May 17, 2013

Hmong House is “Good News” for Elderly Refugees

Hmong elders
Hmong elders and volunteers. Photo: Rev. Tsuker Yang

For Yer Thao, an elderly Hmong refugee living in Milwaukee, Wis., loneliness used to be all that she had to look forward to every day – until she started going to Hmong House of Good News.

This innovative United Methodist ministry offers community and hope to Hmong seniors, some of whom live alone, others in families where everyone else works or goes to school, leaving them stuck alone in the house all day. 

The ministry has rescued some from depression so deep that they had considered suicide.  Celebrating its fifth anniversary this month, this day program provides culturally appropriate activities, opportunity for socializing and nutritious meals.

Hmong dancers
Hmong dancers from Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA) in Milwaukee at Hmong House of Good News 5th anniversary celebration. Photo: Tabatha Yang

“It is a joy to come to Hmong House and be with friends,” Yer Thao testifies.  “At home I have no one to talk to, when I am inside the house or when I walk outside the house.  The fellowship I have at Hmong House helps me to forget many things and makes my day shorter.  Sometimes I can’t wait to go away from home to Hmong House of Good News.”

Hmong House is among United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR, Refugee Ministries grantees for 2012-13.  It also enjoys support from United Methodist congregations across Wisconsin, who recognize this opportunity to reach out to refugees living in their own state.

A significant annual fundraiser is sale of Hmong egg rolls – see how they are made at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPGJiEVUfvQ .  A new website at www.HmongHouse.org is vital to reaching Hmong House beneficiaries, families and supporters.  A fifth anniversary celebration May 11 drew more than 120 Hmong and non-Hmong.

Joya Colon-Berezin, CWS ecumenical relations coordinator for refugee resettlement, praised Hmong House of Good News as a “great example of what people of faith can do in ministry with refugees. 

“The United Methodist Church is an important CWS partner in welcoming refugees to the United States.  Serving Hmong refugee elders through community building and cultural integration activities is wonderful example of the church in mission."

The Hmong, an Asian ethnic group, were staunch U.S. allies in the war against communism in Indochina.  When communist regimes took over in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand.  Later thousands of them were resettled to the United States, where they found safety.  But Yer Thao and many other elderly Hmong also found social isolation due to their age, inability to speak or write English, profound differences between Hmong and Western culture, and the role reversal with their children.

Hmong refugee populations are largely concentrated in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  About 10,000 live in Milwaukee, and about 1,000 of those are age 55 or older – the population Hmong House of Good News seeks to serve.

Hmong House was the initiative of Kady Herr-Yang, a medical interpreter for Hmong language speakers in Milwaukee – and an active member of United Methodist Women.

“She saw the need in the people she served – both Christians and animists,” said the program’s treasurer, Patricia Ruppe.  “She and other young women were approached by many elders in the Hmong churches asking if there would ever be a Christian-based senior center where they would fit in.  Many expressed that they didn’t have any place to go where they would feel comfortable and not have to be in the house all day.”

The United Methodist Women of the Wisconsin Annual Conference established Hmong House of Good News, Inc., in 2008.  Located at Central United Methodist Church, Hmong House opens its doors from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. three days a week.  Some participants drive to the center themselves, others get rides, still others use a transit service for people with disabilities.

Lee Vang cultivating the summer garden
Lee Vang, cultivating the summer garden at Hmong House of Good News, Milwaukee, WI. Photo: courtesy HHGN

Participants enjoy a wide range of activities, including exercise classes, gardening, creative fellowship, games and movies, field trips, arts and crafts, English language learning and Bible study.  They benefit from health education and monitoring and from individual support and advocacy.  A nutritional Hmong traditional breakfast, lunch and snacks are served.

“There’s laughter and smiles every day as the elders see and catch up with each other about their family and community,” said the center’s program director, the Rev. Tsuker Yang.

Apart from the part-time program director and cook, the program is led and staffed by volunteers.  Milwaukee United Methodist congregations – including three Hmong congregations - contribute volunteers.  Pastors from Methodist, Lutheran and Alliance Hmong churches lead Bible study on a rotating basis.

While the language barrier is a challenge for non-Hmong speaking volunteers, “we do have some very mission minded souls who come and teach exercise, crafts and Bible study regardless of the language barrier,” Ruppe said. “The elders and these volunteers do a lot of laughing and hugging together amidst the interpretation problems by ‘showing’ how to exercise or make a craft.”

About 15 Hmong seniors attend on any given day.  “The goal is to have 25 or more attendees daily and the UMCOR grant will allow us to move closer to this goal,” Yang said.  Added Ruppe, outreach to potential participants and their families seeks to convince “this very private refugee population that Hmong House of Good News is a safe and caring place for their elders.”