Photographs of Hope: Honoring Erica Hagen

Photos Erica Hagen / Written By Mao Her Flores and Mao Misty Her

Perhaps it was fate. Maybe, luck. Or even destiny. Whatever it was, it led Erica Hagen to the downtrodden wooden slat schoolhouse in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in May of 1980. It was dusty and humid that day when this “pog mis kas dawb” walked into our lives and completely changed our trajectory.

We had never seen a “white woman” in our short little lives. She was tall. Taller than just about all the Hmong men in the camp standing at a majestic six feet. Her long, beautiful blonde hair, beautifully gathered and braided together, cascaded from atop her head, forming a crisscross pattern down her back.

She was like no other human any of us had ever seen. As 4- and 5-year olds, we were in sheer awe of her stature, her beauty, her mystique, and the camera that was always tethered around her neck. Everything we had heard about “mis kas dawb” was that they were horrid monsters who snacked on little kids. Their description fit what we learned in storybooks to be cannibals “nyav noj neeg,” or wild things with fangs, ready to consume the meat of little children.

The first time we saw her, we were frozen, wondering why our dads and uncles would bring her home to eat us. “Zaum no ces wb yeej tuag li lo.” Perhaps, we did something wrong and our dads were trying to sell us off. We had heard stories about parents who sold their kids for money.

We wondered if this would be our time. Clenching our hands together, we stared at her wide-eyed and terrified. She maneuvered around us, in a wide stance, pointed the camera, clicking with one hand and adjusting the lens to our little faces with the other hand. Taking pictures seemed so effortless and natural to her.

We, on the other hand, were blinded by the camera flash. We were intrigued and filled with curiosity by the apparatus and even more so the “pog mis kas dawb”. Cautiously, we proceeded toward her to get a closer look.

And then she smiled at us. There was a glimmer in her eyes. She waved her hands, beckoning us to come closer as if to say, “It’s really ok. I won’t hurt you.” This would be the first of our many encounters with Erica Hagen. From the moment she walked into our lives, she was special and as the years went by, she became mother, mentor, and most importantly, a life-long friend.

Erica hagen was an aspiring actress who in early 1980 decided to take time off from acting. While traveling to Southeast Asia and China, she was given an opportunity to teach English to Vietnamese teenage refugees in Hong Kong. Having a college degree in education and expertise in teaching English as a Second Language was a perfect fit for her and she loved teaching these students. However, not impressed by the crowded scenery of industrial Hong Kong, she sought other opportunities to fulfill her passion to teach.

In her search, she was informed by three separate individuals about a group of Hmong refugees living in a camp in Northern Thailand. She was told that the Hmong could use someone like her to teach them english. She would be able to help them get ready for immigration to other countries. The camp was just a temporary holding place. Already enamored by the beautiful scenery and the people inhabiting Thailand, she jumped at this opportunity. The next day she was at an office in the basement of the US embassy in Thailand. She had been hired as an ESL teacher.

After a flight, a long bus ride, and a day later, she found herself at the gates of the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. As she drove into the camp, she saw the wonder, and instantly fell in love with what she saw. She made up her mind and decided she would live in the camp among the refugees. She had fallen in love with the scenery, the houses thatched with bamboo, and the people who lived in them. She was overcome with fascination and at this moment, realized Ban Vinai was where she was destined to be. This is where she was supposed to use her gift of teaching.

We have often wondered how she could fall in love with such a place as a refugee camp. When you really think about it, Ban Vinai was built to seclude and keep the Hmong away from the rest of Thailand. This seclusion was meant to keep the Secret War away from the world. How was it that an outsider such as Erica Hagen found tranquility, peace, and beauty in this place? What was she searching for that allowed her to see beyond the despair enclosed within the fences of Ban Vinai? Perhaps she found hope and saw promise that we couldn’t… Maybe in the schoolroom of the refugee camp is where she started to find herself while helping others. This was where Erica met and befriended our fathers, uncles, and in time, our entire families.

Erica became a regular figure in our lives, while always taking pictures. Pictures of us. Pictures of our families. Pictures of other families. Pictures of people, our people inside the camp. She was a frequent visitor in our aluminum, dirt floor shack, teaching the adults English. Unlike the rest of her colleagues, she chose to live in the refugee camp among the Hmong refugees. She shared family dinners with us and never complained about how we lived.

After dinner, our families would gather around, and she would give lessons on how to prepare for life in America. Our fathers spoke some English and were able to communicate with her, but she mostly taught using picture books. She showed pictures of homes foreign to us without thatched roofs, kitchens where food was prepared on stoves, and running water that came from a facet above the sink. In the months that our families came to know Erica, we also started to see that perhaps there was a better place beyond the camp. And so that glimmer of hope was born and we know that somewhere across the world, there was the possibility of a second chance and a promising future.

In her own words, she described the camp as a beautiful place, peaceful, and filled with resilient people. The Hmong were not like the other refugees she had worked with. Hmong families made a life inside the camp, well beyond just merely existing. Beyond the dirt, dust, and aluminum shacks, there was vitality. Women sat around and socialized while making “paj ntaub”. The men learned English. The children played. The Hmong continued their traditions and even celebrated the New Year inside the camp walls. There was even a main thoroughfare inside the camp where the refugees could barter their goods or purchase goods from outside vendors. This afforded Erica a place to buy something to eat other than rice. The Hmong didn’t just try to survive in the camp, she saw that despite the conditions, they were learning to thrive. Perhaps it was this fighting spirit that drew her to them and made her want to stay.

In December of 1980, our families made the journey to America. We started our new life in Garden Grove, California, and never looked back on the life we left behind. We never forgot about Erica… We always wondered if she was still in the camp and what she was doing. It wasn’t until 1982 that she would enter our lives again. We had been in the United States for a little over a year. We were adjusting to life in America. It didn’t matter that there were about 20 of us crammed into a three-bedroom, one bath house. It was amazingly bigger than the one room shelter we shared in the camp.

There was no way to keep in touch after we left the camp. One day, out of the blue, she called us. She had found us. She said she had returned to the states and wanted to reconnect again. In preparation for Erica’s visit, our fathers went to the store and bought new bowls. They were a great price and they bought enough for the entire family. Later that evening, Erica came to the house to visit and have dinner with us. Our moms served rice and chicken in the brand-new bowls. Our moms beamed as they boasted about how great these new bowls were for holding food. “It’s so versatile. You can serve rice and chicken, and after that fill it up with soup.” They even commented that they were going back to the store to buy more.

Erica’s reaction was rather odd. Trying not to be disrespectful, with a gentle smile on her face, she said to our dads, “Gia Chue and Shong Nai, in America we don’t use these types of bowls to eat. These are made for pet dogs.” To which our fathers replied, “Well, what a waste of good bowls. If we had these in the camps, we would be considered rich! What a weird place America is!”

When Erica returned to the states she was uncertain of her path. She didn’t know if she wanted to go back into acting again. She had a desire to help with the refugee resettlement, but just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

Our fathers offered for her to live with us. Imagine a household of 20 and adding another member to the family. It was just the most natural thing to do…Erica was family and that’s what families did for one another. She accepted our fathers’ offer for her to stay with us and she, in turn, helped our families assimilate into American culture.

And so once again, just like in the camps, she worked with our families. Simple things like learning how to take public transportation, how to fill out applications for jobs, or helping the kids with the school system, became important life lessons. We learned about celebrating holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays.

In 1984, we relocated to Fresno. Our parents had heard that there were many Hmong families in Fresno and it was an agricultural area where they could farm again. During this time, Erica had applied for and received a grant to work throughout the United States in areas where Hmong refugees were concentrated. She helped them adapt to American culture and conversely, help the Americans understand the Hmong by serving as a liaison. She continued to work across the country in states such as Kansas, Wisconsin, and California. We kept in touch with her, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1985, when her work with refugees brought her to Fresno and once again our paths would cross.

It was a memorable summer because she lived with us in our two-bedroom apartment. We looked forward to when she would come home after work and spend time with us. She always had her camera and was constantly taking pictures. During this time, Fresno experienced an influx of Hmong refugees due to secondary migration and it was another perfect opportunity for Erica to continue her work educating. This time however, it was educating and conducting diversity training to various organizations and school districts on the Hmong.

It was during this time that Fresno Unified started seeking training in how to work with Hmong refugee students. Erica was a perfect fit for providing this training to school staff and administrators. One evening our fathers inquired about finding jobs. They were tired of working in the fields and did not want to be dependent on public assistance any longer.

The following day, Erica took Chue Her (Mao Misty Her’s father) to the Fresno Unified District office. A meeting with the Superintendent resulted with him getting hired the next day. Chue Her worked as a translator in the morning and as a custodian at night.

How ironic that 20 years later, his own daughter would become the first Hmong Principal and Instructional Superintendent in the district.

Over the years we had kept in touch with Erica Hagen, but we didn’t see her often. She settled down in Southern California and we remained in Fresno. Every few years, she would call or come visit, but over the years, the visits had become less and less frequent – due to various factors such as work, family, or the difficulties traveling with age.

It was wasn’t until three years ago, we were approached with the idea of the possibility of putting together an exhibit that would commemorate 40 years of the Hmong in the United States -The Hmongstory 40 Exhibit, that our paths would cross again.

This was a project we instantly knew had to take part in and invested our time, talents, money, and efforts.

As we researched and prepared the panels for “Thailand and Refugee Camp” section of the exhibit, we found that we were lacking photographs depicting Hmong life in the camps. We kept asking each other, our parents, other elders questions about what life was like and it would be nice if we had photos of everyday life during this time period. We immediately thought about Erica and her pictures she had captured of our families and many other families in the camp. We remembered she was an avid photographer and photographed everyone and every aspect of the camps.

When we finally made the trek to her house, we had no idea what kind of history she had captured for us through her lenses. She had taken thousands of photos of women, children, men, the camp, the cultural celebrations, the local scenery. She had captured our history. A history we had lived, but never seen before—until we began to scan these thousands of slides. As we sat in her living room, scanning negative after negative, a sense of fulfillment and peace found its place in our hearts.

Erica’s experience and perspective looking at the camp from behind the lens of her camera, captured a beautiful place full of life, resiliency, and hope. She truly captured the refugee experience by living among us. Erica says that she didn’t even realize what she had captured.

She simply states, “Everything was new to me. I just had a camera and I just kept shooting pictures. I took pictures of everything. The seasons were so interesting. However, I hated the rainy season the first time I was there, but the winters were chilly and beautiful. Everything was green and gorgeous.

After the hot, dry season, the rainy season was a welcomed change for me. So, I just captured all of this. I wanted to make sure that I had this experience recorded.

I never thought I would be capturing the history of the Hmong people.”

Erica’s pictures not only brought back memories, but they also made us feel whole as a people. It showcased what it means to thrive even in the most challenging of situations. Her photographs give a profound meaning to the word HOPE.