Mural at Hmong Garden. (Photo: Liren Chen/Flickr Creative Commons)

I search the concourse for the family,
a family whose people
were swept away by a river red with blood.
Swept when a secret war ended.
Swept from the mountains of Laos,
Swept in one day from the steamy jungle
to Minnesota’s pre-dawn dark.
I am a stiff giant walking toward babies, women,
young kids, two men—one smiling,
but not with his eyes. He tells me his name,
“Leng Vang.”
“Are you Laotian?”
“No, we’re Hmong.”
The family clings together, one mass.
If people move quickly, they will shatter.
They look down, pull sweaters over their bodies,
refuse the coats I offer, and move together.
Driving them to St. Paul,
I point out the window, “Snow.”
“S-No,” they giggle.
“Why are there no leaves on the trees?”
I explain nature’s seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall.
I tell Leng the snow will melt,
the leaves will grow again.
He repeats my story to his family.
His wife and her mother will not tell me
until years later but they know
nature does not kill all the trees. They know
only Agent Orange could destroy
all the leaves in St. Paul.
They know my people are
the people of the secret war.

Kathleen Vellenga found history tedious when young—nothing more than dates of battles. Then, as she lived history, the stories caught her. She convinced her small church to sponsor a refugee family through International Institute of Minnesota, and thus the first Hmong family to come to the Twin Cities through an agency arrived in February 1976.

Photo courtesy of Liren Chen. Browse Liren’s photostream at

Posted in: Poetry
Tagged: 2011, hmong, immigration