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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

'Few Know the Blood We Shed,' Say Seattle's Hmong Farmers

Cheu Chang, right, at the Indochinese Farm Project in Woodinville in the mid-80s.
Courtesy of WSU Extension/Sharon Coleman
Cheu Chang, right, at the Indochinese Farm Project in Woodinville in the mid-80s.

If you’ve bought one of those big flower bouquets at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, there’s a good chance a Hmong farmer sold it to you.

Bee Cha’s family has a flower stand at this bustling market. He points down the long row packed with tulips, dahlias and peonies. 

“From here on, they’re all Hmong farmers,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody.”

Cha, 40, is a coordinator with Washington State University’s Small Farms program. He has worked with a lot of Hmong farmers on business and marketing skills. 

But behind the flowers is a tragic story. Hmong farmers fought for the CIA during the Vietnam War, later had to run for their lives and spent years in Thai refugee camps. They are still trying to find a place to call home. 

Cha’s family came to Seattle in 1989.

“My first memory is cold,” he says. “There was snow everywhere that year.” He also remembers getting carsick in the spiral car ramp at Sea-Tac Airport.

It seems he’s still adjusting to the weather. On this sunny spring day, he’s bundled in a wool sweater and puffy coat.

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When he was a teenager in communist Laos in the 1980s, Cha thought the world was flat. He says most people in his Hmong community thought that, too – they were that isolated. The Hmong are an ethic minority that lives in various parts of Southeast Asia, including the hill areas of Laos.

More than 100,000 Hmong refugees have resettled in the United States following the end of the Vietnam War four decades ago. The 2010 census shows 2,404 Hmong live in Washington state, mostly in King County, but Hmong experts believe the population is significantly undercounted.

The U.S. fast-tracked Hmong resettlement to the U.S. starting in 1975 to assist war refugees.

Cha’s family is one of around 100 Hmong families that farm in the rural valleys east of Seattle, between Carnation and Kent. Most grow flowers on a few acres of land.

They got started in the early '80s. The Hmong refugees were often on public assistance, and officials wanted to find them jobs, so they started a nonprofit to train farmers on county-owned land in Woodinville. It was called the Indochinese Farm Project.

Most Hmong farmed back in Laos, but different crops.

“Mainly rice, corn, sugar cane – and opium,” Cha says with a chuckle.

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Vietnam and Laos share a long border, and the country was pulled into the Vietnam conflict. Communist forces ran a military supply route through Laos, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA recruited more than 30,000 Hmong soldiers to disrupt it as part of a so-called “secret war” in Laos.

Cha’s family was not directly involved in the military action, but he says “everyone got pulled into the fighting.”

When the U.S. withdrew in 1973 and communists gained control of Laos, Cha’s family fled to the jungle to survive. Sometimes, all they had to eat was a starch extracted from the inside of a palm tree.

“You heat it over the fire and the starch will melt, and it will be kind of gooey – kind of like a sponge with a gooey inside.”

It made Cha cry to eat it because the taste was so horrible, but his other option was to starve.

Despite his traumatic childhood, Cha misses his homeland, particularly the cultural connection he felt there.

“I left behind a community, a sense of connections, a sense of belonging. I crave for that. We know in our heart that we don’t belong anywhere,” he said. “But we want to belong somewhere.”

In his job now, Cha does outreach and training with Hmong farmers. It’s a way to strengthen his community. It’s not the same as home, but the work seems to keep him fairly well connected here.

At a split-level home in Burien, Cha introduces me to Say and Cheu Chang. They started farming with the Indochinese Farm Project after arriving in Seattle in 1980.

Cheu Chang remembers those happy early years. She was out in the field, away from the people who taunted her for being Hmong. 

“They always say ‘Chinese, Japanese – we hate you.”

She’s grateful those insults no longer happen.

Over the years, the Changs helped newer Hmong arrivals learn the ropes, including Bee Cha’s mom.

“I say, I teach you,” Cheu Chang recalls. “You come here. You have to learn something. A dollar is a dollar. Five dollar is five dollar. That’s how I teach her.”

She laughs. “That’s how Bee’s mommy come to my farm.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Cheu Chang and her baby son at the Indochinese Farm Project in Woodinville in the mid-1980s.", "fid": "116707", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201504/P1020638.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of WSU Extension/Sharon Coleman "}]]

Like Cha’s family, the Changs also had to escape Laos when it fell to communist control.

“We had to move fast,” Cheu says. “Everything – just leave it behind. We have like 100 or more chickens, a rice field. You have rice, everything. And you just go.”

The Changs were clear targets for communist retaliation.

From 1961 to 1973, Say Chang worked with the CIA in Laos. He was part of a special guerrilla unit; he trained Hmong foot soldiers to fight in the jungle.

“How we use the gun,” Say Chang says as he grips an invisible rifle in his arms. “How we use the bomb, and how we can fight to protect ourselves.”

Say Chang seems eager to tell his war stories. He’s animated, waving his hands as he talks.

“One time, I’ll tell you, I stepped on a bomb,” he says. “But I’m lucky.”

A heavy rock was within his reach. He carefully laid it on his shoe, like a weight.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Say Chang's certificate from the State of Washington for service with the C.I.A.", "fid": "116708", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201504/P1050300.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones"}]]“I take my feet out and jump; then it blows up. That’s one time really difficult for me,” Say Chang says, chuckling.

But his bravado fades and he starts to remember more.

“Sometimes we are angry because we fight,” he says. “I got to kill. We’re hungry, no food. We’re on a hill or in the jungle.”

It is estimated that up to 40,000 Hmong people died in that war.

Say Chang still has nightmares.

When the American troops withdrew, many Hmong felt abandoned.

“The Americans left and nobody helped us,” Say Chang says in Hmong as Cha interprets. “We tried to leave but some made it and some didn’t make it. They were all killed along the way.”

Thousands of Hmong still live in refugee camps in Thailand or are still in hiding in the jungles.

Human rights reports show the Hmong still face persecution in communist Laos, and many who return have disappeared or are reportedly in reeducation camps.

Say Chang says he can never return.

“For old people like me, in my heart, I feel Laos is my country,” Say Chang says through Cha. “But I also know I’m a citizen here and there’s opportunity and things I could do here that I cannot do in Laos.”

A certificate hangs in the hallway of the Chang’s home, signed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire. It expresses gratitude for Say Chang’s “heroism and bravery as a Hmong soldier for the United States Central Intelligence Agency.”  

It’s a small recognition for the Hmong bloodshed in the war, and their struggle to make a new life here.

Year started with KUOW: 2006