Making his way through tents serving sticky rice and selling bundles of herbs and beaded New Year's dresses at the annual Hmong festival here recently, Xue Xiong was stopped every few feet by friends and relatives he hadn't seen in more than 13 years.
Newly arrived from the Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand, Xiong and his wife, their seven sons, and her sister and her husband had been living within borders of barbed wire and without access to jobs, formal education or adequate health care. "In the camp, we had no rights," said Xiong, 34, speaking through an interpreter. "It was really poor, the houses weren't nice and we had no schools or cars."
The Hmong are the last major group of Indochinese refugees from the Vietnam War era, and Xiong and his family were the first of about 5,000 arriving in the Twin Cities over the next few months. The Minneapolis area is home to the largest Hmong population in the country, about 60,000 people, but this summer's influx will be the biggest number in the shortest amount of time in recent years. And it comes at a difficult moment, with the economy slumping, cuts in public aid, a housing crunch and a tight job market.
"It's really tough right now, especially for people with low language skills and little work history," said Karen Calcaterra, a career program manager for immigrants and refugees at the nonprofit organization Lifetrack Resources. "In different times, refugees would come and the employers would be desperate for workers. Now there are three people competing for every vacancy."
Many Hmong families in the area are expecting scores of relatives in the new influx. Xiong's sister-in-law, Chong Thao, has about 30 more relatives arriving. While most here are filled with excitement at the prospect of family reunions, they will be presented with financial and logistical problems.
"I think that pace will lead to difficulties," said Joel Luedtke, director of refugee services for the Minnesota Council of Churches. "As host families receive relatives faster than they can move into their own housing, there will be a lot of doubling up. It will take them some time to find employment, so we will amass a significant percentage who are not employed in the first few months."
About 15,000 Hmong from the Tham Krabok camp are slated to be relocated in the United States by the end of the year, with a third going to California, a third to Minnesota, about 3,000 to Wisconsin and smaller numbers to other states. The majority are supposed to arrive before the start of the school year in September.
This will pose a particular challenge for the public schools, because about half the refugees are age 14 or younger. Most grew up without schooling, without adequate nutrition and without access to inoculations or other basic health care.
Because Tham Krabok was never designated an official refugee camp, it did not receive international aid. Camp residents were displaced from Laos after the Vietnam War, when the United States reneged on promises to help them in exchange for carrying out the CIA's secret war against the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists. The Hmong ended up in Wat Tham Krabok, on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, after other refugee camps in Thailand closed.
In December, the U.S. government made the surprise announcement that the refugees would be resettled here, reversing earlier statements that Tham Krabok residents would not come to this country.
The shift came after pressure from the Thai government, which has long wanted to close the camp, and urging from the government of Laos, which is in talks with the United States over normalizing trade. The decision also will help the nation meet its quota of accepting 70,000 refugees by Sept. 30. Refugee resettlement has been reduced since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Since the December announcement, social service and refugee resettlement agencies in St. Paul have been scrambling. In March, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly and a delegation of social service, health care and education providers visited the camp to assess needs. They found that programs promoting literacy, nutrition, drug rehabilitation, mental health and job skills will be needed once the refugees arrive, and they set in motion a plan to give children basic vaccinations in the camp, taking some of the burden off St. Paul schools and clinics.
Each family will be allocated $800 in State Department funds to get started, $400 in cash and $400 going to a resettlement agency. They also will be eligible for public aid and programs run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
At the Hmong festival, the Xue Xiong family got a taste of what it means to have little money in a land of plenty. After spending years with only enough belongings to fill a small backpack, they were suddenly surrounded by huge quantities of clothing, housewares and trinkets for the buying.
"There were so many toys," said Xiong's wife, Mai Yai Thao, 31, in Hmong, noting that in the camp their sons had no toys. "They were touching all them, but we don't have much money, so we only got them some little cars."
A night later, around a folding table in the Thao house, Xiong wondered how the family will pay rent at the dwelling they are moving into a few blocks away.
"Rent is $850 a month, and we will get $970 in public aid," he said. "And we need $100 a month for laundry and things like that. We need to get help from someone."
Advocacy groups said the immigrants will benefit from the network of family and friends eager to help the new arrivals. When the first influx of Hmong arrived two decades ago, they initially had difficulty adjusting to life here, staying on welfare for long periods and having problems in school. But now many have assimilated and predict the transition for the latest influx will be much faster.
"Between all their relatives, there are a significant number of Hmong businesses, where there will be jobs with less of a need to speak English," said John Borden, associate director of the International Institute of Minnesota, one of the nonprofit organizations leading the resettlement. "They're in almost all the professional businesses -- doctors, funeral homes, every specialized area."
While the Twin Cities have long been known as a top destination for Hmong and other political refugees, there are some who are not thrilled about the new arrivals. Leaders of advocacy groups say they have fielded phone calls from local residents angry about more refugees arriving.
Many older Hmong hold onto a dream of defeating the current Communist government in Laos and returning, while the younger generation see themselves as Americans and want to get on with their lives.
"There's the question of: Are we Hmong or are we American?" said Kao Ly Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, who at age 7 came to the United States with her family in 1976. "The elders would say, 'We're just here until we can go back to the homeland.' Then there's people like me who say, 'We are home, and we need to participate and vote and organize here.' "