Culture Shock, Poverty Plague Hmong in Michigan

Francis X. Donnelly, Detroit News, Apr. 12

In moving from southeast Asia to southeast Michigan the past few years, the Hmong stepped from the 17th century into the 21st.

Some of these immigrants, unable to speak English or read their own language, struggle with the simplest parts of modern life—flicking a light switch, turning a faucet.

“It’s very hard to adjust to a new community,” said Nhia Yang, 45, a Hmong who lives in Sterling Heights. “Many don’t have hope anymore.”

The Hmong, concentrated in Detroit, Pontiac and Warren, are one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in Michigan. Officially, their numbers more than doubled during the 1990s, from 2,300 to 5,400, although group leaders say the population is undercounted and closer to 15,000.

They have turned to schools and social service agencies for help, forcing the financially strained institutions to expand services. Nearly a third of the group lives in poverty.

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In Macomb County, the Hmong is the biggest group enrolled in its English-as-Second-Language courses. The community’s population in Warren exploded during the 1990s, from 16 to 733. Many came from northeast Detroit, seeking better homes.

It’s quite a change for a city that, a decade ago, was 98 percent white, said Ronald Moore, superintendent of the Warren Woods Public Schools in Warren.

“One of our strategic plans is to work on diversity,” he said. “It’s changing and will keep changing. It’s something we’ll have to deal with.”

Not all the bilingual notes being sent home from Richard Elementary are being read. That’s because language remains a tough stumbling block for the Hmong.

They didn’t have a written language until the 1950s so it’s difficult for many of them to read English or their native language.

A third of the community in Michigan has trouble speaking English, according to the census and school data shows most students are reading under their grade level.

Because of the language barriers, the schools struggle to get parents involved in their children’s education.

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These strangers in a strange land have sought help from social service agencies, which are already overwhelmed from federal and state cutbacks.

The agencies have hired interpreters to deal with the Hmong, many of whom don’t know their age because there’s no documentation of their birth.

A single Hmong family represents a sizable expense to a social service agency. The women have one of the highest birth rates in the world, 9.5 children.

Frank Taylor, director of community services for Macomb County, said the agency is training workers to deal with the language and cultural barriers.

“We still have some more work to do,” he said. “We’re cognizant that we can’t do business the way we’ve done in the past.”

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