Fresno Schools, Hmong Refugees Seek Common Ground

By William Snider Special To Education Week — December 05, 1990 18 min read

FRESNO, CALIF.--When the Hmong, fleeing Communist repression in Laos, first began arriving here in significant numbers 10 years ago, officials of the Fresno public schools had little inkling of the challenges they would face.

One of their first clues came when a principal, confronted with the need to discipline a newly arrived Hmong student for fighting, asked a translator to call the student’s home to seek permission from his parents.

Before he even had a chance to hang up, the translator had burst into tears, Darlene Laval, a veteran member of the Fresno school board, recalls.

“The parents had given permission,” she says, “but they added, ‘Please, do not break his legs or blind him.”’

“We realized, ‘My God, we are this far apart in meaning,”’ she says. “From that day on, we started bringing in people who could talk to us and help us understand them.”

The learning, for both local educators and the refugees, has never stopped.

At least 25,000 Hmong have settled in Fresno County in the past decade, making it the largest Hmong community in the United States and the second-largest in the world. Only the Ban Vanai refugee camp in Thailand, which the government there is rumored to be near closing, is larger.

The traumatic events in the refugees’ lives, combined with the tremendous gap between their language and culture and that of the larger society, have forced Fresno school officials to rethink everything from their bilingual-education programs to the content of their curriculum, the training of their teachers, and their relationships with other social-service agencies.

The refugees have come here for many reasons, including the agriculture-based economy of the surrounding San Joaquin Valley, which promised a chance to carry on their farming lifestyle, and the climate, which is as temperate as their homeland’s. The desire to reunite extended families, or clans, has also proved a powerful attraction.

The influx of Southeast Asians has had a tremendous impact on the school district’s demographic makeup. In 1980, only 1.9 percent of the district’s enrollment of 46,000 students were of Asian background, and only 58 students were identified as speaking a Southeast Asian language.

This year, district officials estimate, Asians constitute almost 20 percent of the district’s enrollment, which has grown to almost 65,000 students. Last year’s enrollment included 5,812 Hmong students, 2,506 Lao-speaking students from the lowlands in Laos, 1,342 Khmer-speaking students from Cambodia, and 326 Vietnamese.

Not only must the Southeast Asian students relocating in the United States overcome the language and cultural barriers that face most immigrants, but they must also overcome the traumas associated with their refugee status.

Most of the adults and all but the youngest children remember incidents from the wars that have torn apart their homelands.

The Communist takeovers of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the mid-1970’s prompted a massive flow of refugees that continues, albeit in smaller numbers, to this day. Many, particularly the Hmong, have been forced to flee because they fought against the Communists in armies that were organized, directed, and supported by the United States.

While tens of thousands of Hmong and other Laotians lost their lives in the war, thousands more were killed, arrested, or robbed on their journey by foot to the Mekong River and across it to the relative safety of Thailand.

The refugee camps, supported by meager international funding and tolerated only grudgingly by the Thai people, offered a haven from the Communists, but posed their own threats of violence, poverty, and disease.

The Hmong students here are generally “very silent” about their experiences, says Greta Kamen, director of the Newcomers Program, a public-school project that offers newly arrived immigrants a crash course in English and other skills needed in their new land.

“They don’t want to let anybody know,” she says, “because they are afraid they would embarrass themselves.”

The students manifest their troubled backgrounds by falling asleep in class, unexpected outbursts of anger, and, sometimes, fighting, Ms. Kamen says.

District officials say they have been unable to afford an extensive counseling program for the refugee students or their families, who generally have been reluctant to accept the limited help that has been offered.

To overcome their apprehension about confiding in strangers, the district “may have to hire the shaman, the Buddhist monks, or the elders as paraprofessional counselors,” suggests the Rev. Finian McGinn, a former Spanish bilingual teacher in the district and one of the few Americans who have learned the Hmong language.

The traumas also show up in the artwork of newly arrived refugee students. Newly arrived Southeast Asian students have often astonished their teachers by producing graphic portrayals of violence, killings, and even babies falling out of boats into the waiting jaws of sharks.

Several teachers have coaxed students to write their stories, many of which have been bound into books for the students to share with their families.

“One night some people came with guns to kill us,” wrote Phetsara Sivilay, a 5th grader in 1983 who was 7 years old when she arrived in the United States. “My cousin heard them step on the leaves and screamed. Everyone began to scream. My dad hit the man who was trying to kill my cousin.”

Most of the stories, though, end on an upbeat note. “I was very happy to get on the airplane,” Phetsara’s classmate, Dee Thor, related, ''because we were coming to America to live a new life. Now I live in America and I am very happy.”

Almost every aspect of life in America has proved strange to the Southeast Asian refugees, but the transition has been the most difficult for the Hmong, who typically had had less contact with advanced societies than other Southeast Asians.

The Hmong are one of several distinct ethnic groups living in mountainous northern Laos. Their way of life has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, despite waves of conquests by the French, the Japanese, and, most recently, the Vietnam-backed Pathet Lao.

Most Hmong were farmers in their native land, using “slash and burn’’ agricultural techniques and moving from hillside to hillside as the soil became depleted. For the past few decades, their only cash crop and a major source of contact with outsiders has been opium.

Spiritually, the Hmong culture is based on animistic rituals, and a deep and pervasive belief in the power of good and evil spirits.

Thus, their trip to the United States was essentially “a plane flight from the 14th century to the 21st century,” Ms. Kamen explains.

The cooperation within clans and a nomadic lifestyle did not prepare the Hmong for such fundamental Western concepts as private property or the rule of law, let alone driving a car or cooking on an electric stove.

‘Everybody’s Business’

But because the refugees have such varied backgrounds, not all face the same cultural and educational gaps.

They have widely differing levels of literacy in their native languages; many have spent one or more years in other American communities; and an increasing number have been born here.

“There is such a wide range now of opinions and lifestyles among families,” says Elizabeth Kirton, an anthropologist who moved here to study the acculturation of the refugees and has since become associate director of the Lao Family Community of Fresno Inc., one of the largest community-based organizations serving the refugee community.

Some people also tend to gloss over the differences between the several Southeast Asian groups, notes Barbara Thomas, principal of McLane High School. “That’s like thinking of Europeans as a homogeneous group, without acknowledging the differences between the French, Dutch, and Germans.”

Everyone in the school system who works with the Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees has been forced to adapt his or her thinking and strategies to deal with these unique students.

Working with limited-English-proficient students “has truly become everybody’s business,” says Josie Burris, a specialist in English as a second language and bilingual education who conducts inservice training for the district’s teachers.

The sheer numbers of the students is one reason for the widespread impact they have had, but another is the fact that the district has been unable to establish traditional bilingual-education programs for the refugees.

The district mounted an effort several years ago to tutor prospective Hmong teachers for the CBEST, California’s teacher-licensing exam, but, thus far, none has successfully passed all portions of the test, despite trying as many as seven times.

District officials say the failure rate is primarily a result of the language difficulties, particularly in reading comprehension, of the refugees. But there are also cultural factors.

Ms. Kamen relates a story of one teacher candidate who was stymied by a question on the CBEST that asked why it is beneficial for boys and girls to attend school together.

“She could think of no reasons at all,” Ms. Kamen says.

The district has partially compensated for the lack of credentialed Southeast Asian teachers by hiring almost 50 refugees as primary-language tutors, home-school liaisons, and cultural specialists, who teach classes on native languages, cultures, and beliefs.

And the district has recently hired Bliayao Moua, a Hmong, to fill a newly created post of community liaison, from which he will work to find ways to encourage parents to become more involved in the district.

District Efforts

The district also conducts inservice training for teachers in an attempt to sensitize them to the needs created by the language and cultural differences of the refugees.

Officials here and in other communities that have experienced heavy influxes of Southeast Asian students, especially the Twin Cities of Minnesota, share an extensive collection of literature and research on which to base the training.

Thus, they have learned that common hand gestures, such as the O.K. sign, mean “zero” or “nothing” to the refugees, that crossed fingers do not mean good luck, but is an obscene gesture, and that a pat on the head can be offensive to Buddhist students.

“We try not to put down their culture and language,” Ms. Burris says. “We don’t want to be in the situation we were years ago when students caught speaking Spanish in the halls were reprimanded.”

“The better they feel about their own culture,” she adds, “the easier it is for them to see good in and participate in other cultures.”

More than 150 teachers a year have voluntarily undergone training and examinations to receive a language-development certificate. The district pays their examination fees, and offers free foreign-language courses that are also required for certification.

District trainers also use a technique known as a “sheltered lesson’'--a class taught entirely in Hmong--to show teachers how their students rely on visual aids and cues from body language to grasp concepts being explained in a foreign tongue, Ms. Burris says.

Some teachers use such strategies as conducting bingo games in Hmong or Lao to help sensitize American students to the difficulties their refugee classmates face.

Teachers and district officials also say the language barrier initially prevented them from accurately diagnosing learning disorders, and has forced them to develop new assessment methods that can be conducted with the help of a translator.

Minor adjustments are also sometimes made to the curriculum.

The Southeast Asian students, for example, like their peers across the nation, spent part of last month studying the origins and traditions of Thanksgiving. But while the foods and rituals may have seemed foreign to them, several teachers tailored their lessons to focus on something the students could relate to: the desire of the Pilgrims to come to a new land so they could be free.

“Over all, I think a lot of teachers have made a sincere effort” to understand the Southeast Asian students and learn how to work with their strengths, says Ms. Kirton of the Lao Family Community.

‘They Want To Learn’

The Hmong, more so than most other immigrants, have difficulty mastering English because many are not literate in their native tongue.

Indeed, the Hmong of Laos had no written language until the mid-1950’s, when French missionaries translated spoken Hmong into a written language based on the Roman alphabet.

Hmong legends suggest that their written language was lost during an earlier migration to escape repression in China, including one that tells of having to choose between carrying books or weapons to their new land, according to Father McGinn.

But several teachers said they were deeply impressed with the willingness of the refugees to study and work harder than their American peers in order to compensate for the language barrier. An increasing number of the Southeast Asian students are winning academic competitions and becoming class valedictorians, and many are going on to succeed in higher education.

“They want to come to school; they want to learn,” said Bobbi Hanada, principal of Wolters Elementary, which is 75 percent Southeast Asian. “They are very well behaved and very respectful. I even get calls from substitute teachers who want to work in this school because of the children.”

The willingness of the refugee students to stay in school is demonstrated by the fact that their dropout rate has remained roughly equal to that of their white classmates, and is far less than that of local Hispanics and blacks.

But their achievement levels, as measured by the California Assessment Program, have lagged well behind those of their white peers in all subjects and grade levels tested.

Refugees and educators agree that a major quandary currently facing the Hmong and other Southeast Asian peoples is a threatened dissolution of the extended family ties that have played a vital role in their successes to date.

Family connections are so strong among the Hmong, for example, that most identify themselves with one of only 18 clans.

That fact has its lighter side: Each member of a clan has the same last name, and the number of common first names is also very limited, leading to more than a little confusion in some classrooms.

Josh K. Her, the primary language tutor at the Newcomers Program, says he changed his name from Kou Her because “lots of people have the same name.”

“Sometimes a teacher would call a student, and I would answer,” he adds, “and sometimes they would call me, and students would think she was talking to them.”

The threats to the Southeast Asian family structure come from many quarters, local officials say. Part of it is economic: In both the refugee camps and here, the traditional male heads of household have been robbed of their dignity by having to rely on public assistance, which makes it more difficult for them to maintain the respect of their families.

Much of the damage has been caused by the clash between traditional cultures and the laws, mores, and practices of modern society.

One of the most troubling phenomena faced by the district’s teachers, for instance, has been the use of what California law considers excessive force by the Hmong parents to discipline their children. The teachers are required by law to report suspected child abuse to the authorities.

This problem is further complicated by the fact that many traditional Southeast Asian healing practices also leave bruised or reddened marks on a child’s skin.

“We have learned to be flexible,” Ms. Hanada says. “We know that’s part of their culture, but we have to explain to parents that certain practices are not acceptable here.”

Some Southeast Asian parents “think that the school is in an adversarial relationship with them, because of their habits of disciplining their children,” Father McGinn says.

He and others note the need for the schools and other social-service agencies to take on the task of teaching parenting skills to the refugee families.

“We have taken their power away,” he says, “but we have not put anything in its place.”

An additional factor, Father McGinn notes, is that, because the Hmong traditionally marry at a very young age, they are not used to having post-pubescent children in their homes. “This whole phenomenon of adolescence is something new to them,” he adds.

And the traditional respect of children for their elders has been turned on its head in some cases because the children have more opportunities and are more easily able to learn English.

Some of the students have used this power to manipulate their parents to achieve their own ends, several school officials say.

One recalled the case of a female student who told her parents she was going on a field trip, and even forged a note from school, but used the occasion to elope and get married.

And the parents of one 3rd-grade girl were surprised to learn that school ended at 2 P.M., because, on their daughter’s instructions, they had been picking her up from school at 3 each day.

The most alarming evidence of the declining family authority has come in the form of gang-like activity by Southeast Asian youths.

“Suddenly, this problem came up,” Mr. Moua says. “In 1987, we began to have kids hanging around with gangs and stealing stereos, cars. It seems like we’re losing our children.”

The problem has escalated rapidly, he and others say.

Some refugee students, frustrated by the difficulty of learning English and adapting to life in America, seem to want to revert to the skills that allowed them to survive in the harsh environment of the refugee camps, says Ms. Laval, the school-board member.

“They carried weapons to live,” she says. “It’s scary to think about the skills these people have had to learn and what they’ve seen over there.”

“We had one student who had learned kick-boxing to protect himself, and had challenged three teachers to fight him,” Ms. Thomas, the principal of McLane, says. “We talk about ‘street-wise,’ but he was ‘camp-wise.”’

The tendency of Southeast Asian girls to get married and begin having babies at a very early age, often as young as 13 or 14, has posed its own set of problems for the schools.

Although arranged marriages among Southeast Asian youths are not as common as they once were, many girls are still following the tradition of marrying young, according to Mr. Moua.

And these cultures frown on the use of birth control, so many girls become pregnant and have one or more babies while still in high school.

At McLane High school, for example, which has a 30 percent Southeast Asian enrollment, officials estimated that 75 of the 100 students who gave birth or were pregnant last year were from refugee families.

School officials believe that most are married, although many students are reluctant to confirm their marital status because they recognize that society generally does not approve of their behavior.

Because traditional Southeast Asian marriages are considered final only when a boy and girl start living together, their legal status is also unclear.

“We let them drop out of physical education, and give them parenting classes,” Ms. Thomas says. After their babies are born, she adds, “we put them on independent studies. Some are back in school two weeks later.”

Community Reaction

Most school officials agree that the local community has been tolerant of, if not exactly welcoming to, the influx of Southeast Asian refugees.

But a serious potential rift appeared on the verge of surfacing during a recent school-board study session called to discuss options for relieving the serious overcrowding in some sections of the district.

Even without the influx of refugees from Southeast Asia, the district’s physical capacity would have been strained by the city’s rapid growth.

Currently, some 60 percent of the district’s students attend schools operating on one of a variety of year-round calendars--the largest proportion of any California district.

A proposal to convert more of the district’s schools to a year-round schedule--this time in majority-white, middle-class neighborhoods--sparked dozens of white parents to protest the idea at the board meeting.

A few voiced resentment that so many students were being bused in from the poorer neighborhoods where most of the refugees live.

“It is a potentially divisive issue, but we hope the parents will listen to reason,” says Frank J. Abbott, who has been the district’s superintendent for the past eight months.

A series of unrelated scandals in the district’s administration led voters to recall the three most senior board members by overwhelming margins on Nov. 6, leaving the district with relatively inexperienced hands at the helm to face the issue.

Another new issue facing the community is the fact that some elders are losing their faith in education, after giving it their wholehearted support during their first years here.

Too many young Southeast Asians have completed their educational training only to find no suitable work in the area. Others found that their limited English skills prevented them from embarking on the careers as teachers, doctors, lawyers, or engineers that their education prepared them for, Father McGinn says.

As a result, he says, “some older people are beginning to question whether education is the key to success, as they had been led to believe it was.”

Some Southeast Asian parents are also “afraid that their children are going to lose their culture,” Father McGinn says. “Some parents are very depressed. They are without jobs, without the language, without hope.”

But Mr. Abbott, the district’s superintendent, who was born and raised in Fresno, offers a more optimistic assessment of the future for the refugees.

Noting that Fresno has played host in the past to major waves of Armenians and German Russians, Mr. Abbott believes that the Southeast Asians will follow in their footsteps and soon play important roles in the community.

“I believe the future will show that within 20 years the Southeast Asian population will have a tremendous influence on the culture and leadership of this community,” he says.

“It may even happen faster for them,” he adds, “because they are willing to work so hard.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Fresno Schools, Hmong Refugees Seek Common Ground