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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended September 17, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 12Sep00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

LDS Hmong Woman's Activism Lifts Her Community

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA -- An LDS woman in Sacramento is making a difference in her hmong community, helping women and their families make the transition from the traditional hmong culture to a hybrid more acceptable in the US. May Ying Ly was featured in a lengthy and interesting article in the Sacramento Bee outlining the difficulties hmong women face. The organization Ly founded, the Hmong Women's Heritage Association, was recently given a $400,000 grant from The California Endowment to help troubled families and help traditional hmong men bridge the generation gap with their mostly American grandchildren.

Like most hmong in the US, Ly immigrated with her family following the end of the Vietnam war. Her father spoke English, giving the family an advantage and allowing him to find work in Hawaii, Orange county, California and Merced working as a social worker or as an interpreter.

When Ly was 16, however, her father died in an automobile accident. But since then her father's reputation (he was one of the first Hmong school teachers in Laos) has continued to be an asset to Ly and her family, especially as Ly has worked with the traditional hmong elders.

While still in high school, Ly met Pheng Ly, a community college student who was engaged to marry a friend. When the engagement fell apart, Ly comforted Pheng, and eventually married him in her sophomore year at California State University-Sacramento.

Soon, Ly became a supervisor at the county welfare office, where she came into contact with dozens of hmong families struggling to get off welfare. These work experiences led her to found the Hmong Women's Heritage Association.

The Sacramento Bee article explores Ly's work in the association by showing an example of the troubles hmong families face in the US. Ly's life seems typically American in comparison with that of her sister-in-law, Nue, who's story is the basis of much of the article. Also refugees from Laos, Nue's family came to the US when she was 6, eventually moving to Orem, Utah, where her family lived with a stepbrother.

At age 13, one of her stepbrother's soccer buddies, Joua, kidnapped Nue, keeping her in the same room with him for 3 days (he didn't touch her during that time), forcing marriage under traditional hmong cultural rules. Joua was 22 at the time, she was in the 6th grade. While Nue could have challenged the kidnapping-to-marriage, she didn't, seeing it as a way out of her family's poverty. Because of how Joua treated her, she soon fell in love with him.

Initially the marriage worked, and Joua and Nue now have six teenagers. However, until recently, Nue was struggling with her marriage. Joua spent every evening playing pool, leaving Nue to do everything for the children, three of whom are 'AWOL.' "She takes care of everything, the dinner, the homework, the housecleaning, the parent-teacher meetings," Ly says. "Her husband never changed a diaper." Unable to even keep them in school, Nue had reached the end of her patience, and started saving money to leave the marriage.

Ly has now stepped in to help save the marriage, along with her foundation. Meeting with clan leaders, Ly helped force Joua to make changes. Now his only night at the pool hall is Tuesday, if Nue gives permission. He takes the kids to soccer or basketball and helps them with their homework. Worried that his wife might leave him, Joua has tried to follow the example of Ly's husband, Pheng, who cooks and washes dishes.

Ly's group has caused some waves among the hmong community, however. She is seen as a feminist by traditional hmong because she has advocated cultural changes and worked with the hmong women. But her father's reputation helps her continue to work with the community. Sometimes the association gets blamed for fomenting marital strife, but Ly and the members of the association counter that the only way to save Hmong marriages in the US is to break the destructive patterns of the past.

Nor does Ly always seek to save marriages. Recently she got a phone call from a relative whose husband has thrown her clothes out of the house and told her to leave. Ly tells her its time to get out of the marriage. "She got married at 14, and her husband had an affair that lasted five years. When she found out, she was a veggie [i.e., unable to cope] ... The clan leaders lectured (him) for 2 1/2 days that he had shamed the family, yada yada yada, and told him if he left, he would be disowned by the clan." Ly had already spent two nights at their house mediating and trying to slap some sense into the husband. "He said 'It's none of your business.' I said, 'If your wife blows your brains out and her brains out, too, your kids become my kids.' " She even confronted the husband's mistress. "She said, 'I'm not a b---- who sleeps with other people's husbands.' I said, 'Hel-lo ... ' "

The story of Ly's activism involves many other responsibilities. Association support groups teach Hmong women to say "I love you," a culturally rare phrase. She teaches survival skills to other Hmong women and bounces from crisis to crisis, including a pregnant 15-year-old in the hospital with pneumonia and a bladder infection after relatives tried to treat her with traditional methods and chasing her nephews, Nue's sons, who don't show up for school.

Ly credits her husband, Pheng, with a lot of support, and he says he loves' his wife's activism. "I tell her, 'You do it, then I'll back you up.' " He says both he and his wife have changed since they married. Ly says, "He said, 'I thought I was marrying somebody who was just going to be my wife and cook for me and my children -- instead, you are everything!' Having the respect of my husband is fuel for what I do." And Ly adds that she gets strength from the Church and from playing LDS hymns. "I just play for myself when I feel really down."

Source: Hmong women building bridges Sacramento CA Bee 11Sep00 P2 By Stephen Magagnini: Bee Staff Writer

Sacramento CA Bee 11Sep00 P2
By Stephen Magagnini: Bee Staff Writer


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