APPLETON – Chia Vang was 15 years old when she moved to Appleton. It was the summer of 1989, and she could not believe how green the grass was or how nicely the streets were paved.
Compared to the refugee camps in Thailand she had lived in for the previous six years, these seeming everyday signs of life and order seemed shockingly misplaced to her.
Vang, the youngest daughter of seven children, suddenly found herself calling Appleton home. One of her older brothers invited Vang to stay with her family of seven in the city, despite the cramped neighborhoods. In his two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, her brother and his family slept in one room, she and her mother shared the other, and her three other brothers slept in the living room.
As a teenager, the first few years were challenging.
She did not speak the same language, did not eat the same food or wear the same clothes as the other students at her school. She had also spent much of her childhood in a refugee camp, something few of her classmates could identify with.
Despite these obstacles, Vang persevered and achieved his goal of being a teacher and writer.
A few months ago, Vang read about the United States withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, where about 400 Afghan refugees found a temporary home in Fort McCoy, just 130 miles from her home in Appleton.
An Afghan family has already registered their children in the Appleton Area School District, and more are expected to follow, said Amy Swick, English student / bilingual coordinator. And although the exact number of Afghan refugee students is still unknown, the district is preparing for their arrival by seeking to hire people who can support them, Swick said.
Vang can relate to the need for support and the challenges that Afghan refugee students may face. She said she would like to help students feel that they, too, have a home in Appleton. She remembers feeling scared and anxious during the first few years of elementary school. She plans to take advantage of her experience and make incoming Afghan students feel welcome.
“‘When I came, I had this anxiety,’ and I was afraid of not knowing what to do, ‘” she said. “I’m pretty sure they want to go through that too … If I know who they are, I want to make them feel welcome and like they’re part of this school.”
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Vang’s journey to Appleton
Before the Vietnam War started in 1955, Vang’s parents were farmers in Laos, who lived a peaceful life in a country they loved. When the war ended in 1975, it was no longer safe because of the retaliation against them, including Vang’s father who fought with American soldiers. That fear made Vang’s parents and siblings hide in the jungle and ask for peace.
Her family spent a year in the jungles of Laos to find something to eat. Her father’s legs were wounded during the war, and after such a long time under such harsh conditions, the pain was enough to risk his life and bring his family back to a village.
It was during that journey out of the jungle that Vang was born on a hillside. Under the chaotic circumstances, the exact day of her birth is unknown. When Vang’s mother had some strength and rest between the perilous journey and the birth, Vang’s mother had to fight hard to keep herself and Vang alive at this stage of her life.
The family eventually reached a village, but her father had to flee again, this time to Thailand. Once a year he secretly came and visited his family in Laos, but was noticed after a few years, so he came back just one more time to gather his family and take them to Thailand.
They packed clothes and food in backpacks and rattan baskets for their 10-day journey on foot through mountainous terrain – the safest route for her large family.
In Thailand, Vang and her family spent five years in Ban Vinai, a refugee camp, and another year in another refugee camp, Chiang Kham.
Vang lived in the camps for most of his early teens, but there were not many places for school-like learning, Vang said. Instead, she spent her time getting water every day, cooking for her family, hanging out with friends, and making colorful story cloths – flat fabrics that use traditional designs to depict scenes from Hmong traditions or history – with her mother. .
After six years in the refugee camps, Vang and her family moved to the United States.
Today, Vang teaches seventh grade social studies at Wilson Middle School. She also authored a series of fictional books inspired by the true events that both her and her husband’s families faced. The first book is available on Kindle and other digital platforms now.
Adapting to life in Appleton
Learning English as a teenager was a challenge for Vang. Although her family lived within walking distance of Wilson, she was driven to the former Roosevelt Middle School because it housed the district’s English student program.
Based on her age, she should have gone to ninth grade, but she was placed in eighth grade because she did not speak English. Vang wanted to move further down to a primary school class because it was so challenging, but she was too old for that. Eventually, her English teacher moved her to seventh grade.
Although her teacher did not speak Hmong, she was like a mother figure, Vang said. She would help her with homework, offer to take her shopping and look past her house to lend a hand where she could. Vang said she felt comfortable talking about the trauma she had been through with her teacher.
Before coming to the United States, Vang learned to say ‘hello’ and ‘my name is’, but learning the language was a challenge for her. She found other students in her English student classes who also spoke Hmong so they would communicate in Hmong, but that did not help her English, she said.
Despite the difficulty, Vang never stopped wanting to learn. She would spend hours translating a few paragraphs. It was frustrating and it took a long time, but she wanted to learn so that one day she could achieve her dreams of teaching and writing.
She had a harder time making friends with her American peers, and in science classes, people would not be her lab partner. English and science were her worst subjects because of the language barrier, but Vang said math was easy for her because she did not need to know English to be able to speak.
Outside of academics, Vang said, she struggled to fit in with her peers because of her fancy clothes – which she got into the habit of wearing just because that was what they wore in the refugee camp – and lunches consisting of rice and meat rather than pizza or chicken nuggets.
Shortly after moving to Appleton when she was just 17, Vang married – the young age typical of Hmong culture – and moved to Eau Claire. She attended Eau Claire North High School and then the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for a year before having her first child.
Balancing school, a newborn baby and taking care of her in-laws while she was still getting used to a new country was a lot for Vang to juggle as a young adult. She took a break from her education and left UW-Eau Claire, but she held on to her hopes for the future.
After having her first child, Vang wanted to move back to Appleton to be closer to his mother. When she returned, she completed her education at UW-Oshkosh. Over the next eight years, Vang had three more children.
One in 10 Appleton students today are English students
The English student program in the Appleton Area School District has grown significantly since Vang was a student about 30 years ago, Swick said.
It varies from year to year, but generally about 10% or 1,450 of the district’s 15,000 students are English students, Swick said. Programming and support have increased over the years to meet the needs of students in the community as demographics have changed and changed.
One of the biggest growth areas has been the relocation program, which supports students who are new to the country.
Unlike when Vang was a student in the program, English student services are now offered at almost every school in the district. Newcomer programs are offered at Appleton North High School, Kaleidoscope Academy, and McKinley and Dunlap Elementary Schools.
There are over 50 languages spoken by students and families in the district, Swick said. Between interpreters, refugee support specialists, and other staff, there are adults in Appleton schools who can speak the five most common foreign languages spoken in the district: Hmong, Spanish, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Arabic.
In Afghanistan, the predominant languages are Pashtu, Dari and Farsi. While not the languages AASD is best equipped to handle, Swick said the district is looking at hiring staff who can better support any Afghan refugee student.
Much of the support for the English student program focuses on academic language, as these students have been in the country for several years, whereas the newcomer program helps students with English they would find in both school environments and social settings.
The district also employs a newcomer and refugee liaison and a refugee support specialist to welcome students with refugee backgrounds to the district and help them adjust to school life.
It has a flexible model to meet students’ individual needs. For example, teachers can go into general education classes to work with those students who need language support, or they can plan and teach entire lessons together. Some students are pulled out of the regular classrooms for about 30 minutes a day a few days a week or more.
During the pandemic, the district was still able to serve English students virtually and in small groups. Some of the students were even brought back to the buildings as the district was technically still virtual for occasional personal learning.
Each year, Vang spends time teaching his students about Hmong’s journey to America as part of his seventh-grade curriculum. Her father wanted her to become a nurse one day, but she hates stabbing people with needles. Instead, she wanted to be able to help other students who might be struggling like she did.