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A reunion of people who went outside the comfort zone

Vangs and Bergs meet again after 29 years

You step up. You help. You expect nothing in return. It’s the Christian ideal.
And it’s what Meredith and Leslie Berg did in 1979 when Augustana Lutheran
Church in West Saint Paul asked members to sponsor Southeast Asian
refugees.
The Bergs boldly waded in. Augustana’s first refugee family had been
Vietnamese; the father was a professional man who spoke English. How hard
could this be?
Yet God’s ways are as mysterious as ever. The Bergs’ refugee family turned
out to be Hmong. No English. None.
When the Vangs and Bergs first met at Twin Cities International airport in late
September 1979, Meredith was holding up a photo. What good is a printed
name to someone who doesn’t read or speak English? “I see my picture first,”
recalls Houa Vang, now age 52. “That made me feel better.”
He was in his early 20s, his wife younger and eight months pregnant. Their
toddler scrambled beside them. Vang was thinking only about his family. “I’m
here,” he thought. “Are they going to be safe?”
Says Meredith, “We had nothing to go by. We didn’t know what to do, [how to]
get them from the airport.”
How did they communicate? “We didn’t,” says Meredith. A touch on the arm
or shoulder, a smile — that was the best they could do when a translator
wasn’t present. “Their lives were in our hands,” says Meredith, “and they
knew that.”
As the newcomers approached an airport escalator, everything stopped. The
Bergs still suspect some kind of cultural phobia, but Houa Vang now
describes a tired, pregnant wife who was afraid of falling on the strange
device. The Vangs took the stairs into their new life.
The Bergs faithfully assisted. They showed the Vangs how to take a bus,
helped them bring their son to the doctor for shots and a checkup, and then
took the toddler back to the doctor after the boy pulled a pan of boiling
water off the stove and burned his stomach and arm.
It’s a very long way from a Thai refugee camp to the United States. Lee Pao
Xiong remembers the bizarre stories circulating in the Ban Vanai camp where
he lived for a year before leaving in late 1976: “America is full of giants and
giants eat people,” recalls Xiong, director of the center for Hmong Studies at
Concordia University in St. Paul.
“Many of the Hmong people decided it is not safe to go to America,” adds
Xiong. “We had no idea what America is — or where it is.”
By 1979, however, Vang had more information about the United States. He
paraphrases promising letters from those who had gone ahead: “You don’t
know what’s going to happen over here either,” they wrote, “but you have
hope. You’re better coming. Be free. You don’t have to stay in a camp.”
For any refugee, transition is hard. For the Vangs, it meant learning English
and a sequence of factory jobs. Houa now works at Pioneer Packaging and
Printing Inc. in Anoka and Lia Pha at a medical-assembly plant. The rewards
included a total of eight children and now seven grandchildren.
Daughter Amme Vang, born in the United States in 1987, says her family has
lived what she calls “half the Hmong life, half the American life. Mom and
Dad always worked so hard. Family comes first. We take everything so
seriously,” says Amme.
She doesn’t hide her admiration for her parents. “They had the courage then
to bring the family over,” says Amme — to a place “that they didn’t know
about.”
Amme, who now works as a passenger service assistant at Twin Cities
International Airport, had heard about the sponsors — that her mother and
father had lost track of them.
She was glad for the opportunity to meet them at a recent reunion hosted at
Concordia University, St. Paul. “I just wanted to be there for once and just say
‘thank you.’ That meant a lot to me and my family,” says Amme.
Losing contact is probably the norm. Concordia University’s Xiong thinks
reunions between arrivals and sponsors are rare. “Some families were not able
to track down their original sponsors,” he says.
The Bergs — she a retired teacher and he a retired 3M chemist — are
longtime friends of Concordia University in St. Paul. They saw a Concordia St.
Paul Magazine note that the university’s Center for Hmong Studies was
collecting archives.
The Bergs sent Xiong photos of the Vangs, noting that they had long been out
of touch. Xiong made some e-mail inquiries with the photos.
One response was promising: “That’s my uncle,” it said. And Xiong took over
from there, setting up the reunion.
The June 27 event turned out to be surprising for the Bergs, who
remembered only a young couple with one child and another on the way. The
Vangs now have eight, all young adults, some married, some still living with
their parents, and seven grandchildren.
Why was the reunion important? “I’m not sure I can put that into words,” says
Meredith. “It verified for us that we had done something to help someone
else.”
Bergs and Vangs have something in common, of course. Meredith’s father
arrived from Norway, the oldest child of five. In the 1920s he came to the
United States to find work in the heat of a Kansas farm.
Why is it important to reconnect after decades apart? Xiong thinks that
“families want to tell their stories to sponsors.”
Lots of photos went around during the two-and-a-half-hour reunion —
including shots of grown children with children of their own. Now they all
have English in common as well, of course, but spoken language isn’t always
the most important message. Houa’s wife Lia Pha has always been quiet in
public — but at the reunion Meredith learned how Lia Pha feels. Says
Meredith: “She did not let go of my hand the whole evening.”
What is Meredith’s scriptural guidance on this one? Faith without works is
dead. “God works in miraculous ways,” Meredith says. “We can make a
difference in somebody else’s life if we just step out of our own comfort
zone.”
Marc Hequet is a veteran journalist who writes about religion, history,
archaeology, and other issues.