Building a Hmong community

The Kajsiab House welcomes refugees of war

by Lisa Speckhard

How do you hide a war?

Destruction cannot go unnoticed for long. But during the Vietnam War, the CIA wanted to quietly contain communism in neighboring countries, which led to what became known as the “Secret War” in Laos.

This meant Laos was neutral in name but war-torn in practice. In an attempt to crush North Vietnamese supply routes that ran through Laos, the CIA recruited Hmong men to fight and dropped bombs – 270 million of them – on Laos for almost ten years. When the communists eventually gained power, thousands of Hmong fled. Fifty thousand of them came to Wisconsin and 4,000 settled in Madison.

To many Americans, this seems to be the end of the story: The refugees have been rescued and started a better life elsewhere; the secret is out and normal life can commence. But while the bombs are gone, many refugees still struggle with the lasting effects of PTSD and trauma.

Traumatic experiences do not destine refugees – or anyone else – to a life of mental illness or PTSD. In fact, 80 percent of trauma survivors show positive psychological symptoms, like sympathy and empathy towards others who experience hardship, said Aydin Bal, assistant professor of rehabilitation psychology and special education at University of Wisconsin-Madison. But when the traumatized don’t receive proper psychological support, Bal said, or are placed in negative climates with racism or without equal opportunity, it’s more likely that they will start to show PTSD symptoms.

Following the Secret War, many Hmong refugees ended up in communities that were ill-equipped to address their needs. Most Hmong couldn’t drive or speak English, and therefore couldn’t access or benefit from available services.

There existed and still exists a significant stigma about mental health care in the Hmong community. Without a history of mental health care in their native country, a diagnosis of mental health issues was often perceived as an insult to intelligence and sanity. But it mattered little, because they couldn’t get counseling anyway, leaving them with another hidden war to fight.

For some Hmong in Madison, the key to winning this war might be bingo.

Bingo is one of the many services offered at the Kajsiab House, a community-based group focused on the mental health of the Hmong population. The game is just as inexplicably popular as it is in any American nursing home, but here the numbers and letters are called out in Hmong.

Bingo may seem unrelated to mental well-being, but every piece of the Kajsiab House’s program is important. Each program aims to dismantle barriers that keep people from seeking mental health support.

First, the Kajsiab House provided services to overcome the logistical barriers of this population, by providing Hmong-speaking staff and transportation to and from the center.

Those physical challenges surmounted, the cultural barrier of stigma was still strong, and services were needed to combat it. As it turns out, bingo is one of those services.

These “wrap-around supportive services,” as Program Manager Doua Vang calls them, are there to make the program welcoming to the Hmong and a desirable place for forming community. The center helps clients with practical challenges like filling out the paperwork required for Social Security and food stamps. English classes and citizenship classes are also offered. The center provides daily meals, hosts weekly Bingo games and crafting lessons and holds community discussions.

As Vang said, these services encompass “pretty much anything that can alleviate their stress to make them feel more comfortable.”

Once there, they can choose to receive mental health counselling not only from the Hmong-speaking clinicians, but from psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. This structure – the professional mental health staff, the variety of services and the focus on the Hmong community – is what makes this organization the only of its kind in the nation.

Upon entering the Kajsiab House, you might think it doesn’t look very different from any other community center – until you look at the walls. Pictures with small descriptions, created by clients through art therapy sessions, oscillate between the grateful “I am happy that I am here at Kajsaib house,” to the heart-wrenching “I look everywhere for my daughter but I cannot find her.”

This side-by-side display of hurt and hope is reflected in the wider Hmong community as well. The Hmong community in America has typically struggled with poverty, academic achievement gaps and health disparities.

Hmong are one of the poorest ethnic groups in America, with a poverty rate twice as high as the national average, according to the 2010 US Census Report. This is partially due to language barriers, lack of education and past traumatic experiences that prevent them from learning and maintaining employment, Vang said.

Language barriers also affect academic performance, as parents are often unable to help children with schoolwork, and Hmong children are too often placed in English Language Learner tracks. In 2013, Dane County data showed that 87 percent of Hmong children could not read at grade level. Hmong parents teach often their children to be disciplined in school, but this has the adverse effect of making them invisible in the classroom, said Mai Zong Vue, intercultural program coordinator in the division of mental health and abuse services for the Wisconsin Department of Health.

Statistically, things have improved for the Hmong in the US over the last twenty years. Poverty rates have decreased from 64 to 25 percent, while the ability speak English “very well” has more than doubled. Significantly more Hmong adults are now graduating from college as well.

Vue said that in order for things to keep improving for this population, Hmong individuals need to be economically, educationally and socially integrated into their surrounding communities.


A traditional Hmong house adjacent to Kajsiab House, a community center that focuses on mental health treatment for Hmong individuals. (Lisa Speckhard)

It’s important to provide Hmong populations with “an environment that is safe for them to build bonds with their own community,” she said. “If they don’t know who they are, don’t understand their strengths and understand their challenges, they won’t be successful in integration.”

And the Kajsaib House provides just such an environment. Here, hidden struggles can be safely revealed. Sometimes, silence has to be broken before lives can be mended.

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