Created on Wednesday, 25 March 2009 06:34
By Jennifer Fernandez, Staff Writer
Touger Vang spent little time in his native Laos before his family fled to Thailand.
Vang, whose first name is pronounced two-zher, spent the first half of his childhood in a refugee camp. Like many Hmong, Vang’s family was ousted from Laos because of their involvement with the United States in Vietnam.
The family migrated to the United States in 1982, when Vang was 9 years old. His older brothers were sent ahead, one of many splits the family would endure over the years before almost all would settle in North Carolina.
Now 35, Vang has spent his adult life trying to merge the best of his two worlds. In southeast Guilford County, Vang raises chickens and ducks and grows Asian produce on his 6.5 acre farm — just as his Hmong ancestors did in Laos. And he encourages young Hmong, especially girls who traditionally stayed at home, to pursue an education.
He started the Hmong Students and Alumni Association of UNCG, where he received his business administration and human resources degree and where he now works.
“I’m always trying to be the cultural broker,” said Vang, office manager of undergraduate student services in UNCG’s Bryan School of Business and Economics.
Houa (pronounced ho-ah) Lee, executive director for the United Hmong Association in Hickory, credits Vang with getting her involved in her heritage when she was a UNCG student. He connected her to the job she holds now, Lee said.
“I’m very grateful that I met him,” she said.
When she attended UNCG in 2002, she was one of seven Hmong students there. Today, in large part through Vang’s recruitment efforts, 70 Hmong students attend UNCG; more than 20 others have graduated.
With about 15,000 Hmong, North Carolina has the fourth-largest population of the refugees in the nation, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Most settled in the western part of the state, where Vang often travels to recruit.
Vang has become an ambassador for UNCG, finding ways to reach out to people, not just the Hmong, said Deborah Tollefson, the school’s director of financial aid. She hired Vang in 2001, and he later became one of her financial aid counselors.
Tollefson described Vang as a motivator who connects to both the elders and young in his community.
“He’s really, somehow, single-handedly managed to build a bridge between ... the past and the present and the future within the Hmong people,” she said.
Vang’s efforts to acclimate Hmong to U.S. culture included a 15-month trip to Thailand refugee camps from 2004 to 2005. As part of an International Organization for Migration team he helped prepare thousands who were among the final wave of refugees the United States resettled.
He described the trip as enlightening and frustrating.
Many families would be split up, some left behind altogether. Others left the camp because they didn’t realize the interviews could lead to a new life in America. That frustrated Vang, who said some Americans who took part did a poor job of explaining the situation to the Hmong.
While there, he visited the refugee camp of his youth. Long ago razed, the site became farmland that was given to the families who had guarded the camp.
Back in the United States, he continued his work. He has toured the state as a guest lecturer, sat on a state advisory board on refugees and immigration, and advises UNCG’s Asian Students Association.
Vang says he shares his experiences to help others understand Hmong culture. His people want what everyone else wants: equal access, equal opportunity.
Yet underlying that remains a strong connection to their culture.
Supporting family is important to the Hmong, Vang said.
Traditionally, that meant working the land. In America, Vang tells Hmong families that means getting a good education.
“He’s trying to teach them it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female, you can still give back to your community, to your family,” Lee said.
A framed tapestry on the wall in his office depicts the agricultural aspect of the Hmong people. Men with farming implements and women carrying crop-filled baskets follow a winding path.
He shows students, both to remind them of their history, but also to urge them to reach farther.
“I always tell students, we came from the ground, the earth,” he said. “Shoot for the moon. If you miss, you might land on a star.”