by Jonathan Gramling
After I took over at The Madison Times for the late Betty Franklin-Hammonds in 1999, I started covering the Hmong New Year events held
at the Alliant Energy Center during the Thanksgiving weekend. It was a great exposure to Hmong culture and I made some friends through
And then Kajsiab House was founded in 2000 by Journey Mental Health in their efforts to provide culturally-relevant mental health services. It
was created in two out-buildings on the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute. After all of these years, I still have a hard time
finding Kajsiab House for there is no signage pointing the way and all of the out-buildings look the same to me painted in institutional white.
Periodically I would write articles about Kajsiab House, attending Thanksgiving feasts and other events. There were the fundraising galas held
at the Alliant Energy Center. And there were moments when Hmong men who fought with the U.S. would earn their U.S. citizenship. There
were always stories to write.
In working on a project for the new Madison College South campus, I arranged for Shwaw Vang from Kajsiab House to bring a van-full of
Hmong elders to Madison College South on August 8th to meet with the interior designers for the new campus building. The elders were so
honored to be invited to talk about Hmong designs and to learn about the project. It was a joyous time for them.
And then the next day, a bombshell hit as Journey announced that Kajsiab House would be closed on September 28th. I can’t imagine the
pain and fear that they must have felt that day. The one place where they had felt secure for the past two decades; the one place of
continuity in their lives as even their children and grandchildren adapted to American culture and society in ways that they could not was
going to be taken away from them, their source of stability closed.
In some ways, these Hmong elders will become refugees once more, uprooted from the familiar and expected to put down new roots in a
new facility or program. It is said that Bayview has offered some programming space for free. But it will never be the same because at
Kajsiab House, the elders always did a communal meal and performed other activities together in a space that they could call home. It was a
cohesive whole that I don’t think can be achieved because the participants will be scattered, receiving services, perhaps, in different
locations. It will no longer be their little village, almost symbolized by the Hmong at Heart exhibit, which is stored at Kajsiab House.
I know that this was probably a painful decision for the Journey Mental Health administration to make. I am sure that it wasn’t easy. In
between February of this year when they lost the contract and August when they made the announcement of the closing, I am sure they tried
to piece some other types of funding together to keep it going. I am sure they did not stand by for six months and do nothing. I am sure this
was a difficult decision because of the pain that the administration knew it would inflict. Kajsiab House was a nationally-renown program for
Kajsiab House. I am sure it is difficult to close Kajsiab House for that reason as well.
I don’t portend to tell Journey how to run its business for it does have a bottom-line that it needs to maintain if it is going to remain a vital
mental health agency. But I can’t help, but feel that they could have given the Hmong elders, the Kajsiab House staff, the Hmong community
and the greater Madison community more time to adjust and react. Fifty days isn’t much time to adjust.
Perhaps if Journey had publically discussed the fiscal pressures to close Kajsiab House even as early as April, perhaps a suitable alternative
could have been found. Perhaps there would have been an “angel investor/donor” who could have provided at least some temporary financial
relief while more permanent solutions were found.
Our nation — and by extension this community — made promises to the Hmong for the aid that they provided U.S. troops during the
Vietnam War. Many of those promises have been broken over the years as the Vietnam War became a distant memory. This community —
I won’t put the onus fully on Journey’s shoulders — must seek some way for these Hmong elders to not be deserted once again. We live in
one of the most creative and intelligent communities in the country. Certainly a solution can be found. Let’s do it!
I first became aware of the Hmong and the role they played as U.S. allies in the Vietnam War back in the
late 1980s when the Urban League ran a multicultural agency training program with Centro Hispano and
United Refugee Services. These were two-day sessions that were given at an agency’s offices. Often
times during breaks or before the program began for the day, the staff of the three agencies would sit
around and talk.
And that was the beginning of my “deep dive” into the history of the Hmong and their culture for we talked
about the price the Hmong paid as U.S. allies in the Lao highlands. And then there was the treacherous trek
across Laos and across the Mekong River to the Thai refugee camps. People stayed in those camps for up
to a decade or more waiting for sponsors so that they could come to the United States and other countries.
And life in Wisconsin was so “foreign” to the older Hmong who didn’t understand the customs and couldn’
t speak English. They were isolated in a strange land, suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues
due to the decades of trauma that they experienced.