Chapter 2: From There to Here: The Journey of Refugee Families to the United States

Jaime Ballard (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota), Chris Mehus (Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota), Damir Utržan (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota), and Katherine Wickel Didericksen (Medical Family Therapy Program, East Carolina University)

Introduction

“We mostly lived in the jungle, because it was not safe to stay in the village. I had four children, each a year apart, I think the oldest was four. Ever since the Hmong started to flee the villages, if the communists found people in the villages they would kill them, so we hid in jungles most of the time… I did not have time to be afraid. Of course, I was scared the communists might find us, but I thought to myself that it did not really matter if I was afraid or not. I left it up to fate what was to become of us. There was no one to help us, and no safe place we could run to where we knew there would be help if we arrived, so we just kept running and hiding, all the while trying to decide if we should flee to Thailand.”

-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee
Hmong Women’s Action Team Oral History Project,
Minnesota Historical Society

Throughout history, families who are persecuted or fear persecution in their home countries have sought refuge in foreign countries. As Mai Vang Thao’s story demonstrates, these families face daily threats of violence and struggle to provide basic security or resources for their children. Families seek physical safety for themselves and their children by fleeing to a new country. The United States, which has been the final destination for many of these families who have been forced to flee, can offer them refugee or asylee status as a protection. Refugee or asylee families can live in the United States, with temporary assistance to get settled and to begin providing for themselves and their families.

A refugee is someone who was persecuted or fears persecution (on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion), has fled to another country, and has not participated in persecuting others. There is a special subcategory of refugees called asylum seekers: refugees and asylum seekers are different only in the process of relocation. Refugees have applied for and been granted refugee status before they leave for the United States. Asylum seekers meet all the criteria for refugee status but have already reached the United States. Although the process of arrival is different, the term refugee will be used in this text to refer to refugees and asylees unless otherwise noted.

The purpose of this chapter is to identify the paths taken by refugee families from persecution to relative safety. We will continue to follow in Mai Vang Thao’s footsteps to see one story that demonstrates the steps of fleeing persecution, family separation, admittance to the United States, and becoming accustomed to the new home.