By TOM LAVENTURE
Grit Grigoleit, a German social science researcher who was in the Twin Cities and other Midwestern cities over the past few years now has her research on the Hmong refugee experience published.
Dr. Grigoleit said that since defending her dissertation last February, she has spent the time editing her work and teaching a faculty class on ethnic minorities in Southeast-Asia until graduation from the University in Passau earlier this year. During this time she edited her dissertation and now published in German, she is planning to write articles on the book in English to share her work with Hmong and others that are interested in her findings.
The book, “Integrationsvarianten. Die Hmong in den USA” (Integration versions. The Hmong in the USA) is the result of her doctoral studies on American Studies and Southeast Asian studies. Her focus on the Hmong was born of a fascination of how this ethnic group that seemed to emerge from the worst of refugee conditions to excel in various resettlement societies.
One part of her research focused on the resettlement and integration of the most recent Hmong arrivals from Wat Tham Krabok, Thailand since 2005.
“That was basically stepping on new terrain since no research has been conducted so far,” said Grigoleit. “I was lucky to conduct research at the right time when the resettlement was still in process.”
The research brought her to Thailand and Laos in 2004, where she attended an international conference regarding ethnic minorities in Chiang Mai. There she met Lee Pao Xiong, director, Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.
It was difficult to enter the Wat that was now under the control of the Thai military. She said Lee Pao provided a contact person at the International Organization of Migration to help gain permission to enter the camp to interview families.
“Grit worked so hard on her dissertation, visiting Minnesota as well as other communities where there’s a concentration of Hmong people,” said Lee Pao Xiong. “I first met her in 2005 in Thailand. I was impressed with her interest in Hmong related issues. She also presented at our last two international conferences on Hmong Studies. I look forward to reading her book.”
“I thought it extremely fascinating to observe how a new group of Hmong people that were extremely young – the majority of all refugees was under the age of 17 – tried to make their way in the US,” she added.
Grigoleit said there were several surprising outcomes from the experience.
The Hmong at the Wat had the advantage of constant communication and support from relatives already in the U.S. Yet, she observed the new arrivals did not have a really clear picture of what life would be like in America.
“I would have expected that the new arrivals were better informed since some sort of regular contact took place in the past years due to the close family networks,” she said. “Certainly, some sort of exchange took place, but apparently that did not deal with issues of daily life – as for example: how to make ends meet; how to pay the bills; and how to care for your family.”
Grigoleit came to the United States in 2005 to begin six-months of field research with the Hmong American communities. She focused mostly in the Twin Cities, with some work also in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. She also compared differences in approach and capacity to problems and challenges in smaller communities.
She began to compose her thesis in 2006, and has since returned to the U.S. to for Hmong American conferences, and to Laos and Thailand again in 2007.
When meeting the new refugees in Minnesota, she thought of the line from the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
She said the refugees imagined the U.S. as the great opportunity for a better life – the place where one only needs to work hard to build a good life.
“They embraced all these neat stereotypes about life in the U.S.,” she added. “When they arrived in the U.S. they had a first glimpse of reality.”
Grigoleit described structural barriers in the resettlement process. The budget cuts in the social welfare system, and the changes in legislation made it difficult for new refugees to find their way. Despite the hardships she said the people she met continued to embrace their image of a better life as they integrated both within the Hmong community and mainstream America.
Grigoleit said the image of America as the land of opportunity comes in part from the power of popular myth and media, but that it is not always working for everyone equally in reality.
“Although the new refugees encountered several barriers due to social, economic, but also racist reasons they were still happy to be there, which I thought stunning,” she added. “Of course, it needs to be seen how the integration process will work in the future.”
Grigoleit said that with all the experience the U.S. has with resettling refugees, the expectations and pressure placed on the newcomers by state and local agencies surprised her.
“Since resettlement took place within the scope of family reunification, the Hmong community as such was made responsible for their integration and to meet their needs,” she said. “Integration was seen as a family or private thing and thus responsibility was assigned to the Hmong American community.”
Grigoleit said the Hmong Americans already here were not and should not have been put in a position to sponsor another refugee community.
“They came from Thailand with great expectations of a simpler and better life, she said, “and so a lot of misunderstandings stemmed from these conflicting expectations and many of their difficulties could have been avoided.
“It needs to be seen how this will affect the further integration,” she added.
Originally from Dresden, Grigoleit earned her undergraduate degree in American Studies and a master’s degree in Southeast-Asian Studies with minors in American Studies and Business & Economics.
Grigoleit is currently involved in a joint research project at the Technical University in Hamburg.