Home and community resonate deeply for Ger Xiong. She relishes her roots in Fond du Lac – perhaps because her connections have blossomed so fully after transplantation.
You wouldn’t know it when meeting the vivacious and articulate Xiong, but she wasn’t born in this country and English is not her first language. She was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand to parents escaping the horrors of “The Secret War,” in which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Hmong of Laos to fight against North Vietnamese army intruders during the Vietnam War. More than 100,000 Hmong lost their lives by the time the U.S. decided to pull out of Vietnam; those war dead included six of Xiong’s older siblings.
Her father – who had endured combat – and mother escaped to Thailand, and there Ger Xiong was born and lived until she was 11, separated from the rest of the world by the refugee camp’s wire fence.
In 1992, her family came to the United States. “I was eleven-and-a-half, and I had limited English,” Xiong recalled. “I could say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ bathroom,’ ‘drink.’”
Her English language education included the daily help of volunteers in the Advocap Foster Grandparents Program. Together, they reviewed the alphabet and read books. Xiong recounts with a happy laugh a chance encounter with her fourth grade teacher years later, and being delighted by her teacher’s reaction to her growth from once-quiet child to communicative adult.
She now works for Advocap, the organization that provided her with English language tutors in her own childhood, helped her parents purchase their first home, and offered early childhood education to her own children, two sons and two daughters.
Married at age 16 to her husband Gia, a fellow refugee, she had two children while in high school and still completed her high school degree a semester early.
That dual commitment to family and education continued to drive her. With the support of her husband and his parents, she enrolled in evening classes at UW-Fond du Lac while working full-time as a bank teller. The proximity to family was important, and financial aid made her dream possible.
“We were staying with my in-laws at that time and I had two children and work, and UW-Fond du Lac is right in town,” said Xiong, noting she is a first-generation college student. “I drove there and saw all the parking spaces, and knew it would be a good start for me as a mom. Even with two children, I couldn’t imagine stopping after high school. My parents said go for it and do your best.”
She continued that pace – parenting, working, attending school – until, combined with another pregnancy, it took a toll on her health and she realized she needed to leave the job and focus on the education.
“Education is a big thing,” she said.
Xiong is happy to keep a connection with the campus and has been on-site for several featured events. At the 2009 dedication of the Hmong story cloth in the University Center Commons, she provided interpretation for featured speaker, Nhia Neng Xiong, a Hmong community leader. Her father, Blia Choua Vang, was recently featured on a panel discussion on war from the perspective of soldiers. Her father, who is also a shaman and a Hmong musician, fought in hand-to-hand combat, and continues to have nightmares from those memories.
“Our parents don’t speak English, so it’s up to me to share our experiences and what I’ve been through,” Xiong said, “to provide Hmong culture and background. I told my father we need to tell it to people interested in learning about it.”
At Advocap, Xiong assists low-income entrepreneurs in Fond du Lac, Winnebago, and Green Lake counties to start or expand a business by providing technical assistance with writing business plans and learning business management skills.
“My background helps with serving people,” Xiong said. “I have been there: I have received food stamps, I have been low-income. When people express their concerns, I totally understand.
“I take so much pride in my local job and this local agency,” she said. “And, in the colleges and local businesses. I don’t know where I would have ended up without so much support.”