When he was 4 years old, Amoun Sayaovong’s family came to America, fleeing genocide in Laos to settle in Milwaukee in the early ’80s.
Though many other Hmong refugees had landed in Milwaukee, the transition to life in America was still difficult. Sayaovong’s father, uncle and grandfather formed a group, deciding that they needed an official organization to support the burgeoning community. So in 1983, they founded the Hmong American Friendship Association. “When [HAFA] first started, most of the people did not speak any English at all,” Sayaovong says. HAFA workers and volunteers would take Hmong refugees to medical appointments and translate for the doctor. They stocked food in a community pantry, which still exists today. And they also provided a social space to share Hmong culture.
Vang was involved from an early age, even serving as a model for the organization’s original logo – two people shaking hands. He took a job at HAFA in 2001, before leaving two years later for law school. After a law career, and a few years living in Thailand, he returned to Milwaukee, where he accepted a position as assistant director at the organization.
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Over the years, the organization expanded its programs, offering elder outreach, a job placement program, frequent career fairs, sexual assault survivor advocacy, and it added a small museum to its Vliet Street headquarters, showcasing Hmong cultural artifacts. Every year, HAFA puts on a major New Year’s celebration, and Amoun estimates this year’s two-day celebration at the Wisconsin Expo Center attracted over 20,000 visitors.
“The community has changed quite a lot,” Sayaovong says. “[Hmong] have moved to different parts of the city, more middle-class neighborhoods.”
This assimilation, while positive in many ways, has also had a deleterious effect on the Hmong language, so HAFA’s programs include classes for young people in language as well as traditional dance and music. “Language is a key component that gives a culture and community an identity,” he says. “We really want to make sure the next generation is prepared for the future.”