Sunisa Lee’s Olympic gold opens window on overlooked legal immigrants: The Hmongs

by WorldTribune Staff, August 1, 2021

Sunisa Lee is the first Hmong American to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. On Thursday, the 18-year-old from Minnesota won the gold medal in the gymnastics all-around competition.

Sunisa Lee

Lee’s parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were among thousands of Hmong refugees who fled Vietnam to Thailand and then the U.S.

The CIA recruited Hmong fighters to keep the communist North Vietnamese out of Laos, but Laos fell in 1975.

Originally inhabitants of central China, the Hmongs have always been on the move, migrating to Vietnam and Laos in the 19th century and filtering down to Thailand.

The Hmong in America have long struggled for acceptance and many live in poverty. Hmong actors played the roles of the neighbors of Clint Eastwood’s character in the 2008 film he directed, Gran Torino.

Lee said the community has been a source of strength for her.

“The Hmong community are the most supportive people ever and I just feel like many don’t reach their goals,” Lee said after winning the gold.

“But I want people to know that you never know what’s going to happen in the end. So don’t give up on your dreams.”

In 2019, Lee’s father became paralyzed from the chest down after falling off a ladder.

Before she took the podium for the medal ceremony, Lee had some “face time” with her father and family: “We were all just crying on the phone,” she said. “It was a very, very surreal moment. I am super proud of them. My parents are just the most amazing people in my life. I love them so much.”

Lee’s father told The Associated Press: “I can’t find the words to express how happy we are, how important that was to me and my family and to the whole Hmong community throughout the world.”

WorldTribune editor Robert Morton visited a refugee camp near the Mekong River in Thailand in early January 1979 while a Tokyo-based correspondent. He recalls that one clearly-designated quadrant of the camp was reserved for Hmong people. It was distinctive for being clean and well-organized. He even witnessed a court proceeding in the camp.

In an interview, Hmong leaders  were straightforward in their comments and pro-U.S. alignment. As one 26-year-old man said: “We Hmong people don’t trust communists. …We found that we could not adapt to the Pathet Lao system. And we will never accept any help from the Chinese. If we cooperate with them, they will later try to control us, and we will become like Cambodia. The Hmong people can never adapt to the ideas of Marx and Lenin.”


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