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Hmong, Missoula came to grips with each other in 1st refugee resettlement

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Nou Moua, with her two youngest children, Shaokee and Bee, holds a portrait of her husband Lia Moua, shortly after his death in June 2003, near the garden he tended in the backyard of the family's home west of Missoula. The Mouas are part of Missoula's long history with refugee families who fled Laos and ended up settling in western Montana.

They called us “Hmongtana,” at least the Washington Post did.

That was in July 1980, at the peak of the first major refugee resettlement in western Montana.

The International Rescue Committee had opened an office in Missoula the year before, receiving 170 Hmong refugees in 1979 and another 196 in 1980.

They came to Montana from refugee camps in northern Thailand after fleeing the highlands of Laos when that country fell to communist forces in 1975. Most had served or supported the Royal Lao Army under the leadership of Gen. Vang Pao, one of the first refugees to Montana, and in secret collusion with the Central Intelligence Agency.

“For the Hmong, this new world of freeways and food stamps, checkbooks and birth control pills is bewildering,” Washington Post reporter Margot Hornblower wrote.

Another federally funded agency, Lao Family Community, set up shop at the same time across the hall from the IRC in an office complex at 1620 Regent St. More than 35 years and a mass migration to California later, that building still stands but the refugee offices are gone.

The population of Hmong and mixed-Hmong population in Missoula County numbered 230 in the 2010 U.S. census, the most recent reliable figures. Three of every four Missoula Hmong in 2010 were younger than 40, and seven out of 10 lived in their own homes, in households averaging 5.15 people. 


Now the IRC returns on a different mission, amid a wave of public disapproval but also a widening base of support.

Bob Johnson of Seattle, who opened the first IRC here 37 years ago, said in mid-March the voluntary agency had received approval from the U.S. State Department to reopen in Missoula to address a growing worldwide refugee crisis. Up to 100 refugees from an unknown land will be resettled here in the first year. 

The goal, Johnson said, is to help them “integrate, become self-sufficient and add to the cultural and economic fabric of Montana.”

That's what the Hmong people have done, those who remained.

While their contributions to the outdoor markets are perhaps most visible, first-generation Hmong immigrants and their offspring are bankers and real estate agents; decorated war heroes and high school valedictorians; sports standouts and chefs; entrepreneurs, business owners and probably a dozen other things around town.

“You just have to look at all the college graduates,” Betsy Williams said. “Once the community became more educated about who they were, it just brought a rich texture to Missoula – the food, the restaurants and all the good things, but also the music and culture.

“And when we know their stories of what they went through, there’s a feeling of gratitude for what we have. We’re just so fortunate. They have so much to teach us.”

But Williams, a retired educator who taught Hmong children, teens and adults the English language and American ways at Missoula County Public Schools from 1978 to 2014, is the first to say it wasn’t easy at the start.

“The culture shock is on both sides,” Hornblower of the Washington Post noted in her 1980 story. Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley were greeting a people who, “for the most part, have never ridden in a car, attended school, shopped at a store, applied for a job or switched on an electric light.”

“It’s like us going to Mars and starting over again,” Pam Roberts told Hornblower.


Roberts had to laugh.

“That seems like a million years ago,” she said from her home in Bozeman last week.

Roberts ran the Missoula IRC office for Johnson during what she thinks was about three years. Roberts got involved with the IRC after graduating in social work from the University of Southern California and going to work as a volunteer in refugee camps in Thailand after the Vietnam War.

In 1982, after the IRC's Missoula office closed and the Hmong were turned over to the Lao Family Community to carry on, Roberts and a few other Missoulians launched Rattlesnake Productions. She plunged into the world of documentary filmmaking for the next three-plus decades. One of her best-known projects, “Butte, America” was released in 2008.

Charlie "Cha" Moua was the primary face of the Hmong in the early years and the first director of the Lao Family Community.

Moua arrived in town with his family in 1976. He was a young man fluent in English and educated in Missoula with connections to Jerry “Hog” Daniels.

Daniels, a teenage smokejumper from Missoula in the late 1950s, had parachuted into a career as a CIA liaison with Vang Pao and his forces during the “Secret War of Laos” in the ’60s and early ’70s. Afterward, Daniels went to work as an ethnic affairs officer for the U.S. State Department in the Thai refugee camps, screening Hmong for resettlement based on their loyalty to the Royal Lao Army. 

Moua, recalled Suzanne Bessac, “was very instrumental in sort of getting things going.”

Bessac and her husband, Frank, an anthropology professor at the university, were part of the welcoming committee for Vang Pao and the early Hmong arrivals before the IRC came to town.

“General Vang Pao set up his own sort of aid group, the Lao Family Community, and I was supposedly on the board, though I couldn’t understand a word,” Bessac recalled. “One of his daughters-in-law was assigned to me as an interpreter.”

Bessac served on the LFC board until it gave way to the Refugee Assistance Center in the late 1980s.

Louise Daniels, Jerry's mother, was on the IRC payroll but worked more closely with the Lao Family Community across the hall, Bessac said.

“All the Hmong people called Louise ‘Mom.’ It was great having her there because people really trusted her, and they loved Jerry,” Roberts recalled. “It was just sort of a natural transition.”

As the IRC director, Roberts worked mostly with the Missoula community.

“I talked to churches and did a lot of legwork, talking about who these people were so I could quell any kind of, I guess, racist thoughts about who they were and what they were doing here,” she said.

Sam Reynolds, the Missoulian’s opinion page editor, attempted to debunk myths about the hundreds of new residents in Missoula and the Bitterroot.

The three Hmong driving sports cars didn’t get them from the federal government but “are financing and maintaining the cars with their own sweat,” Reynolds wrote in May 1980. “If they can’t make their payments, they will lose their cars. There’s no free ride.”

The Hmong who worked or owned property paid all the taxes Americans pay, Reynolds continued.

Cha Moua told Reynolds his people were trying to use Missoula as an orientation and training center for new arrivals. They were encouraged to move on after a time.

“We do not want to be a burden to other Americans,” Moua said. “It is our highest ideal to work together for our mutual benefit. We need lots of help – but most of all, we need your friendship and understanding. In return we can only offer you ours, and a common will to work for the good of the United States and her citizens.”


Three years before the IRC and Lao Family Community opened offices in Missoula, the refugee situation was a growing concern for local health officials.

Vang Pao and the first Hmong families were resettled with funding from the Tolstoy Foundation. In 1976, they were thought to number more than 100, but nobody knew for sure and no government official knew their exact identities.

That November, the Missoulian reported that 30 Laotian refugees were living in a house owned by Vang Pao on Central Avenue in Target Range. Vang Pao himself lived on a ranch in Ravalli County with his large family, including his 84-year-old mother.

A refugee assistance coordinator from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said Vang Pao had planned to care for some 114 Laotians at the house and ranch, “but the economics of the situation are getting to him.”

Health officials worried that the refugees had not been tested for tuberculosis in Thailand. The city sanitarian wondered about the sewage system in a household of 30 people. Few jobs were to be had, and a total of 42 adults and 59 children were on welfare. But those in the house of 30 didn’t qualify for food stamps, a social worker said, because they cooked together.

“A woman said she would like to know what the Tolstoy organization does with the $500-per-refugee it is paid for placing refugees,” the Department of Health official said. “I told her so would I, ma’am.”


By late 1983, the IRC was long gone from Missoula and the Hmong resettlement experiment in rural western Montana was coming unhinged.

Jobs continued to be hard to come by and several job-training projects for Hmong in the Missoula area had floundered badly. The Missoulian’s Deirdre McNamer reported that the influx of Hmong refugees had come to a virtual halt in the previous 18 months.

The Lao Family Community was being pared drastically, from a budget of $210,000 and 11 paid employees in 1981 to one full-time and two half-time workers and an anticipated $40,000 budget in the upcoming fiscal year.

A promising business venture, the Hmong Medical Equipment Co., had fizzled, taking with it the estimated $16,000 put up by investors from the Hmong community.

And tragedy had struck the Hmong community, first in the stabbing death of a respected 58-year-old woman who was working alone in the Oriental Market on New Year’s Eve in 1981. A 17-year-old Missoula youth was charged with the murder but found not guilty.

A few months later Daniels, who in the Thailand refugee camps had tabbed most of the Montana Hmong for resettlement, was found dead in his Bangkok apartment. The cause of death was officially listed as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. The Hmong of Missoula held a traditional three-day funeral leading up to his burial in the city cemetery.

While some 300 Hmong remained in western Montana in 1983, nearly 600 had moved away, McNamer reported. Most of them went to Billings and California, in search of jobs and reunification with family members.

Among the departed were Cha Moua, who planned to open a restaurant in Billings, and Vang Pao, who was spending most of his time at his farm near Santa Ana, California.


“One of my Hmong high school students wrote a beautiful poem about landing in Missoula in the middle of winter and having no idea how they grew food under that snow,” Williams, the language teacher, said last week. 

Even the dry, high air was different in Montana, she said. “But you take a look at the Hmong who stayed – they are the ones who love hunting, love the open space, love the mountains. In many ways, the stronger ones stayed.”

As the 1980s turned to the ’90s, Missoula came to know and appreciate Hmong traditional Thanksgiving and New Year’s ceremonies, and the Hmong embraced many American ways in return.

The LFC gave way to the Refugee Assistance Corp. on South Third Street West. The RAC helped resettle a large group of Pentecostal Christians who’d been subjected to religious persecution by Belarus secular authorities in the former Soviet Union. Like the Hmong, the Belorussians struggled at first to come to grips with a new culture and language.


Johnson retired from the Seattle IRC office in January after nearly 40 years. With his previous Missoula ties, he agreed to serve as senior adviser to get things up and running here.

Roberts' old position of executive director of the Missoula office was posted on IRC and United Nations websites last week. The new director will be joined by a full-time caseworker and half-time financial and office manager.

For now, Johnson is coordinating efforts with Soft Landing Missoula, the local face of the resettlement effort that formed last fall to pave the way for refugees.

Soft Landing is an all-volunteer organization that hopes to incorporate in time. Its members and supporters, for now, are locals who await the coming – probably by the end of summer – of the first new refugees. 

There'll again be culture shock on both sides.

“I’m kind of looking forward to it,” said Ellen Leahy, director of the Missoula City-County Health Department.

Leahy started with the health department in 1983 and remembers the awkward adjustment period the Hmong and Missoula were going through. 

“For someone who was a young person who hadn’t had any experiences like that, it was really formative,” she said. “And to be on this side of it, where you get to know the people and you get to see the people you’re trying to help, it’s actually a real positive experience.”

“Once I got to working with those people, that was it,” Williams, the teacher, said. “It was just wonderful job, a wonderful opportunity, and I learned so much.

"It’s not an easy job for anybody. But it’s worth the effort.”

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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