Solana Beach art exhibit sheds light on stories of Hmong tribal life


By Claire Harlin

In the 1960s, the United States employed the tribal Hmong people to fight what’s now known as “The Secret War” in the highlands of Laos. And as the Southeast Asia conflict, which coincided with the Vietnam War, wound down in defeat for the native mountain people, they fled refugee camps in Thailand, where many stayed for decades.

Much of what we know of the Hmong people’s experiences comes from detailed story cloths they embroidered while in the Thai camps, and one local couple — Roger and Nancy Harmon — has managed to collect and preserve a variety of them, which will be presented on May 21 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito (UUFSD). The event will also feature a detailed explanation of the cloths by the Harmons, a photo exhibition and a presentation by Bob Montgomery, who has worked for more than 35 years with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and serves as the executive director of the San Diego Resettlement Office. Proceeds from the event will be donated to “My Library,” an education project for underserved Hmong and other youth in Laos.

Roger Harmon’s love affair with Laos and its people dates back to the late 1960s, when he orchestrated a language program there that focused on teaching English to Hmong people who were being brought as refugees to the United States.

In exchange for their mountain know-how and fighting on the side of the U.S., Roger said, the U.S. government gave them rice.

“Eventually they had to flee into neighboring Thaliand because they became targets themselves,” said Roger. “We put them in harm’s way and we had a responsibility to help them rebuild their lives here in the United States.”

While in Thailand, Roger noticed the colorful, intricately-designed story cloths hanging from bamboo poles in front of many houses.

“The knocked me out,” said Roger. “I had never seen anything like them. They were beautiful.”

Nancy added that the Hmong people had always been well-versed in embroidery work and handicrafts, but they didn’t make story cloths until they were pent up for 25 years or more as refugees surviving a deadly war.

“It wasn’t until they were in the camps that they had a story to tell,” she said.

The Harmons are members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito, and were thrilled when the Solana Beach church’s publicity chair, Irving Himelblau, approached them about doing an art exhibit there. Every few months, the church puts on a new exhibit and every month proceeds from church collections benefit a different cause. The church is also very involved in service work such as Habitat for Humanity, via the church’s social action committee.

“If there’s any strong pillar of justice here, it’s with the social action committee,” said Himelblau, adding that the Hmong story cloth exhibit and associated “My Library” cause was a perfect addition to the church event schedule.

“This exhibit just felt really good, especially given the cause and the historical aspect,” Himelblau said.

Refreshments at the two-hour event will be served and Montgomery will be speaking about the contemporary refugee situation here in San Diego. His IRC office is located in City Heights, which, along with Chula Vista, has a large refugee population.

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