Traverse City Record-Eagle

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.

His kids had scattered to the four winds, but their father’s illness had stirred up old memories, and they wanted to meet me. Toledo Magazine had put their family’s photo on the cover. A framed copy hung in the family home, all these years.

Finally, one of their daughters, Kia, a gap-toothed 6-year-old in the photograph, wondered about the then-youngish reporter who had told their story so long ago. They wondered if I wanted to know what had happened to them. I did indeed, and met with the Ebles and, one daughter in person and two others via Skype two weeks ago.

Say Yang not only learned to speak fluent English, he worked a number of jobs before spending two decades at the University of Toledo, where he became head of maintenance before he retired.

He and his wife Khoua Kha had two more daughters and a son. Nearly all the children have at least some college. Today, they are scattered among California, Colorado, Ohio and Michigan.

Frances, 28, is working in a bank and thinking about graduate school at Wayne State University. Christina, the youngest, trained as a nurse before “hopping on the Silicon Valley bandwagon.” Today, she is an event coordinator for a company that provides cloud-based phone systems for businesses.

Perfectly bilingual, at home in two cultures, she says “I couldn’t be happier; being with a fast-evolving company is a great feeling.” Kia, a gap-toothed 6-year-old when I met her, grew up to have movie star looks and be a high-powered marketing and sales coordinator for another California firm. Like several of the older girls, she married a Hmong boy when still in her teens - then divorced him and eventually remarried an American of European descent.

“I’m currently a very exhausted, but enthused homemaker,” she says. The Lee children have produced more than 30 grandchildren, adding, the Ebles noted, a lot of wealth to the tapestry that is America. Christiana, the youngest, thinks it was easiest for her.

“My parents had time to ease into the U.S. culture and learned the American ways,” before she was born. The key to the children’s success was that “they made sure we know that they love us unconditionally and would go to extremes to make sure we are safe and happy. My goal is to continue to comfort, care and support them as much as they did for all of us.”

Eight years ago, Kia, now Kia Lee Germino, took her parents back to Laos and Thailand “for the first time since they fled the secret war by foot through the dense jungles.” It was a highly emotional trip for all of them. “When we left, I was saddened, as was my father.”

She knew they all could easily have died there.

The United States, she said, had not treated her people well then. Yet the Lees had done well in this nation once they arrived.

“When the U.S. left the most controversial war in history they left thousands of loyal Hmong men, women and children vulnerable to horrible executions. The Hmong - the word means free - would do just about anything to keep their culture, their people, alive,” she told me. Now, after a lifetime here, Kia said she finally realizes freedom “was why they fought alongside the U.S. It makes a lot of sense.”

State Rep. Harvey Santana thinks the best way for Detroit to regain prosperity would be to welcome a flood of new immigrants. The Lees make it hard to see how anyone could disagree.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.