Worlds Apart

Many people frequently talk about promoting change in the world, but rarely do they ever take action. For one young Hmong woman, action was her answer.

As a resident of Tulare and senior at Tulare Union High School, Pang Zao Khang was crowned Miss Hmong California at last year’s Sacramento Hmong New Year when she was sixteen years old.

Pang exudes youthful elegance. She speaks with a maturity beyond her years, is polite and attentive yet sociable. And now, at seventeen years-old, she has an inspiring story to tell.

At such a young age, many people doubted her ability to effectively capitalize on her title as Miss Hmong California, and make a positive change in the Hmong community. She received harsh comments, such as “you’re too young,” “you’ll use up the prize money on yourself,” or “you won’t keep your words.”

Pang says the discouraging comments gave her “more motivation” and propelled her desire to prove them wrong. Instead of talking, she took action on a pressing issue. In the process, she experienced a life changing event that took her across the globe back to where she was born, Thailand.

Visit to “Dej Dawb”

“I have always wanted to make a connection with our people,” Pang says, “and I heard there were people suffering in Dej Dawb (Thailand), they are our Hmong refugees.”

Pang’s desire to reach out to these refugees launched a nearly year-long effort to raise money to go to Dej Dawb, to meet the refugees and deliver much needed items, such as clothing, shoes, and blankets.

With the help of May Ying Ly from the Hmong Women’s Heritage organization in Sacramento, Pang raised money to fund her trip, in addition to ,000 to purchase supplies. “Time flies,” she says, “we planned this trip shortly after I was crowned Miss Hmong California, and a few months after, we planned the fundraising party and arranged everything, then it was already August and time to go to Thailand.”

“Dej Dawb”, also called Huy Nam Khao camp, is located in Phetchabun Province. Over 4,500 Hmong left Laos in 2005 and headed for the camp, many of whom came to escape human rights violations by the Laotian government after decades of hiding in the Lao jungles following the Vietnam War.

That same year, the last Thai refugee camp, Wat Tham Krabok, shut down operation after the State Department accepted over 15,000 refugees to resettle in the United States. Those who did not make the cut to come to America, close to 2,000, also headed for Dej Dawb.

For several months, many of these Hmong were living along the roadsides of Huy Nam Khao, without access to food, shelter or medical care. Many non-governmental and humanitarian organizations were and are still being denied access to assist these Hmong. The Thai government has declared them “illegal immigrants” instead of recognizing them as “refugees”, which prevents them from receiving services and international aide.

Today, the situation has grown dire. The population has risen to 8,000, and poverty continues to plague the camp. The Thai government is contemplating sending all 8,000 back to Laos by the end of 2007, even at the risk of international criticism. Many of the camp’s residents fear they will die or be tortured in Laos if repatriated.

Pang and her group did not provide advance notice to Thai officials to inform of their visit. But they worked so hard, there was no turning back. The trip had to be done, even if they were denied admission into the camp. Luckily, they were allowed to enter because of Pang’s official title as Miss Hmong California. She was accompanied by her mother and May Ying Ly.

“You hear they are suffering, but you don’t know how bad it is until you see it,” says Pang.

“What really got me were the barbed wire fences, they are locked in, they are treated like animals, they are humans too. The soldiers guard them, but they don’t talk to them nicely, they just yell.”

The children also made an impact. She had brought school supplies and candy for them, but it was an emotional encounter for Pang. “I saw some kids without clothes, some with shoes, some without…the kids all came out to see me, they’re kids, many don’t know what’s going on, I got really emotional, so they looked at me like I was crazy.”

Families are assigned to live in small shack houses, often times two to three family per house, “it’s very small, not enough for them to sleep in, when the kids play, they all go outside in groups to play.”

Poor working conditions add to the stress of poverty. “Some of the refugees come out to work,” says Pang, “and when they come out, they form a line, and if they are working and stop, they get yelled at.” The jobs entail laying cement and cutting bamboo to build houses.

Many of the Hmong live in fear of being sent back to Laos. “If they get sent back, they’ll be tortured,” she shares, “so no one wants to go back…they say if that happened, they would rather commit suicide.”

Appreciate What You Have

“They are Hmong and we are Hmong too, I love them a lot, I see them suffer,” says Pang.

Even though Pang stayed at the camp for only two days, she knows the experience will have a long-term impact on her life. It has already begun to deepen her understanding of many things.

“I started to understand why [my parents]push me so much in school, they yell at you because they love you…they suffered a lot to get you where you are at,” she says.

Pang arrived to the US in 1994, from Thailand, when she was four years old. Her family was initially resettled in Modesto but they moved to Tulare shortly after.

Going back to Thailand gave her a glimpse of the life her parents and elders once lived. “My parents came from there, my grandparents came from there, and I came from there too; they told me about all the suffering that was happening there.”

Pang’s memory of Thailand is sparse. But her mother told her that when she, Pang, was little, she was one of those children too, running around with the few clothes she had and no shoes.

“It makes me appreciate what I have in the US, and motivates me to keep up my education,” she shares, “one way our Hmong people can help [the refugees]is through education and knowledge, if you have that education, you know what’s going on in the world, you know how to find a way to help.”

Through education, you can “be somebody so those people, those soldiers and guards know who you are, they’ll listen to you, the government will be more careful if they know you are educated because you know the laws.”

The difference in environment helped Pang realize not to take things for granted. For example, “over there, it’s so hard to find a trash can…yet you don’t see trash lying on the floor, here in the US, there are many trash cans…yet people litter all over the streets.” Food portions are smaller, half of what people typically consume in this country.

“They live with many hardships, and [those of us]who have been raised here, we are here because our parents suffered through those hardships once,” Pang shares.

Inspire a New Generation

Since August, Pang has shared her experienced with others. She has been featured on several Hmong radio shows across the country, and has committed herself to continuing to educate others and create awareness around this issue.

For the future, she sees herself moving forward with her education to study Political Science, and work with the community. “I am going to continue to college and get a degree and help out our people as much as I can.”

Winning the pageant at a young age has encompassed one aspect of her life. But using her title to advance a community effort to promote change across the world has launched this young Hmong woman to a new platform. She has always felt a connection to the Hmong culture and community, but by winning Miss Hmong California and going to Thailand, she learned, saw, and experienced many new things, all of which have strengthened her outlook on life.

Growing up, she was inspired by previous pageant winners. “I thought one day, I wanted to do that too, they set an example for younger girls to look up to, and they set an example for me.” And now, just by her actions, Pang has set an example for others to follow.

Perhaps an ongoing tradition will develop from her work, that whoever receives the next crown as Miss Hmong California will also act in a similar capacity as Pang, and continue this “humanitarian tour” around the world.

“I encourage young ladies, whether or not they participate in the pageant, to…do something and give back to their community,” Pang says, “if you win or not, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.”

For all Hmong youth, “take advantage and appreciate what you have in the US.” Going to Thailand, Pang saw what many children lack and want desperately, an opportunity to go to school and be educated.

“Stay in school,” she says, “your education is important to help you and your family, your whole Hmong community, and everyone else…appreciate what you have, love your elders, respect them…they suffered so you could one day have a good life.”

No one knows for sure what will happen next to these 8,000 residents of Dej Dawb, but Hmong in America should keep watch on the issue, stay informed.

Even though people told Pang she would never make it to Dej Dawb, she charged forward and proved them wrong. She went to Thailand to help these Hmong, to do the little she could to change their situation. But in the end, they helped her, and changed her life for the better.

It goes to show, anyone has the power to make a difference, no matter if you live in the land of opportunity, or behind the barbed wire fence of a makeshift refugee camp.