Kajsiab House 10th Anniversary Celebration
Surviving the Times
involving adjusting to living in the United States. We saw other issues including SSI, citizenship, social services linkages and
Kajsiab House is like a family or community center. People receive services and are also able to visit with each other. The ample
grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute afford the Hmong elders a place to take walks in nature. It is a healing place for them
where each looks after the other.
As it came time for Kajsiab House to make budgetary decisions for 2010, it realized it at a revenue shortfall. Something has to be
done. “We cut one day of services,” Vang said. “Now we only work four days per week. Instead of laying someone off, staff decided to
cut their hours. Each of the staff had responsibilities and families to take care of. Instead of laying someone off, each of the staff chose to
cut some of their time. So we are all working here 80 percent of the time. Instead of someone struggling to make their payments,
everyone chose to cut their hours. Hopefully, next year, we’ll find the funding and put everyone back to full time.”
Kajsiab House is a home away from home for about 150 Hmong elders. On any given day, 30-40 can be found at Kajsiab House
taking full advantage of the services. “We do family and individual counseling, psychiatry and evaluation of medications,” Vang said.
“We have a group support therapy. We have language classes, citizenship classes, ESL and weekend activities for youth. We do
medical appointments, social services, translations and linkages to other services.”
Youa Vue Chang is one of those individuals who has received services from Kajsiab House for the past five years. Most of Chang’s
life has been filled with struggle and trauma. He grew up in the highlands of Laos. “I remember as a child playing a game called tujlub, a
top game,” said Chang through interpreter Shwaw Vang. “Someone spins the top and then someone else tries to hit it. I remember
playing that during the New Year. We used to have rooster fights, which was common in Southeast Asia. I remember helping my older
brother out at the farm a lot. I primarily remember helping my family out.”
When he was a young man, the Vietnam War spilled into Laos and other bordering countries. Chang fought in the Secret War of Laos.
“As a young person, I was a soldier for the CIA, Vang Pao’s army,” Chang said. “They gave me guns and knives. My job was to protect
my village. I fought for 10 years.”
After the war was over in 1974, there was supposed to be peace in Laos. “The circumstances behind me stopping being a soldier
are that I don’t know what decisions were made on a higher level,” Chang said. “But as a soldier, I was told to put down my arms. That
is what I did. I was told to put down my weapons and that everyone would become friends, with all of the Pathet Lao who fought against
us. After they took all of our weapons away, they told us everyone should go back to their farms. We went back and did the slash and
burn farming. I don’t understand why people told me to lay down my arms. I didn’t understand that command and I can not guess why. I
went back to farming for almost 10 years. Because I am illiterate, I cannot give specific years. But I think it is around 10 years.”
While the Hmong laid down their arms, the Pathet Lao did not and the Communists eventually ruled the country. While Chang wanted to
live in peace, farm his land and raise his family, the war had not really been settled. Fighting continued. After 10 years, Chang decided to
leave his farm and head to Thailand with his family.
“Even though I farmed there, all of these rebel groups were fighting and soldiers were always chasing them,” Chang said. “Even
though I did not fight, there were other members of my family and village who fought. Even though I did not fight, because I was with that
group, I was considered to be among them. And because my village could no longer stay, I had to leave too.”
The trip to Thailand was treacherous and Chang’s group had to brave the natural and human elements.
“I was very scared when we traveled to Thailand,” Chang said. “It was very difficult. Where the leaders of the group went, we
followed. The trails were very thick with because it was jungle. There was only one trail. Everyone had to follow the same path. But it
was very difficult. We had to climb up steep mountains and go through the thick jungle. Also the seniors who could not make the journey
because they were too old, a small shelter was built beside the path. They left them food and water. They would die there. You had a
choice if you were the son or daughter of that elder. You could stay with the elder until they died and then the son or daughter would die.
Or they would leave the elder. Many elders were left behind that way. For children or small babies who cried too much, they were given
opium to quiet them down because if they cried too loud, then the Communist soldiers would hear them and they could not risk that.”
Eventually they made it to the Mekong River, which stood between them and Thailand and safety. “We were fortunate to bribe some
Thais to boat us across the Mekong River,” Chang said. “When we arrived at the river shore, it was deep in the night. We knew that the
Communist soldiers were guarding the river. So our leaders went ahead and radioed to the Thai people. The Thai people came and
boated us across. It was very scary after we crossed the river because we didn’t know if the Thais were going to throw us into the
river. Once we got across, all they did was leave us on the Thai side of the river. It was up to us to find our way to safety. We found our
way to a post where the Thai brought us. After a night and a day, they telephone the representatives of the refugee camp and they came
and got us.”
The refugee camp was a place where the Hmong lived in limbo. For Chang and his family, they sat in limbo for 10 years. “There was
nothing to do in the refugee camp,” Chang said. “We were given rice and cabbage, some vegetables, beef, pork and fish. I was there for
10 years. I stayed there and did not go anywhere.”
When the leaders of Chang’s group decided to go to the United States, Chang had to borrow money to fly his wife, child and himself
to the United States. He just finished paying his way. “I’m a person who has never had any kind of debt in my life,” Chang said. “I could
not sleep while I owed the money for the plane tickets. Whatever I had, I used it to pay off my debt so I didn’t have to carry that burden
Once he was in the United States and had made his way to Madison after first living in Milwaukee for a year, Chang had difficulty
getting his green card, the first step in becoming a citizen. While others received theirs, he could not get an answer why he was denied.
Eventual the authorities let him know.
“I waited for almost four years and they would not tell me why they would not give it to me,” Chang said. “This past year, they finally
told me that I was considered to be a terrorist, providing material support to a rebel group in Laos, which is the Hmong rebels. I have
never done anything bad to anyone except serve in the military. I am illiterate. I don’t get involved in politics. I’ve never been
reprimanded by military leaders or anyone. Why is my name on the list? I fought that. Finally they took my name off and approved my
green card and I was able to become a citizen. But for all of those years, particularly when I found out they were considering me to be a
terrorist against this country or against another country, it made me feel so frustrated and so betrayed. I credit all the doctors for keeping
my mind intact and thankful to the Kajsiab House staff for helping me throughout all of my difficult times.”
Chang felt betrayed. He had served and had been armed by the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, to fight at the behest of the
United States against the Communists in Laos. Now after 30 years, due to political changes, his group was now considered the
aggressors in Laos and Chang was guilty by association. It is Kajsiab House that helped him weather his personal storms and allow his
decades of struggle to begin to recede from his consciousness.
“These days, I don’t do anything,” Chang said. “I am on disability. At home, I don’t do anything, but basically stay at home. When I
came here, I found my way to Kajsiab House. It was the equivalent to giving my life to Kajsiab House to take care of. I am thankful to
everyone at Kajsiab House for helping me out. When I come here, my day is a lot brighter. When I go home, it is different. When I get
home, I cook and eat. Then tomorrow, I want to come back to Kajsiab House. Kajsiab House and the services here really helped me to
deal with the stress that I had. Bill Keys taught me citizenship and English. The doctors helped me to understand my stress and why I
was feeling depressed.”
Chang realizes that he will more than likely never see his native Laos again, a land that still holds his heart. His finances and his
illiteracy preclude that. He would not know where to go. But at least Kajsiab House has given Chang and the other Hmong elders a home
away from home, a place to call their own.
By Jonathan Gramling
Kajsiab House, a program of the
Mental Health Center of Dane County,
turned 10 years old this year. On some
levels, its struggle for funding to survive is
reflective of the history of the Hmong
people whom it serves. Seemingly with
nothing they exist. Sometimes against all
odds, they survive and even succeed.
On August 19, Kajsiab House
celebrated its 10th anniversary at the
Alliant Energy Center with music, dance
and a lot of thank yous to the volunteers
and staff who have made Kajsiab House a place where Hmong elders can come,
receive services and still recover from the trauma they experienced in their native Laos
during the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
When the Mental Health Center began to provide specialized mental health services
to Hmong elders in the Allied Drive area during the 1990s, it realized that there was a
deep well of depression existing in the Hmong community. When Wisconsin established
the Wisconsin Works program and ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children
(AFDC), what was a threat to many in the Hmong community became an opportunity.
“When Dane County changed the AFDC Program to W-2, Wisconsin Works, we asked the
county to fund Kajsiab House,” said Doua Vang, Kajsiab House’s director. “That’s when
it began. Eventually we saw all kinds of issues related to the Hmong population