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Camp helps immigrant group preserve culture

By Christine Tolfree
Posted: 7/29/2005

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BROCKTON — Half a dozen young Hmong girls wore brightly colored dresses decorated with coins that jingled as they danced, weaving their arms and hands back and forth to the rhythm of the music of their culture. The traditional Hmong dance, part of a cultural celebration on July 21 at a summer camp in Brockton that is run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, was accompanied by a song about the joy of the Hmong people who face many struggles but have no regrets.

The Hmong, whose name means “free people,” are traditionally a nomadic community that moved around China until settling in Laos in the early 1800s. Members supported the United States during the Vietnam War, and the community has faced persecution under the communist government. Ter Yang is a proud veteran who has participated in Veteran’s Day Parades where he wears traditional Hmong clothing, said Sister Anne Marie.

About 17,000 Hmong soldiers and 5,000 civilians were killed during the war, and the government relocated survivors to concentration camps. Around 100,000 were killed during the 1970s, and many people fled to Thailand where they live in refugee camps. Those camps have been closing, and most of the Hmong have relocated to France and the United States, with the largest numbers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Fresno, Calif.; and Milwaukee, Wis.

The Hmong are a people who have often had to move from place to place, facing their fears as they adjust to new transitions, said Ter Yang, leader of the Hmong community in Brockton.

Life in Brockton has been no different. On Aug. 15 last year, St. Margaret Parish—where the community had worshiped after moving to Brockton from Newton in the 1980s—closed.

“We feel at home then have to leave,” said Yang. The Hmong used St. Margaret’s gym and parish center every Saturday night to host a community gathering that included volleyball for the children. The move to Our Lady of Lourdes in Brockton was difficult and the source of some anxiety, but the new parish and its pastor, Father Francis J. Cloherty, have been extremely welcoming to the Hmong, he added.

Throughout the changes, the Hmong have struggled to preserve their culture. Parents in the tight-knit community whose children go to public school worry that future generations will lose their roots. That is why the 3-week summer camp, primarily for Hmong children but open to all, began six years ago.

Children grow quickly and need to learn about the community’s past before they are adults, said Yang. All seven of Yang’s children, including his daughter Dorothy, were born in the United States. Dorothy Yang, once a camper and a camp counselor, became the director of the summer camp last year.

Sisters Anne Marie O’Shea, SCN and Ann Whittaker, SCN started the camp after they arrived in Brockton seven years ago, continuing the 100-year presence of the sisters in the city and continue the mission of helping ethnic groups in the community.

The sisters found that the needs of the Hmong were not being addressed directly by any other organization, and offered their help. Ter Yang invited them to their New Year’s celebration, and they were “overwhelmed” by the welcoming they received, said Sister Anne Marie.

“Ter said, ‘We have prayed and prayed for someone to come and help us,’ and we said, ‘We have prayed and prayed for God to let us know where we should be,’” she said. “We met each other.”

The sisters began speaking to the community about how they could assist them, and found that mothers repeatedly asked the sisters to help their children preserve a sense of Hmong culture within the culture of the United States, said Sister Ann.

So the sisters opened their Catherine Spaulding House to the Hmong children for a summer camp. Children learn arts and crafts and have organized and free play. Lessons in the arts and Hmong language take place in a renovated barn while the Hmong women can plant and raise vegetables in the two large gardens on the property.

Catholicism is a new addition to their culture, as the first Hmong was baptized around 1950 after the community came into contact with the French Oblates in Laos. The Oblates even created a written form of the Hmong language to enable the new convert to read the Bible.

The traditional beliefs of the Hmong lent themselves to acceptance of Catholicism, Sister Anne Marie said. The people were open to accepting the message of Jesus because they already had strong values of loving and caring for one another, she added. The Hmong culture also places great importance in angels and spirits.

During a presentation at the cultural celebration on July 21, Dorothy Yang explained that the dresses the girls wore were handmade and only worn on special occasions. Each different hat represented a different Hmong clan, and only 18 last names exist in the entire community. Although they all speak the same language, there are different dialects, identified by the names of colors such as white and green. Yang, who speaks “white,” explained that the words “water,” “dog” and “pinch” all sound alike in green.

On display at the celebration were different items used for cooking rice, grinding corn for pig feed, and carrying young children in while working in the fields.

Shoua Thao, a young girl who arrived in the United States only days before, described her first impressions of the country in Hmong while Yang translated. Thao came from a refugee camp in Thailand and said there she would often stay home making intricately stitched quilts called pa’ndaus. Only boys from wealthy families have the opportunity for formal studies in Thailand, but in America Thao looks forward to the chance to go to school. Her favorite new amenity is heating and air conditioning, she added.

Sister Anne Marie said she has learned more from the Hmong than just about their culture. She said she has been struck by their joy through struggle and humbled by their gratitude.

“They’re so grateful for what they have in this country. It really humbles me because sometimes we don’t notice all the gifts that we have,” she said. “After all of the persecution they’ve been through, they have somehow been able to come forth as a very gentle, loving, forgiving people, and that really teaches me a whole lot.”