Tou, a boy of ten, and his parents were all trembling when I first saw them waiting for the elevator in the lobby of the Chicago Jewish Federation building at One South Franklin. Their plane had just arrived at O’Hare from Thailand, and the Federation dispatched two staff members of the Refugee Services Unit to bring back the family to the One South Franklin office once they cleared customs.
I noticed that at first the family resisted getting on board the elevator. They were Hmong, a clannish ethnic group that lived for centuries in peace with their neighbors, farming on moutainsides in Laos. The culture was viewed as primitive by Western standards, having neither electricity nor other modern amenities. Hmong didn’t even have a written language.
Unfortunately, the Hmong found themselves on the wrong side of history as they allied themselves with the Americans in the war against the Communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Hmong men were superior scouts and provided all types of logistical support to the American troops. Once the Americans departed from those nations, the triumphant Communist armies uprooted the Hmong from their mountainside homes and wreaked a merciless revenge upon them.The lucky ones who escaped found sanctuary in crowded refugee camps in Thailand.
Tou’s two older brothers were savagely killed by the Communists, as well as numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. For nearly three years, Tou lived with his mother and father in a cramped tent, going to bed hungry every night. Suddenly they were uprooted once again, as the refugee agency made plans for them to travel to Chicago where other Hmong families had resettled.
In a span of two days, the family dealt with massive culture shock as they experienced cars and airplanes for the first time. When it came their turn to ride an elevator, Tou and his parents had another modern terror to confront. My office, in the Research Department of the Jewish Vocational Service, was on the eighth floor, the same floor as the Refugee Services Unit. Reluctantly, the Hmong entered the elevator with the refugee workers and me.
Going up in the crowded elevator, the still trembling Tou brushed up against me. Instinctively, I clutched his small, clammy hand, indicating to him with a firm grip that everything was going to be all right. When the elevator’s door finally slid open and we all exited, I walked toward my office in the opposite direction of the Refugee Services Unit. Then I heard Tou shouting something confidently in his native language from the far end of the corridor. It grabbed my attention and as I turned around to look, Tou waved to me, a smile beaming across his face.