The father, Ka Toua Xiong, had been a commander in the Hmong army the CIA had recruited to help fight the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army. His wife, brother and seven children had left their village, traveled across Laos and swum the Mekong River to escape the Pathet Lao, who sided with the communists.
They arrived in Spokane on a cold October day with nothing but the clothes on their back and the promise of help from the Inland Empire Baptist Association, and state and federal government programs. By then, the family numbered 11, with a new baby born in a refugee camp.
They were resilient, hardworking and industrious, despite the language barrier that took time to overcome. The children went to school. Ka Toua worked at Sears. His wife, Pao Mee Yang, like many Hmong women, sold embroidered fabrics at booths at various fairs and gatherings in Riverfront Park.
Later that year, I was in Thailand on an assignment that took me to a camp where tens of thousands of refugees waited.
I talked to the director of the refugee camp at Phanat Nikhom, a few hours out of Bangkok, who said there were more than 100,000 refugees farther inland. His words come back to me now while watching the exodus from Afghanistan:
“You promised to take care of these people.”
The United States only kept part of that promise after the fall of Vietnam and took years to make good on it for thousands. Reneging was partly political, partly economic, partly xenophobic and partly just a nation’s struggles with facing the aftermath of a lost war.
Almost 50 years after Evans and Washington stepped up, America has a new promise to keep to the people who got out and those who are still trying.
To its credit, the state again is prepared to do its part. Both Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Republican leaders of the Legislature have said the state is ready and willing to welcome Afghan refugees.
Some 15 years after chronicling the Xiong family’s resettlement in Spokane, Rayniak and I had a chance to catch up with Ka Toua, Pao Mee and some of their children, who were by then in high school and college.
As has been repeated with each generation of the American melting pot, they had adjusted to many of the differences between the cultures of Laos and America. They missed their homeland, although they didn’t regret their decision to come to America.
But, Ka Toua said, his teenagers do give him headaches, staying up late, tying up the phone and talking back.
“Children here don’t listen to their parents,” he said.
Congratulations, I told him. You are officially an American dad.