I’m a Refugee. Here’s Why I Started Hating the Volunteers That Helped Us.
Q&A with Chong Bee Vang on resettlement, empowerment, and why all ministry has to start with relationship.
Interview by Laura Finch
Chong Bee Vang is a former refugee from the jungles of Laos. He belongs to a small ethnic minority group called Hmong, and came to the United States as a refugee due to the Hmongs alliance to the United States during the Vietnam War.
Chong has served the refugee community with various non-profit organizations, in various roles—everything from immigration legal representation and social services support. This included 15 years as the Executive Director for an ethnic community-based organization.
Do you remember the day that you arrived in the U.S.?
I was four years old when I arrived in the United States in August of 1980. I remember our experience of traveling to the US. When we were at the airport in Bangkok, we came across an escalator, which we have never seen before. While we were on the escalator going up, my mom's flip flop got caught and fell backwards. As she went backwards trying to catch it, my brother and I were very scared as we didn’t know if she would ever get back up and we may be separated. My younger brother was screaming, because we were afraid that if mom kept going, she was never gonna make it with us [onto the flight].
I remember, vividly, our first day of school [in Minneapolis] after we arrived. When we went to school, it was the first day of snow as well. Once we arrived at school, next thing I knew, the three of us, my older brother, my younger brother, and myself were sent to the principal's office because we showed up on a snowy day to school in shorts and flip flops. The teachers and principal kind of went crazy. Trying to figure out why the heck these kids were coming to school unprepared.
We didn't know, that's all we had. We thought that was normal. It's part of what we had to learn how to endure. I mean, we live in the jungles of Laos and Thailand where we endure the weather. You know, you don't necessarily have clothes to wear to adjust for the weather. You just endured the cold or the heat whenever it comes. You endure the rain when it's the monsoon season.
But the teacher got with the principal and quickly that afternoon, they got us each a jacket to wear home. That experience in of itself was a rude awakening for a lot of Minneapolis schools. With the sudden influx of refugee kids, teachers, in particular, didn't know what to expect, how to deal with and how best to support them. So I think that was really a learning process for them as well.
So I wonder, first of all, if they're better at it now. Has Minneapolis become kind of a hub for Hmong refugees because of existing families?
Certainly, the social service industry in the city has really grown. And people always ask, Why so many refugees want to move to the Twin City when it's so cold? A lot of the refugees are from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East where the climate they are used to is the desert, or the jungle. So, why would they want to move to Minnesota. With all the snow?
The number one reason is that Minnesota, the Twin City in particular, has one of the best social service programs in the nation. My parents were part of the earliest refugee group that settled in Minnesota. Which brought in a new dynamic for the community on how to support these newly arrived refugees.
So what were some of the other experiences with individuals trying to help you either in the church or outside of the church?
So for the first four to five years, my mom was taught a number of things such as how to sew, but had no way of using the skill at home as she did not have a sewing machine. So she never could do anything meaningful with the skill set that she's learned.
So my parents faced a lot of the challenges. The few support my parents did received was more enabling. They were never really taught to be self sufficient taking care of themselves. They were always dependent on whoever was helping them. From employment to housing and so on.
They would do it for you: for example, ‘Here's a job. I already talked to the manager.’
So she was taught to sew, but nothing else.
Yes, again, I’m not trying to say we're not appreciative and grateful. It's that concept of dependency. They teach you how to do certain things, but they never really teach you how to do that for yourself. They would do it for you: for example, ‘Here's a job. I already talked to the manager.’ But you don't have the relationship, you don't even know how to go looking for a job, where to find one or how to apply for one or to participate in a job interview. You have to always go back to the agency for help if and when you need another job.
So the concepts of empowerment—to me, I felt like it never really came about, particularly for my parents. In the ’90s when the next influx of Hmong refugees and the Somali refugees started coming. That's when the mindset started shifting to say we need to do a better job education refugees to become self-sufficient. Turning from enabling to empowering people to be independent.
The churches felt like they have a mission, which is to lead people to Christ. And they will help you so long as they have that opportunity to do so. And that was fine for my family, because we were already Christians. But there were a lot of families that didn’t want or didn't appreciate it. There were lots of families who just put up with it, because they needed the help. They let their kids go to church, so they would receive the support but really did not care for it.
If I had to go back and talk to these individuals, I would certainly say your approach is incorrect. The best way to share your faith is to live it out. The way that God is saying, we ought to love one another as we love ourself.
My belief is that I need to love them into the kingdom and serve them in the way that God would expect me to serve with love and dignity. When I did that, I got so much more opportunity to share with them about God than I ever wanted. After they’ve been resettle for a while and gotten to know how life is like here in the US. I got so many refugees coming back in two or three years later and they'll say to me, why do you work here? Bingo, I would be like, I'm glad you asked. So I get to share my faith and why I do this work. The most important part of this is, now they are ready to hear and listen. It is not forced.
I was always good enough to be helped, but never good enough to walk alongside them.
One of my biggest disappointments in the refugee resettlement world at that point was, I was always good enough to be helped, but never good enough to walk alongside them. The relationships that I thought were friendships were never really true friendships because I was someone in need of their help. They were there to help me, the savior mentality. I needed to be saved. Never once was I ever good enough for them to say, “can I just be your friend?”
[One former friend]—he was the leader of our youth group in the church that was providing support services for my family. He was always there to support me, to pray for me, to counsel me, and to help me with school challenges. I remember this specific incident when he was struggling with something personal. I don't know what it is, but I can tell he was struggling. One day I said to him, is there something that I can pray for you? And he just said, ‘No, I'm good,’ and walked away. No matter how many times I asked, he would never share anything with me.
Something struck me from that experience. I was only there for him to help not the other way around. That experience turned me away from working with volunteers. I mean, every chance I got from that point on, I told my parents, we don’t need volunteers in our lives. I said to my parents, we don't need people coming to our house as if we need a hand out. We're not good enough for them. They just want to use us for their benefit.
It wasn’t until I worked for World Relief that I got a different perspective and viewpoint on what true volunteers are supposed to be.
So I really frowned upon and hated volunteers. I put up walls against volunteers all the way into my adult life. It wasn’t until I worked for World Relief, that I got a different perspective and viewpoint on what true volunteers are supposed to be. I learned a new concept that we are here to build long lasting relationships and true friendships. Yes, we are meeting some basic needs, but you can still do all that through building relationships. Refugees have so much to teach us as much as they need support to learn how to navigate through our complex system in the US.
My encouragement for anyone who is truly looking to welcome the stranger and love your neighbors, is to understand that it starts with the motivation of the heart. We are called to love and love goes beyond just material things. The most important thing to a refugee, new to another world that does not know anyone, is a friend.
Chong Bee Vang holds a BA in Organizational Leadership and a Master’s in Business Administration from Bethel University in Minnesota. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Advancement for Family Life Radio. He leads the Advancement Department in cultivating Ministry Champions to invest in radio ministry to inspire and equip individuals and families to live an intentional life in Christ.