What Suni Lee’s Olympic Gold Means for Her American Hmong Community

The past few years have been particularly difficult for the Hmong community of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The death of George Floyd and the resulting racial tensions in the region, as well as an increase in attacks on Asian Americans alongside the political rhetoric that blamed COVID-19 on people of Asian origin, have deeply affected the community.

Alicia Thoj, director of community engagement at RiverLife Church, which focuses on second and third generation Hmong in St. Paul, said that “a Hmong person will be discriminated against on a daily or weekly basis. It was difficult because there are so many different levels of racism. But she also says that as discrimination against Asian Americans grows, support also grows: “There is a gathering of people who come around us and say, ‘We see you, we hear you, we are with you “.

Thoj believes Lee’s victory will change the narrative for Hmong youth. When people ask him to be Hmong, Thoj says, “My first answer every time is that my parents were part of the war.” But in the future, she hopes her children and other young people will have other answers, “and remember other great moments in history, like Suni going to the Olympics.”

As a Hmong woman, Thoj believes Lee’s victory will inspire and empower young women especially. “A lot of people in the Hmong community like men and boys because they have the last name,” Thoj said. But Lee’s victory told young Hmong women, “You are a girl and you can be whatever you want to be. “

The victory of Sunisa Lee, the daughter of former refugees, the child of an extremely proud Hmong community and a source of inspiration for a new generation of young people, is a new kind of story. After years of rhetoric and anti-refugee policies that decimated the resettlement program that helped bring so many Hmong to the United States, her gold medal could serve as a testament to what former refugees offer to our country. .

But it’s a slippery slope. When we argue that displaced people deserve to come to the United States because of their outstanding contributions, we miss the most fundamental point of why refugee resettlement matters: because everyone deserves to be safe and free.

Instead, Lee’s community response serves as a much needed reminder for many of us in a country too often focused on individualism. Most of the Hmong where Lee grew up has a different mindset. As Vang said, “We’re so motivated as a group: one succeeds, the whole group succeeds.” We need more of that kind of thinking in the United States right now.

And the Hmong community doesn’t just focus on its own success. Representative Lee said that while the Hmong community in Minnesota may be small, “we are able to be united and form coalitions between communities, be they Hmong, African American, East African. , Caucasian, our indigenous communities — we are able to truly form coalitions to help galvanize each other by fighting for issues that are important to us. This is the job the Hmong community here has been able to do.

Community-based support recognizes our interdependence. This means that we see the attacks on the elders of the Hmong community in the Twin Cities as something that concerns us all. This means we stop arguing over our individual rights during a pandemic and do whatever we need to do to prevent others from getting sick and dying. This means that we celebrate when a people who have been displaced for centuries – with a definitive culture and language, customs and traditions, but no national territory or rulers – sees one of their daughters win a medal. historic gold.

At a time of extreme polarization in our country, Sunisa Lee and her community of St. Paul, Minnesota offer us a different, uniquely American narrative that speaks of resilience, connectedness and caring for one another.

As Vang said, “My father, my grandfather and my uncle fought for a dream of what America could be like, and I will be damned if I turn my back on it. I hope for this dream, and I am excited for this dream.

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