Commentary

Afghan refugees remind us of how connected we are to the rest of the world

August 19, 2021 7:00 am
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: A U.S. military helicopter flies over the Afghan Embassy in a leafy, quiet neighborhood in the northwest section of the U.S. capital on August 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan's government more swiftly than experts expected, forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and U.S. President Joe Biden to send thousands of troops to Kabul to secure the evacuation of U.S. citizens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 16: A U.S. military helicopter flies over the Afghan Embassy in a leafy, quiet neighborhood in the northwest section of the U.S. capital on August 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan’s government more swiftly than experts expected, forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and U.S. President Joe Biden to send thousands of troops to Kabul to secure the evacuation of U.S. citizens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Early this week, as the eyes of the world focused on the rapidly unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)  in Washington, DC, sent out a poignant press release.

The group’s statement had nothing to do with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, or the Muslim refugees desperately trying to flee the Taliban — some of whom will soon be arriving at Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy. 

Instead, CAIR sent out a message expressing solidarity with Wisconsin’s Hmong community. The occasion was a letter disparaging Hmong people was sent to the Hmong American Center in Wausau last week.  

The anonymous letter called Hmong-Americans “racist,” and said they should “try to accept our ways and learn English.” The letter also expressed annoyance at “parties of 20 to 40 people several times a year” hosted by Hmong-Americans and criticized the letter writer’s Hmong neighbors who don’t say hello.

The executive director of the Wausau Hmong Community Center, Yee Leng Xiong, posted the letter to his Facebook page, and wrote, “I ask that you reach out to me, and let’s have a discussion. I hope that after our discussion, you will learn about our cultural practices and our experiences, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll gain a little insight into the challenges that many of the Hmong community members still face.”

Ironically, he said, the letter arrived the same evening Marathon County passed its “Community for All” resolution, which declared that the county welcomes members of minority groups, embraces diversity and condemns racism. The resolution divided the community, arousing considerable controversy and making national news.

Asked why a group formed to combat anti-Muslim bigotry was focused on the Hmong community in Wisconsin, while images of Afghanistan dominate world news, CAIR’s national communications director Ibrahim Hooper replied, “Our civil rights work continues, no matter what happens overseas.” The group also put out a press release this week calling on Alabama schools to drop confederate names, he pointed out. Fair enough.

But there is something particularly poignant about the nation’s largest American Muslim civil liberties organization reaching out to Wisconsin’s Hmong community at this moment. 

Gov. Tony Evers could have been talking about the Hmong in Wisconsin, and the traumatized Vietnam veterans they accompanied home, when he welcomed the Afghan allies of the United States who will soon arrive at Fort McCoy.

Like the Muslim refugees from Afghanistan who will soon be arriving in our state, the Hmong were U.S. allies in a failed military intervention far from away. When the U.S. pulled out, they were left at the mercy of our country’s enemies. We owed it to them to help them, as they had helped us.

Gov. Tony Evers could have been talking about the Hmong in Wisconsin, and the traumatized Vietnam veterans they accompanied home, when he welcomed the Afghan allies of the United States who will soon arrive at Fort McCoy.

“We also know some Wisconsinites who served in Afghanistan alongside these allies — as well as some of those who have sought safety in our state previously — may be experiencing trauma and anxiety as they watch these events unfold,” Evers said in a statement remarkable for its humane, big-hearted tone. “We are thinking of them and are reminded today and in the days ahead to offer each other support, patience, and kindness and treat one another with empathy, respect, and compassion.”

That attitude is a breath of fresh air, especially after the divisive, xenophobic rhetoric adopted by the Republican party recently

The experience of Wisconsin’s Hmong residents, who have become targets of resentment and attacked for being different — told to “accept our ways and learn English” —  is a worrying sign for the newest refugees from a U.S. military debacle.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

The Hmong came here after our country pulled out of Vietnam, where the CIA had recruited them to fight the North Vietnamese. They guarded U.S. installations and rescued downed American pilots. The Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association has a summary of this history on its website, to remind locals how the Hmong people in the area got there.

Today, Wisconsin’s Marathon County has more than 6,000 Hmong residents, most of them living in Wausau. Wausau’s 4,700 Hmong make up about 12% of the city, giving Wausau the highest per-capita Hmong population in the U.S. These are the families of people who fled here after being hunted down by the communist governments of Laos and Vietnam for their role supporting the U.S. Those who didn’t escape were taken to concentration camps, their houses razed, their villages bombed with napalm.

It is both generous and wise of  Xiong of Wausau’s Hmong American Center to offer to meet with the anonymous letter-writer and try to build understanding. In fact, it is a good suggestion for all Wisconsinites. The latest U.S. census data shows every county in the state has become more diverse since 2010. As Mexican grocery stores and taquerias pop up on Main Street in countless small towns, the children of immigrants revitalize schools on the brink of closure in rural areas that have suffered from depopulation, and our new Afghan residents bring their own rich cultural traditions with as they resettle throughout our state, demanding that everyone learn “our ways” is not going to cut it.

And what are “our ways” anyway?

Here in the Dairy State, 80% of the labor involved in producing milk and cheese is performed by undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But we have trouble acknowledging how dependent we are on people from other parts of the world. Immigrants prop up whole sectors of our economy, from agriculture to construction to the restaurant and hospitality industry. And they make our state better, richer, more interesting and lively. 

A lot of them are here because of the way the U.S. has intervened in their home countries, and because they stood by us, even if we don’t remember it.

Our country is big on military intervention around the globe. The fighter jets thundering overhead in Madison, as the Wisconsin Air National Guard celebrates the arrival of the F-35, is a reminder that we are all involved — complicit, even — in U.S. military adventures overseas, whether we like it or not. “The F-35 is a critical piece of the president’s national security strategy,” the National Guard declared in a press release heaping praise on a military aircraft that will employ some people in Madison — but which has been widely panned as a massive boondoggle by military experts. The plane “will benefit the fighter wing’s mission to provide invaluable homeland defense to the Midwest region,” the Guard added.

In truth, the Midwest region is unlikely to come under military attack. We don’t need new weapons to fight off a heavily armed enemy. We need tools to help us figure out how to live in harmony with the people we have dragged here from all over the rest of the world.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

MORE FROM AUTHOR