On May 14, 2005, the Lao Highland Community Center, a project of the Lao Highland Association, opens in southeast Seattle near the Othello Playground. The community center, located at 3925 S Bozeman Street, is the first of its kind and resulted from the joint efforts of Hmong, Mien, and Khmu people, all immigrants from Laos. It will provide social services to these groups, and is ideally located to serve them. The center offers programs for youth and the elderly and actively works to preserve the unique and varied heritage of the people of the Hill Tribes of Laos. To build the center, the Lao Highland Association received legal and business guidance from the Interim Community Development Association.
Landlocked Laos, in Southeast Asia, is home to 30 different tribes divided into three main ethnic groups. The Lao people living in the lowlands represent the dominant group in the country. The Hill Tribes include the Hmong and Mien ethnic groups, and the highlanders including the Khmu. The Hill Tribes have distinct cultures and different languages. Of the ethnic groups of Lao, Seattle is home to Laotian, Hmong, Mien, and Khmu populations. Many Laotian refugees came to Seattle in the 1960s, but the three hill tribe populations escaped and settled in the area largely during the early 1980s.
Hill Tribe refugees fled their country due to the violence they faced as supporters of American forces during the Secret War from 1963 to 1975. A 1963 Geneva agreement attempted to prevent foreign troops from intervening in the political war between the Royal Lao Government and the Pathet Lao movement. America clandestinely entered the country and aided the Royal Lao Government in its military efforts against the Pathet Lao, who had support from the Vietnamese communists. Although members of all three tribes helped American forces sabotage communist forces, it is thought that virtually all Hmong people helped the American forces.
In the late 1970s, after the Americans departed and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic took control of the country, Hill Tribe communities suffered tremendously for their perceived treason during the war, and many died in the violent reprisals of the Vietnam army allowed by the new government. Due to the extent of their aid to the Americans, the Hmong people lost 10 percent of its population in mass killings as well as in casualties of the war.
Many Hill Tribe refugees fled to Thailand. The Vietnamese exerted strict control over transportation and in order to travel without arousing suspicion, these refugees had to leave behind all of their possessions. Long hikes over dozens of miles ended at the border with Thailand, where the Thai and American governments had constructed refugee camps. Some refugees lived for eight years in these camps before returning to Laos or emigrating to another country. America received 225,000 refugees due to the war; in Seattle, this migration doubled the population of Laotian, Hmong, and Mien Americans during 1980s to about 7,000 people.
Despite different cultures and different languages, these three hill tribe ethnic groups shared similar challenges in Seattle. They shared the terrifying transition from a farm-based economy in the lush landscape of Laos to the hustle and bustle of the car-dominated Seattle streets. And since the Laotian villages did not put as much emphasis on reading and writing, the new immigrants shared problems of literacy as well as the English language barrier.
In 1992 leaders of the Hmong, Mien, and Kmhmu communities joined to form the Lao Highland Association. After eight years of planning and constructon, in May 2005 the organization opened its own community center in the Rainier Valley. The center represents the ongoing work of a coalition of the Hmong, Kmhmu, and Mien ethnic groups, the first united community effort of the three groups. When the center was completed, some 5,000 Lao Hill Tribe community members lived in King County. Through the center, the communities sought to preserve their cultural identities and provide opportunities for youth to engage their heritage.
The center provided a crucial gathering place and fostered a sense of community for the scattered Laotian refugees. The center houses after-school tutoring, cultural studies, and traditional artistic projects for students as well as programs for the elderly to discuss their experiences in adapting to American society. Classes guide hill tribe members through the process of becoming an American citizen and help demystify the local political system.
Their desire to preserve and live their heritage informed the ceremonies to welcome the new center. The groundbreaking ceremony in the summer of 2004 included traditional dances and blessings, and the ceremony celebrating the opening included traditional music on Laotian instruments.
The center represents a joint effort between the Lao Highland Association and the Interim Community Development Association. Despite group members typically working at low-income jobs, they managed to pool together and raise $52,000 toward the project, which ultimately cost $560,000. The coalition applied for grants with the help of Interim and secured $295,000 from the departments of Neighborhoods and Human Services as well as $119,000 from the state of Washington. Leslie Morishita served as the consultant for Interim on the project and helped to guide the community group through the necessary legal and businesses processes.
Changes and New Efforts
According to executive director Mey Saelee, the location of the center at the 2004 groundbreaking was ideal. Almost all the Hmong, Mien, and Khmu and other Laotian immigrants lived in southeast Seattle and could reach the center easily. However, as light rail construction started in southeast Seattle, the center faced a dwindling population as the local Hill Tribe populations moved south to more affordable locations such as Renton and Kent. Families moved as the cost to live in the area increased beyond their means; this change in the neighborhood came from the city’s efforts to encourage density around the Light Rail line.
Laotian community leaders addressed the situation by raising funds and garnering support for a new affordable-housing multi-family building. The president of the Lao Highland Association approached Interim CDA to develop the Samaki Commons, which is located right next door to the Lao Highland Community Center. Even the name reflected the desire of the leaders to maintain a presence in the neighborhood: Samaki is Laotian for “people coming together.”