By Pafoua Yang

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — True Thao stood at the Minnesota History Center dressed in traditional Hmong clothes, styled with beads and coins. He shared his journey to America 45 years ago.

“I remember our escape from Laos to Thailand was pretty traumatic,” Thao said. “We had to leave in the middle of the night because it was hard to cross. We paid a Laotian man to take us by a little canoe across to Thailand side.”

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Thao’s family escaped communist forces and eventually relocated to the United States in 1979. Thao’s brother was a communication technician for the United States CIA so escaping was the only choice they had.

True Thao (credit: CBS)

“And I didn’t speak one word of English. By necessity we had to learn English quickly. By six to seven months we were able to speak minimally,” Thao said.

The sufferings of leaving their country and having to assimilate the American culture fueled Thao’s inspiration to be a mental health advocate, mentor and founder of his own counseling services.

“We see people who arrive with refugee status quickly integrate into their communities and begin contributing,” said Rachele King, with Minnesota Department of Human Services.

For five years, the state has recognized refugees like Thao. Twenty individuals were honored during Monday’s ceremonies. Half of those refugees were nominated last year, but due to COVID, the event was pushed to this year.

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“It’s important for the strength of our future economy,” said King. “Immigration and refugee resettlement enables our population to grow and fill workforce needs into the future.”

Ku Mo was among the 10 nominees last year. Mo’s family fled Burma as it faces the world’s longest ongoing civil war. Mo is a Minnesota student and community supporter. Mo has paved ways and resources to help other immigrants settle.

“It means a lot for me, but at the same time, it really means a lot for my Karenii community just to be recognized,” Mo said.

“I hope that with this kind of recognition that refugees are not judged by our color of skin, but rather by our heart and what we bring to the state,” Thao said.

Since 1979, more than 100,000 people have resettled in Minnesota. Last year, the state welcomed 291 people from 11 countries; half of those people were children. The UN reports nearly 760,000 refugees entered the United State in 2020.

“To be eligible for refugee status in the United States, you have to have fled persecution. It’s persecution based on something that’s fundamental to who you are based on race, religion, political affiliation, or a membership in a particular social group,” King said.

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The largest percentage of refugees in 2020 came from Burma, Somalia and Ukraine.

Pafoua Yang