E.g., 06/04/2023
E.g., 06/04/2023
Belonging: The Resettlement Experiences of Hmong Refugees in Texas and Germany

Belonging: The Resettlement Experiences of Hmong Refugees in Texas and Germany

Cover FE Hmong2014

Hmong in the United States (Photo: Lester Public Library)

The process of integrating immigrant newcomers, particularly refugees, is complex and involves many possible approaches. Integration, as perceived and driven by national agendas, may not be felt or experienced in the same way by refugees. The concept of belonging offers a way to think about how those who are displaced understand being “in the right place,” “members,” or “fitting in” to new social spaces as well as their interactions with new, diverse groups of people. From this lens we can consider if refugee belonging is more successful in a major city where resettlement agencies and refugees themselves have access to more resources and opportunities or in a village where face-to-face relationships predominate. Is integration more effective in contexts that offer more hands-on assistance or in those that are more laissez faire? A case study of two little-known resettled Hmong populations that originated from the same refugee group 30 years ago offers insight into these questions. The resettled Hmong originally came from the hills of Laos near the Plain of Jars where a clandestine conflict against communist forces took place during the Vietnam War. The Laotian Hmong were shuffled into Thai refugee camps with up to 140,000 other Hmong and Vietnamese and were eventually split and in 1979 resettled to communities with markedly different approaches to welcoming them—Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, in the United States, and Gammertingen, in Germany. This article, drawn from the book Belonging: The Social Dynamics of fitting In as Experienced by Hmong Refugees in Germany and Texas, explores the integration of these particular Laotian Hmong refugee groups, and what it means to belong in the United States and Germany.

The Resettlement Context

For newcomers, there are multiple factors that shape the process of belonging, building social capital, and becoming a member of a local community. Anthropologist Aihwa Ong, in her work with Cambodian refugees, has suggested that belonging is defined in part by unofficial social meanings and criteria conveyed through relationships with institutional structures such as nongovernmental organizations, municipalities, church organizations, and community groups.

How do refugees negotiate the often intersecting and complex global relationships that accompany belonging? And what can we learn about the process of how refugees restructure and reposition themselves—as well as gauge the degree to which they identify with various norms and values prevalent in the community, and formulate ideas about their inclusion and exclusion from the host society?

These questions can be explored by examining the different experiences of Hmong refugees resettled in the West. The Hmong, a minority group from Laos, fled that country after the Vietnam War, fearing reprisals for having supported American anti-communist actions. Approximately 120,000 Hmong were resettled in the West over a number of years beginning in 1978, primarily in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, French Guyana, and Germany.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, the United States’ fourth-largest metropolitan area, in 1979 became home to an estimated 1,000 Hmong in 200 families. This number was decided relative to the size of Dallas-Fort Worth and as part of the government’s initial scatter-placement strategy for refugees. Ethnic distribution quickly changed, however, as Hmong around the United States moved to live closer to their clan elders, causing a significant swell of numbers in California, Wisconsin, and the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The relatively small numbers in Texas benefited from a strong economy where the majority of Hmong found steady jobs and became economically self-sufficient with little government social supportIn Germany, the government did not take part in any mass resettlement of the Hmong, deciding to admit only a few of the thousands awaiting resettlement, all of whom pleaded to be sent to the same town. In 1979, 150 Hmong who “didn’t even know what a Germany was” found themselves stepping off a bus to join the 6,300 Germans living in the small southwestern village of Gammertingen.

Different Approaches to Welcoming

The resettlement process in both Dallas-Fort Worth and Gammertingen relied on a system of private sponsors to welcome and guide the Hmong newcomers. In Texas, the sponsor could be an individual, group, or church congregation, whereas in Gammertingen the sponsors were all individuals. It was the sponsor’s responsibility in both locations to introduce the newcomer to the community, provide cultural orientation and informal language learning opportunities, to be a primary resource/contact, and to provide a source of comfort, encouragement, and support.

The different approaches to welcoming grew from there. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a more diffuse approach privileging immediate self-sufficiency led to weaker links between refugees and sponsors, whereas in Gammertingen, a village government emphasis on skills building led to lifelong ties between the newcomers and their host community.

Germany and the United States have long practiced very different approaches to the responsibilities of refugee resettlement and “member-making,” the process by which stakeholders use their relationships with newcomers to enforce social regulations and to impart sociocultural values, shaping refugees into what they consider “good” members of the community. More broadly, immigrant integration policy and programming in the United States is more ad hoc, and left to nongovernmental actors and state and local governments, while in Germany there is a stronger national policy focus and more federal investment in such programming.

While both Dallas-Fort Worth and Gammertingen ran small-scale programs predating formal refugee resettlement programs in the late 1970s, Gammertingen, in response to the arrival of the Hmong, established a collective initiative that involved the whole village, with social services for the newcomers delivered by the local government and paid for by the federal government. The mayor hired a full-time staffer to communicate with the Hmong and oversee the daily business of arranging medical appointments and transportation, coordinating the children’s school registration and adults’ language lessons, and then communicating resettlement “progress” and the needs of the Hmong back to the mayor. A consequence of this approach was to free sponsors for more informal socializing and friendship building with their charges.

In Texas, by contrast, social services for the Hmong were administered by private relief agencies operating as contractors to the federal government, and were aimed at helping the newcomers quickly establish the local values of self-sufficiency and independence that were prized in the large, neoliberal metropolitan area. There was no equivalent government position to help the Hmong navigate the bureaucracy, adding to the sponsors’ responsibilities.

Notwithstanding the different approaches of the host communities, the Hmong in both regions drew on a combination of agency and structure to facilitate their social inclusion and sense of belonging, contributing to their successful integration, as will be discussed later in this article.

Differing Local Roles and Visions of Membership

Anthropologists have long recognized that power in small communities is most often attributed to political positions. Gammertingen’s approach, via its mayoral structure, gave control of localizing federal messages of belonging to the local politician. The mayor and the village government assumed responsibility for the integration process, whereas the approach in Dallas-Fort Worth seemingly bypassed the local government and privileged the individual sponsor. This diffusion of power in Dallas-Fort Worth led to myriad complaints from local governments, which actively lobbied for more local control and recognition as a major partner in the resettlement effort.

Member-making and the social interactions offered during the process of integration are locally shaped, and will have different consequences in different localities. What is really happening to the refugee within these pluralities of experiences therefore is less the making of “good” nationals and more the making of “good” locals. Refugee belonging in the host community is either enabled or transcended via experiences at the local level.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, the Hmong arrived immediately before or during the 1981 national recession and were placed into a region that, although it had better-than-average employment rates, held a particular view of why this was the case: Texans’ self-reliance. The ideology that every “good” citizen displays the classic Texan virtues of hard work and “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” inspired the Hmong sponsors. As such, many sponsors prioritized finding jobs almost immediately for their refugee families. Take, for example, this statement by a volunteer agency worker responsible for recruiting sponsors at the time:

I would do phone interviews with the families so that they would know what to expect. . .We would tell them that their job was aid the refugee in financial and social self-sufficiency. The government is clear in that it states that we get them financially self-sufficient as quickly as possible. That’s the real goal.

Another sponsor, with an air of pride, relayed finding a job for a Hmong man before he had even arrived in the United States. “We let him sleep a little to get over jet lag, but had him working full-time within three days and the family in their own apartment within two weeks!” she recounted.

These attitudes reflect discourses about poverty, work, and what constitutes a “worthy” citizen that began in America in the late 1950s when the connotation of the word “welfare” shifted from its positive association with social insurance to a more negative sense of public assistance. Americans’ general distaste for public assistance has increasingly tied welfare to immorality, unworthiness, and being out of work. The employed taxpayer was welcome in Texas while the welfare-dependent would never be accepted or thought to belong. Making the refugee into a “good” member of the local community meant getting them to work, off of public aid, and acting in the same manner as the locals. One Texas sponsor demonstrated this attitude regarding the Hmong family he and his family had sponsored:

I thought it would only take a month or so to find them a job. When it took longer than that I had to call the agency and tell them I had had enough. I couldn’t take it anymore. I think they were just lazy.

This profound misunderstanding of the refugee category and experience underscores the conditions into which some refugees arrived in Texas. Most Hmong were ill-prepared for immediate work, unaccultured to the United States, and did not speak the language. Many were also suffering psychosocial trauma. These misunderstandings created exasperation in the host community as there was a general lack of public awareness about the newcomers and a failure to adequately prepare sponsors for their relationships with Hmong refugees.

By contrast in Gammertingen, sponsors were not tasked with helping the Hmong find employment. In fact, for the first year no one was. The mayor decided that since special federal funding was given to support the town’s first-year resettlement efforts, the Hmong would be more successful job candidates if they had a full year of language and cultural education. Without language skills, for example, it would have been exceedingly difficult for a refugee to get the craftsman certification required for most workers in Germany.

The mayor informed sponsors and others involved in the resettlement efforts of his decision to hold off on finding employment for the newcomers. When informed of town discontent that the Hmong were unwilling or unable to work, and aware of his community’s values embedded in the regional Schwaben work ethic, the mayor asked the town newspaper to run an article in which he put himself in the position of “the German authorities” and appealed for compassion and respect for self-improvement. He wrote of the Hmong:

We would like to express that they are eager to begin employment; however, this is only permissible when the German authorities have given their consent, which we will not do until they have had sufficient time to learn the language and our customs. We are confident that they will all find jobs and benevolent inclusion in our community.  

Working under his jurisdiction, the sponsors became absolved of employment-related responsibilities and were free to concentrate on the task of “benevolent inclusion.” One Gammertingen sponsor explained how she approached these responsibilities:

We didn’t have a written job description. It was just to do whatever was needed to help them acclimate. . .I showed them the most basic of things: how to cook baby food, or how to prepare milk for the baby, where to buy milk for the children. . .We spent an incredible amount of time just learning each other.

In both Gammertingen and Dallas-Fort Worth, there were efforts to make the Hmong into productive members of the local community—productivity was simply defined in different ways. In Texas, productivity was defined as swift economic self-sufficiency by getting a job; in Gammertingen, it was about gaining the tools (language and skill building) to become economically self-sufficient over a lifetime.

Refugee Perceptions of Membership

How were these conditions of membership received by the Hmong, how did they understand the role of the sponsor in each location, and what effect did it have on their understanding of belonging? In contrast to the stories of the Hmong in Gammertingen, who perceived their sponsor as a “special friend,” the Hmong in Texas saw their relationship to the sponsors as more hierarchical, with approval based on meeting certain expectations such as getting a job and getting to work on time or abiding by local customs.

One example of this pressure: When the Hmong arrived in Texas, the hosts put them in rooms with Western beds, not knowing that Hmong practice for centuries has been to sleep on the floor. The Hmong found the mattresses too soft to sleep on; yet when it was discovered that they had slept on the floor the host appeared insulted and insisted they use the bed. They did not want to hurt the feelings of those providing for them, and so were trapped in an uncomfortable situation. As one Hmong woman recalled:

Our sponsors kept pointing to the bed and telling us we were supposed to sleep on it. I could not, it hurt my back. So we would. . .shut the door and move to the floor. In the morning, we would mess the covers up so that they thought we were using the bed.

In Gammertingen, by contrast, the Hmong were put in a group dormitory rather than in the private homes of hosts and given the liberty to rearrange the furniture as they pleased. The Germans were surprised that the newcomers did not use the beds, but as neither the beds nor the dorm belonged to the sponsors, no one demanded that the Hmong use them. Not living in the homes of the sponsors allowed the Hmong a more horizontal relationship with their German sponsors, whereas living in sponsors’ homes in Texas set up a more vertical one.

Manifestations of the differing natures of the sponsor/Hmong relationship could also be seen in responses to other practices. One Gammertingen Hmong recalls:

In Laos, we raised our own chickens and did everything with them until they were on the table to eat. In the dormitory, they gave us these chickens with the feathers off in shiny wrappers. We understood that they were “ready to cook.” I was making dinner for our group when our sponsor stopped by for a visit. She laughed when she saw the chicken in the boiling water and told me I had to take the shiny wrapper off first. . .She also told us we didn’t need to douse the stove with water to put out the heat. The next meal, the sponsor came by and cooked with us. I taught her how to make Hmong food and she taught me how to use the German ingredients and appliances to prepare it.

This sponsor later recalled that it was difficult for her to comprehend the giant leap the Hmong had taken from their world to Gammertingen. The sponsors were encouraged by the mayor and others in a weekly sponsor support group to handle such incidents with tact, patience, and kindness. This mayoral support trickled down to the Hmong, who perceived the actions of their sponsors as helpful, and the relationship as symbiotic. Information flowed both ways.

This is in contrast to the Texas experiences where the sponsors were left without ongoing support. Their exasperation was sensed by the Hmong, who reported they often felt like they had disappointed those “placed in authority over them.” The Hmong interviewed often spoke of perceiving themselves as intruders in their sponsors’ lives and the sponsor’s help as a condescending judgment. For most of the Dallas-Fort Worth  Hmong, moving out of the sponsor’s house unintentionally resulted in social separation from their American contacts. Most reported that they had not seen nor had any contact with their sponsors after the first few weeks of resettlement back in 1979, asserting that this was not a deliberate separation.

This speaks to the more mobile nature of Americans and the anonymity of city life in comparison to a village where most live sedentary lives and run into the same people on a daily basis. The scale of the village resettlement offers one explanation for why almost all of the Hmong families in Gammertingen kept active ties with their original sponsors, most becoming lifelong friends. After 30 years of resettlement, the German Hmong and their original sponsors were still spending time together. They had each other over for afternoon tea, birthday parties, cookouts, and other major celebrations. The sponsors still played a role in helping the Hmong sort out paperwork, assisted the now second-generation children with their homework, and answered questions about health care and German laws.

It was evident that this form of sponsorship had produced neighbors in the social sense of the word. In the process of belonging, the Gammertingen Hmong saw these relationships as reciprocal friendships and social capital rather than as being made into a certain type of acceptable member of German society. The Hmong understood these friendships as an ongoing survival tool for succeeding in their new environment and an important part of feeling connected.

The long-term effects of these connections were not the same in Texas, where sponsor relationships were set up vertically. As such, the Hmongs’ need for ongoing association with their sponsors diminished, as did their sense of belonging together with the locals. The director of a local Hmong association said that as time went on, a few of the more educated Hmong became mentors and helped their compatriots acclimate to the area in a manner they considered less demeaning. Through their mutual dependence, they were able to find jobs and move out from under their sponsor’s supervision as quickly as possible. With few exceptions the sponsors remained, in the imagination of the Hmong, distant and in the bureaucratic realm.

There were a few notable exceptions, including two Hmong who continued a friendship with their Texas sponsors. In both cases, they said the relationship changed from sponsor to friend via involvement in church. As co-parishioners, the hierarchical relationship changed to a more horizontal one.

What is noteworthy is that the horizontal set of relationships in Gammertingen built reciprocal exchanges between the refugees and the locals over time, and ultimately contributed to a more socially integrated population while the vertical relationships seen in Texas did not. From this we can determine that refugee populations exercise a tremendous amount of agency in how they use different forms of capital as a resource for succeeding in a new environment.

Structure and Agency in Social Inclusion

Best practices in social inclusion and resettlement require looking beyond the social, political, and historical construction of spaces to the agency of the refugees who settled within that space, and their ingenuity to manipulate the resources available to them. When asked to reflect on why the Hmong thought they were able to obtain the level of “successful integration” that they claimed they had, the mayor of Gammertingen replied, “I think it was a combination of placing the right amount of people in the right size town.” Asked the same question, a German Hmong responded, “We are survivors. We wanted to survive here. We did what we had to do to survive. Is that so different than what anybody else does?”

While the mayor thought he was setting the Hmong up for successful integration, the Hmong were simultaneously orchestrating their own forms of social capital and utilizing their traditional forms of kinship and reciprocity to negotiate a space where they could belong, both in terms of Hmong tradition and Gammertingen values. Thus, state integration programs looking for desired outcomes may do well to take into account the refugees’ feelings of fitting in, and what integration might look like for the newcomer. In this way, integration becomes a combination of structure (programming) and agency (refugee ingenuity) that, for the Hmong, ultimately facilitated a space where they could fit in.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hmong drew on a similar framework in developing a sense of belonging. While some Texans have claimed that Hmong economic success is a result of the state forcing them to “sink or swim,” it was equally a matter of the refugees taking advantage of their environment, both economically and in terms of using their own social capital (educated Hmong) to negotiate the values of the receiving society. It was a combination of structure and agency that facilitated their social inclusion and staked their claim to the right to belong.

This research should give pause as we take stock of how refugees are sent messages by member-making institutional structures (such as sponsors, NGOs, municipalities, and politicians) of who belongs and who is an acceptable member of the local community from the moment they arrive in their resettlement location. These messages are often embedded in unofficial social meanings imparted through relationships between newcomers and official member-makers, local public assistance discourse, and the localized ideologies of the resettlement sites. The variances in these discourses in Dallas-Fort Worth and Gammertingen resulted in different outcomes in the types of social interaction offered the Hmong, access to language classes, access to enhanced employment opportunities, and the ability to participate in local decisionmaking. Despite the myriad differences and varying paths traveled as a consequence thereof, both groups of Hmong made equally significant leaps to the middle class in terms of housing neighborhoods, job stability, and benefits offered. This finding should inform the search for best practices in integration programming. Refugees are able to read member-makers’ messages concerning who belongs and who does not, and use the resources available to them in the host community to progress into “acceptable categories.”

A refugee’s agency in the process of reception is often overlooked and lost in top-down approaches aimed at getting them to meet desired outcomes. For this reason, ethnographic analysis of the localized forces shaping integration policy and refugee responses provides a more thorough understanding of why the managed style of integration shown in Gammertingen ultimately realized the same results in terms of perceptions of belonging and community acceptance as the laissez faire approach in Dallas-Fort Worth. The Hmong in this study, like most refugees, needed little incentive to reach those goals. It took the ingenuity and agency of the newcomer to read local messages of integration, then use the myriad structures available in their different locations to orchestrate a space where their own representation was perceived as belonging. Realizing this can help shape policy and practice to enable mutual success.

This article is drawn from Faith Nibbs’ bookBelonging: The Social Dynamics of fitting in as Experienced by Hmong Refugees in Germany and Texas, published by Carolina Academic Press in 2014.


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