SOLANA BEACH — Roger Harmon saw the power of art firsthand more than 25 years ago while working as an education officer in refugee camps populated by Southeast Asia’s Hmong people.
Forced from their land, Hmong in Taiwanese refugee camps used story cloths to recant journeys often marked by despair.
“The story cloths have universal themes,” Harmon said. “They’re about how beauty and art can come from very difficult situations.”
Story cloths that Harmon collected, as well as photographs featuring Hmong life, will be on display at a free reception and forum May 21 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito.
How did so many Hmong end up in refugee camps?
The Hmong have a “very unique history,” Harmon said. Over the last 200 years, Hmong largely migrated from their ancestral homes in China to Southeast Asia. A large number of Hmong in the 1960s lived in Laos, an area west of Vietnam that played a critical role in the cold war. The Hmong sided with the U.S. in the fight against communism in Southeast Asia, receiving weapons and training from the CIA.
A bloody, unpublicized war in Laos ended in defeat for the Hmong, and revolutionary governments sprung up shortly after in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. On the losing side of the war, the Hmong were no longer welcome on their lands.
Hundreds of thousands Hmong fled across the Meking River to refugee camps in Thailand. Many drowned trying to make the long swim.
Some cloths tell a multi-paneled story, similar to a comic strip, which shows the struggle of crossing the Meking River. Harmon said the Hmong have a long-standing tradition of making tightly stitched textiles. But most textiles historically haven’t been focused on narrative. Harmon said the turn toward modern subject matter and stories could have been a way to deal with loss.
“This is a new art, from what I’ve found,” Harmon said.
“It was a method of coping with the tragedy,” he added.
Another motif found in the cloths is the comparison between life before and after the cold war.
One story cloth, for example, features a connection to animals, thriving crops and people working together. Subsequent panels of the same cloth, however, show the Hmong hiding from danger and being attacked.
“They lost their homes and lives in a short period of time,” Harmon said. “It was devastating.”
Harmon, who has worked in Asia and Africa to prepare refugees to come to the U.S., said many refugees in Taiwanese camps waited up to 20 years to return home to Laos — dealing with harsh living conditions on a daily basis.
“They could let the world know what they were going through with the story cloths,” said Nancy Harmon, who helped cultivate the exhibit with her husband.
Some Hmong at the refugee camps came to the U.S.
Recognizing the Hmong’s sacrifices during the Vietnam War, the U.S. accepted a wave of refugees from the camps in the 1970s and 1980s. And cloths from this time period depicting American cities show many Hmong were looking forward to new beginnings.
According to Harmon, the Hmong population in the U.S. is roughly 200,000. Although the flow of Hmong immigrants has slowed over the years, Harmon hopes the forum highlights present minority groups that have been displaced by recent wars and economic conditions.
Bob Montgomery, the director of San Diego’s International Rescue Committee (IRC), will also speak at the forum. The IRC provides assistance for new refugees by offering English classes, health screenings and employment training, among other services.
Presently, Montgomery said most refugees are coming from Somalia and Iraq.
After returning home from service in Vietnam, Montgomery felt he needed to help Vietnamese who were affected by the war. Now he sees an opportunity to help displaced Iraqis who aided the U.S.
“I want to draw the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq,” he said. “There are groups in both cases that made sacrifices to help our country.”