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When Southeast Asians came to Iowa


Members of the Iowa Asian Community lay a wreath at the casket of former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray in the rotunda Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the Iowa Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.

In 1975, Southeast Asians who allied with America against communism faced torture, starvation and murder. The Tai Dam, an ethnic minority, fled persecution in their homelands of Vietnam and Laos. From Thailand they sent a desperate letter asking U.S. governors for asylum.

Iowa Gov. Robert Ray responded by creating a refugee resettlement program that lasted 35 years, and the first Tai Dam arrived that winter.

Most Tai Dam had never heard of Iowa and had false expectations. Based on the brochures they received from immigration officials, some Tai Dam mistakenly assumed they would become sheep farmers.

“When we came here, we did not see any sheep! Just cows and pigs,” recalled an elder named Siang Bachti.

Few refugees had farmed, but many settled in Iowa’s rural areas. Dinh VanLo, then a young man from the large capital of Laos, remembered thinking “Iowa was small potatoes” after relocating to Hull. Some refugees assumed America was a wealthy land without poverty; one group grew disappointed after sponsors resettled them in a poorer section of Des Moines.

A Hmong refugee named Shoua Her embroidered this “story quilt” that depicts her daily life in Laos, her exile to a refugee camp during the Vietnam War, and her arrival in the United States. She settled in Oskaloosa in 1976.

The newcomers also learned about Iowa’s brutal winters. On his first day here, Khouang Luong learned how to push a car through the snowy street to get home. Another refugee tried shoveling snow off his rooftop in fear of a cave-in.

Along with Tai Dam, Cambodians, Hmong, Lao and Vietnamese sought better lives in Iowa, but not without controversy. Southeast Asian refugees reminded Iowans of the divisive Vietnam War. Opponents feared refugees would steal jobs and divert resources from needy Iowans. 



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