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An Iu Mien Story Pt.1 – #FreeSaelee, The Secret War, and Resettlement

Naichann and Kao’s family in the Chiang Kham Refugee Camp (Thailand), early 1980s – courtesy of Naichann Saechao

“I would never think that we would have that many supporters,” Naichann Saechao says, referring to the nearly 200,000 signatures collected online to free her nephew Kao from ICE detention. 

In fall 2020, the internet was shaken up by the Guardian’s story about an Iu Mien American refugee named Kao Saelee from California. Despite Kao’s service fighting historic wildfires just before finishing his 22 year prison sentence, he was handed over to ICE for deportation to his birth country of Laos. Instead of reuniting with his family who had come to take him home, Kao was taken to an ICE detention facility across the country in Louisiana. Despite calls for a pardon by California Governor Gavin Newsom, Kao is still in ICE detention today.

With the massive reaction to Kao Saelee’s story, more people are talking about the plight of young refugees finding their way in America. However, the visibility of these refugee experiences, especially for communities like Iu Mien Americans, remains low.

According to Iu Mien Community Services –
Iu Mien are a vibrant ethnic group rooted in the mountainous regions of Southern China to Laos. Storytelling, basketry, complex embroidery and jewelry-making are a few examples of our rich cultural traditions.

Many Iu Mien escaped violent displacement in their homeland and came to Northern Laos over the past three centuries. Many Iu Mien then faced further displacement in Laos and would have to escape the country in the aftermath of The Secret War, which was part of the 30 years of conflict in Southeast Asia that ripped apart Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos through the 70s. 

Naichann Saechao has her own story of escape and resettlement that shines a light onto Kao’s experiences, and onto her own unique experience as an Iu Mien refugee. Currently a library media specialist for a San Jose school district, this mother of four is eager to share her family’s past to uplift the activism for her nephew’s future. 

Arriving in America 

“We were raised moving around. When we first came, we stayed in Lodi, California, then we moved to Fresno.” Naichann then alludes to her family’s original home in the Luang Namtha province of Laos. “I think the reason that Iu Miens wanted to stay in the Central Valley is because of the weather. Where we came from was tropical.”

Naichann identifies another reason Iu Mien people settled in the Central Valley. “The only way that we can help ourselves is to stay with the people that came [to the US] earlier than us.”

“When we first came to America none of us knew how to speak any English,” Naichann says. 

But the US was not the first place that her family dealt with language barriers. “Besides speaking Mien, we picked up Thai and Lao. When we were back in Laos, we didn’t even know how to speak the Lao language. All we spoke was the Iu Mien language. Then we came to America, and English was completely different.”

Sticking together, Naichann says, was how Iu Mien refugees were able to help each other navigate a new country that spoke a new language.

Leaving Laos

Language barriers were not the only challenge Naichann’s family faced after leaving Laos. 

“I left Laos when I was 12, and then I stayed in Thailand for 4 years in a refugee camp, and then we came to America in 1986. Actually, I came with my other older siblings and my mom, and then Kao Saelee and his family came 6 months after we came here. We didn’t come together, we came separately.” 

Though Naichann says that Iu Mien people relied on staying close to each other, that was not always an option for them during resettlement. 

“It was very difficult, because we didn’t know where we [would be] going. We didn’t know what was ahead of us. The unknown is very hard.” Naichann adds that there was some information via word of mouth, but not much else.

“When we were in the refugee camps, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people. Whatever [the camp] was giving us was very limited. There’s no school, there’s hardly any food. We had some people that knew how to read and write, and they tried to make some money by offering classes. But for me, I didn’t have that opportunity because my mom was a single mother; she was raising seven kids. So, for us, going to school was not an option.”

Naichann says when Kao arrived in the refugee camps at age 6, he didn’t receive any schooling until he arrived in the US at age 8. Public schools would be something new for all of Naichann and Kao’s family, and they were not given much support or preparation.

“We didn’t have anyone who knew how to speak the same language. I was 16, and they just dumped me into high school freshman classes. I was here not knowing how to read and write – I didn’t even know how to write my own name.” 

Entering school after the refugee camps had an emotional impact as well. 

“Kao has a younger cousin, they were in the same class. They didn’t know how to speak or write English, so they would come home crying, not knowing what the teacher said. But they were forced to be there. That was something new for us.”

Young Kao Saelee in the Central Valley of California, mid 1980’s – courtesy of Naichann Saechao

Legal Barriers

The legal system of the US was also something new for the family. It is no surprise that the challenges of refugee life and a lack of educational support impacted Kao’s teenage years, where he would collide with law enforcement. He would eventually be arrested for a robbery. 

“When he was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in prison, we were so new in America. We didn’t know the court system, we didn’t know how the ruling was made. We didn’t know that we could fight. That’s what we had grown up learning where we had come from – whatever the authority gave us, that’s what we learned to accept. We thought maybe it’s the same over here.”

“We feel like the crime that he committed, it shouldn’t be 22 years in prison. Now I have lived here long enough, I started learning, and I see that you actually have a voice. Whether it makes any difference or not, you can at least voice your opinion.”

Naichann says that some of the survival methods that refugee communities are forced to develop make navigating the legal system even harder for her community. 

“I know a lot of people in the Iu Mien community won’t open up to anything; they’re very traditional. They feel like what they know, they cannot share with other people. For example, people think, ‘if I have a good lawyer, I can’t share it with you. Because if I share, you’re going to spread rumors about me to other families.’ So they’re very protective of that.” 

Highlighting her own community spirit though, Naichann says, “For me personally, I would love to learn. It would not only help me, it would help other people.”

The Secret War

While talking about numerous challenges that her family has faced in the US, Naichann’s recalls once asking her brother why they even left Laos. 

“My brother said that during the [Laotian Civil War] and the CIA craziness, my dad was drafted into the CIA.” These CIA operations are known as The Secret War, because the United States hid its actions in Laos’s civil war. On one side of this conflict was the US and the Kingdom of Laos, and on the other side were the USSR, North Vietnam, and the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), which was the name of the Communist movement in Laos. These conflicts that divided and scarred a whole region would threaten to do the same to Naichann’s family.

“And after my dad served [the CIA] for so many years, he got too old… so they discharged him. And then after they discharged my dad, they took in my oldest brother to replace him.” 

Naichann continues to list her family’s many sacrifices in The Secret War. “My brother fought alongside the Americans in the CIA, and then he got badly injured; he almost got killed. So they discharged him and took in Kao’s dad (the next brother).” Naichann lists recruitment after recruitment, highlighting how systematically the CIA recruited Iu Mien families.

“After Kao’s dad did that for so many years, then my other brother was old enough – he was 12 or 13. So we had 4 family members actually serve in the CIA for so many years, until 5 years prior to us escaping from Laos to Thailand.” That year, 1976, complicated her family’s situation even more.

“My oldest brother, the one that got wounded in the fighting, was pulled into the Communist party (the Pathet Lao’s Lao People’s Revolutionary Party). So then I have a brother in the CIA and I have a brother that must join the Communist party.” This is an important distinction that Naichann makes, as the CIA and the Pathet Lao were the mortal enemies of the Secret War. The Pathet Lao had won the war at the end of 1975, and changed the Kingdom of Laos into the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Many supporters of the old government had fled from the country fearing punishment by the new government. 

Luckily for her family’s safety, Naichann’s brothers’ CIA service was never detected by the other side. 

“The [Lao Communist] government did not know he had joined the CIA. Because he was the leader of the village (in Luang Namtha) that we were in, they wanted him to join the Communist party; he had no choice but to join them.” 

She says that her older brother did not want to have to fight their younger brother, who was still fighting on behalf of the CIA. “The only way we can save our whole family is to escape from Laos to Thailand, so that’s what we did.”

Escape

“We actually came in two sections,” Naichann says about her family’s escape from Laos in 1981. “My dad was very, very ill, so the only way he can get help is by being hospitalized. And in Laos, we didn’t have any good hospitals, so we sent him to Thailand.” 

“After he was in Thailand for a few months, he passed away. So we went to the city official and asked for permission to make funeral arrangements for my dad. They only gave us 72 hours to travel from Laos to Thailand and come back.” Only 5 people were given permission to go, so Kao’s immediate family went first. Poor record keeping meant the government did not track whether or not they returned to Laos in those 72 hours. 

“About 6 months later, my brother wrote a letter asking for permission to go [to Thailand] for a [funeral ceremony]. That time they gave us permission for 10 people, so we left with that permission and we never came back.”

Though Naichann’s whole family had finally left Laos, the dangers of their escape were far from finished. “When we got to Chiang Saen, the Thai government… said they were going to send us back. My brother told them that if they sent us back, the whole entire family would get killed.”

Remembering her brother pleading with the Thai authorities, Naichann says, “We can’t go back.” 

Naichann’s family was eventually allowed to stay in Thailand, but the challenges kept coming.. “They put us in jail for 3 months for violating their system. After 3 months in jail, they released us, then they dumped us into a refugee camp.”

Naichann says it was ultimately good that they were in a refugee camp, allowing them to escape the dangerous situation in post-war Laos. “Americans just left all the CIA agents (recruited in Laos) behind, and they were dropping tons and tons of bombs.” Thinking about why the US allowed families like hers were allowed to resettle here, Naichann says, “they probably felt guilty.”

Naichann’s family was eventually sponsored to come to the US by an aunt, who was herself sponsored by a church. She says many Iu Mien refugees who came to the US like her would go on to lead politically quiet lives in California, with a large portion working in agriculture. 

Iu Mien American Visibility

Though Naichann says “Iu Mien people try to stay away from politics,” she is happy to acknowledge a shift happening in how Iu Mien people engage with social justice. Kao’s story has energized Iu Mien-centered activism that takes advantage of both social and news media.  

“My niece Julie, Kao’s little sister, has talked to me about it. We have a lot of young groups that are willing to spread the word and help carry out our traditions.”

Naichann also says the increased visibility of this activism will help other people understand Iu Mien communities better. This includes knowing important details of Iu Mien history, and how her people have maintained their cultural identity despite the many challenges of their migration history.

This need for visibility is important for many Asian American advocacy efforts. Visibility is especially challenging, though, for Asian American groups like the Iu Mien that do not have a nation-state to reference.  “Even though I was born in Laos and raised in Laos, I think a lot of Iu Miens don’t consider themselves Laotian.” 

“A lot of times when I go out, people ask me, ‘What nationality are you?’ I say I’m Iu Mien. They say, ‘What is it?’ So, I have to tell a long story.” Naichann says this, before quoting her standard 2-to-3 sentences that explain the migration story of her Iu Mien community. 

“From time to to time, I get so tired, I just say ‘I’m Chinese,’ you know?” Naichann’s words highlight the particular pain of erasure and invisibility that underrepresented refugee communities know too well. 

“The more we have [Iu Mien culture] out there, the more people will be aware of who we are and where we came from.” 

The Work Continues 

Though the Iu Mien American community is still working toward more visibility, Naichann has hope. She references the Iu Mien advocates who worked with numerous other groups to pass California Assembly Bill 1393, which would add “Laotian history and cultural studies” to California’s public schools. “Laotian” in this bill included Iu Mien, in addition to Lao, Khmu, Phutai, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, and Tai Deng peoples. Though AB 1393 would not be signed by California’s Governor, activists did successfully work with Assemblymember Shirley Weber and had the bill passed in the California State Legislature. 

“I think the younger generation will probably try to be more involved,” Naichann says, now referencing the Iu Mien activist groups working to help people facing deportation like her nephew Kao. These groups, including Advocates for Iu Mien, have organized numerous events to maintain the momentum driven by Kao’s story. 

“We have hundreds and thousands of people supporting our family,” Naichann says. “We are very grateful that we have so many people supporting us. ”

What you can do:

Support the Campaign to #FreeSaelee by signing this petition.

This campaign is led by Advocates for Iu Mien (AIM California), Iu Mien Community Services (IMCS), The Asian Law Caucus (AAAJ-ALC), and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC). #StopICEtransfers

These groups also work on many other anti-deportation efforts that you can support.

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