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Refugee debate hits home for Hmong family in Appleton

By JIM COLLAR, Post-Crescent

Pang and Chia Lee Xiong, among the first Hmong refugees to be settled in the Fox Cities as they fled their war-torn homeland nearly four decades ago, cannot read or write.

But their nine children? They all hold college degrees — a doctor, a nurse and teachers among them — and they say they’re a family that stands as a shining example of refugees finding a better tomorrow, a story that resonates amid today’s often heated debates regarding refugees and immigration in the United States.

Eight of those nine children came home recently to celebrate their parents, who despite their own limited education hammered home over and over again the message that education and hard work can still make the American dream a reality.

With their own children in tow, they flooded into St. Pius X Catholic Church on a Wednesday afternoon to surprise their father, who at age 70 was retiring after 38 years as a custodian in Appleton Catholic schools.

Up until two years ago, Pang Lee Xiong held two full-time custodial jobs, often working 16 hours a day.

“My mom and dad are both hard workers,” daughter Kathy Xiong said. “They’ve always talked about taking pride in who we are, honoring our heritage and our ancestors; but at the same time making sure that we do what we can to be a value to others in our community, and that we’re giving to our community.”

Neither Pang, nor his wife, Chia, received an education, but they could work and did so tirelessly to ensure their two sons and seven daughters would have a path to success.

It took hard work but also patience and endurance after arriving in Appleton as outsiders, family members said. Their experiences provide a glance into how Appleton has evolved since the first of the Hmong refugees arrived here in the late 1970s.

Yet as some things change, others remain the same.

The Xiongs’ celebration unfolded as refugee resettlement remains a hot-button political issue.

The Fox Cities, to the delight of some and disdain of others, has had mostly open arms for refugees.

In recent years, hundreds afforded refugee status have arrived from a number of nations including Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Cuba and the Congo.

The last major Hmong resettlement in the Fox Valley came in 2004.

Community leaders said those wary of the vulnerable arriving can look to this Appleton family as an example of the great things that can happen when rolling out the welcome mat.

Refugees arrive with a mind on building better lives, Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna said.

“There’s such a passion, and they’re fighting for their families,” he said.

Pang held his composure as 20 of his 28 grandchildren streamed into the room and waited their turns for hugs and kisses. He finally broke into tears when asked to muster up a few words about retirement and his long hours of janitorial work.

“I knew that I had to support my kids,” he said.

His son, Bon Xiong, said it’s difficult to comprehend his father’s efforts working two full-time jobs.

“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’ve thought about it, but I couldn’t do it.”

The Xiongs were just the third Hmong family to settle in Appleton after arriving from a refugee camp in September 1978.

Today, it’s Syrian refugees who are drawing the greatest debate, though contemporary wrangling over whether or how much we should support helps explain what the Xiong family faced in their early years here.

A 2015 Gallup poll found 60 percent disapproval for bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. In 1979, the polling organization found 57 percent disapproval for taking in refugees from Southeast Asia.

“I remember the talk around town being skeptical,” Hanna said of the late 1970s.

Pang had fought on behalf of the CIA during the secret war in Laos, and he and his family were forced to flee to avoid persecution and likely death.

The family made its way through three refugee camps before arriving in America. They were sponsored by St. Mary Parish, and its leaders and parishioners taught the family how to live here — right down to the simple things such as trips to the grocery store.

Their children attended Catholic schools. Pang began his custodial duties within days of settling into his new environment.

Daughter ThaoMee Xiong remembered being riled up by the prejudiced words she’d hear from her classmates. She said her father, a janitor at her school, let it roll off his shoulders and encouraged her to brush it off as well.

“He never took that personally, although it probably doesn’t feel good as a grown man being taunted by young boys,” she said.

Today, about 4,700 Hmong residents call the Fox Cities home. Back then, Pang, Chia and their children stood out.

Bon Xiong said he’s long past any hard feelings, knowing much of the poor treatment they received was born of resentment from the Vietnam War, and the Korean conflict before it. He said he is proud to see that as the Hmong population grew, so did acceptance.

In 1997, he was elected to the Appleton Common Council, and the following year became an Outagamie County Board supervisor. He was the first Hmong American in either of those roles in Wisconsin.

“There was a lot of prejudice,” he said. “Prejudice out in the streets, in the schools — a lot of name calling. I couldn’t really comprehend it. But as time went by, all of that kind of just disappeared. The diversity here in Appleton now — it’s awesome.”

Daughter Anne Vang-Lo said the messages she and her siblings received from their parents were simple, repetitive and carried big expectations — all based on their refugee struggles.

“Coming to America, my mom and dad always said, ‘Make sure you go to school, make sure you go to school. Make sure you work hard, make sure you work hard.””

Now that Pang has retired, he and Chia will move to Minnesota to be closer to many of their children and grandchildren.

Despite all of the uncertainty that existed when the family first settled here, Pang is now a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving, ThaoMee said. Appleton has become home.

Hanna issued a proclamation that declared Wednesday Pang Lee Xiong Day in Appleton, noting his “tenacity to survive the trauma of war and displacement and the audacity to encourage his children to reach and obtain the American dream.”

Today, new families continue to arrive and take the first steps on that path, often with similar challenges.

Jean Long Manteufel, a member of the Appleton Fox Cities Kiwanis Club, said she’s been impressed by the response of the Fox Cities as new neighbors arrive. She took part in community collections to set up homes for hundreds of Hmong refugees in 2004, and again for the new wave of refugees in 2014.

Some communities reject them.

“I was so proud of the Fox Cities that our choice was, ‘Let’s help them,”” Manteufel said.

It’s never been a greater issue, and the rhetoric has remained heated.

A June report from the United Nations said 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes either from war or persecution at the end of 2015. That was up from 59.5 million the year before.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has pointed to Syrian resettlement as a national security issue. Last year, Gov. Scott Walker was among 15 governors who asked the federal government not to place Syrian refugees in their states after attacks from the Islamic State in Paris.

Manteufel suggests we judge people on their individual merits rather than place of origin.

Kathy Xiong has full confidence that refugees arriving to skepticism today can ultimately make their communities stronger, just as her family has done.

“He really had to leave to make sure he was safe and my family was safe,” she said of her father. “But we’ve given back in so many ways.”

An AP member exchange.

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