Universalists present forum, exhibit on Hmong


On May 21, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Diego hosted a reception and social forum on the Hmong.

On hand was Bob Montgomery, director of the San Diego branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the leading international refugee resettlement agencies active in resettling refugees in San Diego since 1975.The forum focused on displacement of minority people in the world, including the Hmong in Laos and refugees in America today, and some of the themes represented in May and June art exhibit in the UUFSD Fellowship Hall.

The exhibit centers on the themes of art and beauty, survival and resurgence, memory and social justice. These themes are shown in story cloths made by the Lao Hmong tribal minority and by photographs and descriptions of Hmong life in Laos, Thailand and in the US taken from 1968 to the present.

Women and girls made the story cloths while they sat in holding camps in Thailand awaiting life as a refugee in the U.S. or elsewhere, or the chance to return home after the “Secret War” in Laos in the 1960s and 70s. (An estimated 200,000 Hmong lived in the U.S. in 2000.) Using their excellent appliqué and embroidery skills, the Hmong made what for them was a new form of art (pan dau in Hmong).

The motifs in the story cloth collection are numerous. They include “idyllic” Hmong life in the mountains of Laos, the coming of the American CIA to arm some of the Hmong against the Lao revolutionaries and their Vietnamese supporters, and flight of those Hmong on the losing side across the Mekong into Thai refugee camps. One cloth even has a scene in which the artist shows her vision of a new life as a refugee in America, including living in a large apartment building, having two TVs and a family dog! How did she conceive this sitting in a refugee camp?

The exhibit’s sponsors, Roger and Nancy Harmon, have long known the Hmong. Roger for 45 years, beginning in 1967 when he ran an English language program in Laos. This was during the years of the “Secret War,” a proxy war fueled by America and other great powers at huge, and continuing cost (unexploded bombs and mines continue to kill).

Later, Roger worked with refugees in the U.S. and in the camps in Southeast Asia where the collection on display was made. Since 2004 Nancy and Roger have become friends with Hmong families who were displaced to the margins of the city of Luang Prabang, Laos.

These families continue the tradition of making and selling story cloths and other textiles in the night craft market.