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Where EAST meets the Northwest

KAJ SIAB DAYS. Mee Lee creates artwork at the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual

Assistance Association at a twice monthly senior wellness day in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Kaj Siab Days — which means "peaceful heart" or "happy days" — is a program geared toward Eau Claire’s population of Hmong elders. The program aims to give elders with a past of domestic or historical trauma a chance to socialize, relax in a familiar environment, and learn more about Eau Claire. (Steve Kinderman/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #9 (May 1, 2017), pages 8 & 9.

Hmong elders in Eau Claire still searching

By Lauren French


EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — When Ka Yang first came to Eau Claire in 1994, the 57-year-old from Laos was accustomed to trauma.

Yang’s young adult and adult life was permeated with war, accidents, and illnesses, the Leader-Telegram reported. Her first husband, a soldier in the CIA’s "Secret War" against communist forces in Laos that lasted from the early ’60s to mid ’70s, died in a bomb explosion. Her next husband died in a lumber accident, the next two of illness. Four of her seven children died of illness and lack of access to medical care.

Since arriving in Eau Claire, another of her children has died, again from illness.

"She’s very sad and depressed," Yang said through translator Hao Pay Lee as they sat in the entrance area of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association. "She feels like her life is very sorrowful. Last year when her daughter passed away, she cried a lot."

Yang spent that morning and afternoon at the association for its twice monthly Kaj Siab Days — meaning "peaceful heart" or "happy days" — which is a program geared toward Eau Claire’s population of Hmong elders. Lee, who coordinates the program with fellow association worker Chai Moua, said the program aims to give elders with a past of domestic or historical trauma a chance to socialize, relax in a familiar environment, and learn more about Eau Claire.

Yang, now 80, isn’t alone.

She’s one of about 15 elders who attend Kaj Siab Days regularly, although that number fluctuates week to week, Lee said.

The elders are a subsection of the Hmong community that makes up the largest ethnic and minority group in the Chippewa Valley. According to the association’s website, the Hmong population has grown to over 3,000 in Eau Claire, Chippewa, and Dunn counties, and to about three percent of the total population in the city of Eau Claire.

Within the Hmong community, elders face their own unique set of problems, Lee and Moua said.

"Our elders, they share that sometimes when they hear fireworks they still get scared," Lee said. "Their heart starts pumping and their blood rushes because it sounds like gunshots. I don’t think it will ever go away, but this is a place for them to process it."

"Many of our elders became orphaned at a young age," Moua added, "or they were forced to marry other people at a young age. Many of them are either widows or divorced. Those traumas still haunt them."

Violent pasts aside, Lee and Moua said a problem common among elders is feeling isolated. They often live alone and cannot drive or speak English, making it hard for them to communicate with others in Eau Claire.

Lee and Moua both urged people who live in Eau Claire to understand that although many Hmong elders have lived in the area for a long time, they’ve still spent half their life living in a different country with separate customs and traditions. When they arrived in the area, Moua said, many had never been to school.

"It’s harder for them to adapt to other environments," Moua said of the elders. "I want the community to be aware that this group of people is really traditional. They like to keep their own way, because it’s hard. It’s really hard to go through change."

When Yang arrived in Eau Claire, she said it felt comfortable. She had two children here at the time, and because her late husband had fought for the U.S. in the "Secret War," she gained citizenship soon after settling down. She’s even voted a few times.

Still, Yang said the sorrow from losing so many people in her life made it hard to integrate — like many Hmong elders, she doesn’t know English or how to read or write.

"She says that Eau Claire doesn’t know her," Yang said through Lee. "She just feels like she’s invisible."

After one of the two children Yang moved to Eau Claire to be with died last spring, Yang gave up the religion she grew up practicing and converted to Christianity. She said she switched because Shaman rituals and herbal medications could not save her daughter, who died after nine months of hospitalization.

That switch introduced her to a church community that supports her in some ways, Yang said. Because she can’t drive, two missionaries who know some of the Hmong language pick her up, bring her to church, and translate what they can of the service.

Kaj Siab Days also gives her a chance to get out in the community and socialize in a language she can understand.

"She likes that she’s able to come and communicate and build relationships," Yang said through Lee, "so she’s not home alone. She wants the day for her."

Inside the doors of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association on a Kaj Siab Day, the sounds of quick chatter and laughs as well as the aroma of traditional food fill the building.

"If you can hear, they’re super chatty, but when we play bingo, it’s so quiet," Lee said during the most recent wellness day, laughing.

Kaj Siab Days typically start around 8:00am, Moua said, when he and other organizers start making rounds to pick up elders who need transportation. Throughout the day, the elders play games — bingo is a favorite — paint, draw, knit, take excursions into the community, and spend a lot of time talking with one another.

"A lot of the elders are women, and they’ve been through so much, from childhood to adulthood, through parenthood, through the war and everything," Lee said. "They weren’t able to focus on themselves and care for themselves, so we wanted to provide that atmosphere for them to indulge in whatever."

In the summer months, the elders maintain a garden to keep a sense of their old life, Moua said, and get some exercise.

A big part of the program, Moua and Lee said, is education on current events in the Eau Claire community and around the nation. At previous wellness days, the elders have trekked to UW-Eau Claire to meet with Hmong students, learned about the history of the Civil Rights Movement for Martin Luther King Day, and have gone as a group to vote.

On April 14, the elders took a tour of the Eau Claire Police Department and asked questions of Hmong officers. The elders asked about translation services should they ever need to call 911 or report a crime, and some mentioned they felt safer after learning about their options.

"Just be aware that they are here, and they’re a part of our community," Lee said. "You don’t necessarily have to understand their struggles, but acknowledge that they do have struggles that are not like mainstream elders."

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