Cher Peng Her and a student Cher Peng Her shows a photograph of a Hmong family in a refugee camp Cher Peng Her shows photos of life in a refugee camp Image of a refugee camp Cher Peng Her holds up a large photo of a refugee camp

Location | Themes | Reflections | How We Did It

Cher Peng Her on Refugee Camps

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Imagine: you are Hmong and you just got away from the Pathet (communist) Lao. You travel through the Laotian jungles, your belongings and those of your family on your back. You are often getting shot at by Pathet Lao patrols. You reach the Mekong River and find it heavily guarded. You are able to get across unharmed.

You stay at a Thai Hmong house. Meaning no harm, they give you directions to the Ban Vinai refugee camp. At the gates, you are forced to hand over everything you have hauled through the jungle. They then let you in. They tell you to go find a place to sleep. Maybe you get to a place where you can get under the blankets they gave you. This is what it was like in Ban Vinai's early stages.

Some of the houses are traditional (bamboo, mud, etc.) and some are not traditional (tin roof and wood walls). Most houses are not traditional. Every house has a concrete well.

In 1975 roughly 50,000 people were crammed into the small space of Ban Vinai. Sometimes there wasn't enough food to go around. . . . for one day they give a family a bag of rice and hog 3 bags for themselves. Or a rat bites through a bag and the rice goes on the dirty floor then the Thai officials sweep up all that and put it back in the bag so all of the rice that they get is unhealthy. At Ban Vinai people would normally get a bucket full of water a day.

Many people died of starvation, sometimes dehydration, sickness, and lack of medicine. There were hospitals, but they weren't very clean, and things like needles were often shared.

The school in camp is not like our schools because it has different style. Peng said that first grade means something else. It means someone who needs to know abc, 123. And there are only 5 grades in the refugee camp. So refugee school is very different from our school.

The kids had a better time than the adults because they didn't have to worry about where they would end up living.

Soccer was the dominant activity. Since many had no job at camp, soccer was a great time-killer. The field was so used, no grass grew there.

The soccer games were played like so: two teams come and play, one wins, the team that lost leaves the field, the next challengers come and it starts again. They played from 8 a.m to dusk.
But for kids not old enough to play, it was a drag. You had nothing to do all day, every day, until some kids invented some games like jacks except with a rock and sticks, or jump rope, except with a long chain of rubber bands.

Kids had some other games like kow tow, which is kicking a ball like volleyball, also tublub, which is a game where there is a board and you spin big tops on and try to knock the other person's top off. For the kids it was a lot of fun if you didn't go to school, because you had lots and lots of free time.

Because no one had jobs and the Hmong people had little or no money whatsoever they sometimes snuck out. There was a metal fence with barbed wire on it to prevent this and later a 3-ft. deep ditch to prevent this.

The women didn't have much to do. . . . Later on the women got materials from the JVC . . . to make Paj Ntaub [story cloths] and a new style was created. Instead of just symbols and shapes they sewed people and buildings and scenes of villages and the refugee camps onto the quilts.
–Sarah M.

The camps had a unique form of government. First, there were the refugees (of course). Each family had someone to represent them to the officials (usually the father). Each apartment had a leader. He would go to the section leader to get rations and report "misconduct." Then there's the section leader. He is in charge of all the apartments in his section and also has permission to go directly to the government. Then there's the president of the camp. He's in charge and settles almost everything. But what the Thai govenment says, goes.

Peng was one of the lucky ones because he left the refugee camps early. He got to because his father was a teacher and the Hmong wanted to send the smarter people to America first to see if they would survive because if they didn't, they figured no one else would be able to.

Even today, there are still two refugee camps in Thailand, but one is being shut down. In the 1990s, the refugees couldn't come to America so some refugees went back to Laos.

Quite a few Hmong people we have seen haven't wanted to talk about the camps. Too painful. "There was no freedom" Mr. Her said. That is why so many people wanted to first escape Laos, and then escape Ban Vinai. Remember, Being Hmong means Being Free.
–Sarah M.