mainly because they supported America.

Supported America, that is, in the first war this country ever lost. The Hmong, a tribal people and an ethnic minority in Laos, did what they could to help Americans during what we think of as the Vietnam War. When the war ended, we basically abandoned them.

Say Yang, who was sort of the headman of his village, was forced to flee with his wife and children. Two babies died in Laos before they could get out. Chong, 17, died in exile in Thailand, as did year-old son Xa.

Finally, the parents and their six surviving kids made it to Toledo, thanks to the sponsorship of an amazing couple, Denis and Carol Eble, and their local Roman Catholic parish.

I met the Lees then, and wrote about them for a magazine article I was doing on two refugee families from Indochina.

None of the family spoke much English then. They had no money and few skills that I thought would be marketable in modern society. I thought their prospects were fairly dim.

And I was very wrong. I didn’t keep in touch with the Lees, but last month I suddenly heard from Denis Eble. Say Yang, now in his 70s and retired, was recovering from a serious liver operation.

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