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Our Story

& How We Strive for Peace
The most powerful secret story of them all

Finding A Home |
A Journey

Our story begins in Laos, 1975. A child, 10 years old, is startled awake by her parents in the middle of the night and told to make her way silently under the cover of darkness to the vehicle parked just outside. She crawls into the cramped rear of the vehicle and ducks down alongside her three brothers and two sisters, all of them willing themselves invisible as they do their youthful best not to make a peep. Moments later, the engine rumbles to life and the car lurches forward, carrying the family of eight away from this place. Away from the swelling darkness that swallows their home in the rearview. Away from the encroachment of communism and the unspeakable horrors they’d surely face were they to stay just one day more. Away from any last remaining vestige of what once they considered their homeland. Their country. Slowly, steadily, they move forward into night with nothing but the clothes they wear and the promise of hope that this time they would make it. To the Mekong River. To Thailand. To freedom.

This is the story of Chris Her-Xiong, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of our school, the Hmong American Peace Academy. And to understand her story is to understand in a larger sense, the story of our people: the Hmong.

If anything, we are inspiring children to aspire to greatness. We need to capture the hearts of our young people. So that they believe in themselves so that they take ownership of their learning. We need to teach them if they dream it, they can achieve it.

Chris Her-XiongFounder & Executive Director, Hmong American Peace Academy

A Refugee in Thailand

Ban Vinai was a refugee camp in Thailand, set on 760 acres of land roughly 10 miles south of the Laotian border. Though intended to hold no more than 12,000 refugees at a time, at its peak in the mid-1980s it swelled to nearly 45,000—90 percent of whom were Hmong who had fled communist rule in Laos, searching for freedom. Among this vast sea of refugees was Chris Her-Xiong and her family, who arrived with the first wave of refugees in 1975.
Fluctuating between hungry and cold (at night) and hungry and overheated (during the day), Chris would stand with her sister in lines forever-long, winding through camp toward the cook house beneath a scorch of sunlight, waiting to receive her family’s daily food ration, which was mostly nothing more than an allotment of rice. On rare occasion, when the United Nations would show up bearing livestock and chickens, her father would volunteer her to slaughter the fowl, a task that permitted her large family access to additional rations.
Without school, without structure, without opportunity, Chris and the other children at Ban Vinai spent most of their time doing nothing at all.
“I remember, we would just run around and kick at the dirt,” says Chris, “waiting for the next day to come. We didn’t know when or even if we were going to have our next meal, didn’t know whether we would have shelter. We never knew what was going to come next. As I reflect back on it now, it really was just … a lifeless life.”
In fact, conditions at Ban Vinai in those early years were so bad, many refugees did die, having succumbed to starvation or malnutrition. It certainly wasn’t the new life Chris’s father had imagined for his family the night he led them out of Laos. But he was one of the lucky ones. Having been a Hmong soldier—and particularly, an ally of the United States during what later became known as the Secret War in Laos—he and his family were among the first granted an opportunity to seek asylum and emigrate to the United States.
After enduring atrocious living conditions due to overpopulation at Ban Vinai for more than a year, Chris and her family were on their way to America. It would not, however, be the last time Chris Her-Xiong would set foot inside a refugee camp.

A New Start in America

When their plane finally touched down on a runway in Des Moines, Iowa on December 9, 1976—after 24 grueling hours of travel—Chris and her family stepped, for the very first time, off the plane and into the American night. The first thing she noticed: all the twinkling lights. It was Christmastime, after all, which meant decorations as far as the eye could see. What she failed to notice that first night in America, in the general rush that formed out of excitement, having set foot in a new world, was all the snow. So when she awoke the next morning and saw a world coated in white, she didn’t think twice about running out into it … in bare feet. Indicative of all there was to learn about this strange new world she would now call home, it was quite a shock to her system. And so, as it turned out, was grade school.
Despite her age, she was placed in 3rd grade. At the time, however, she didn’t even know how to write her own name, let alone how to hold a pencil. It was the first time she’d ever attended a school of any kind. So that became her first lesson: how to hold a pencil and draw concentric circles. It was a crucial first step in her journey to assimilation.
“Coming to the United States at age 11,” says Chris, “I came having an identity crisis. I did not know who I was or where I came from. I did not know why I came. I did not know my history, because my parents did not share these details with us, the details surrounding our situation. All we knew was what was right in front of us. So growing up in a small town where we were the only Asian family, I wanted to be Americanized.”
Despite this desire, she experienced the consistent collision of two worlds—a steady push and pull between the life she inherited and the life she wanted to inhabit. Every morning, she would leave for school and immerse herself in her education, while soaking up as much American culture as possible. And every night, she would return home to her family and the insular Hmong world within which they lived. There, a heavy expectation was placed upon her—a persistence of tradition—to take on the responsibilities that typified the life of a young Hmong girl: cooking and cleaning in preparation for an inevitable marriage and life as a dedicated housewife.
But this kind of life, the life of a traditional Hmong female, was not for Chris. She craved American culture like she craved a good sloppy joe. More than anything, she felt compelled to a greater calling, a desire to impact the lives of a great many others. She wanted very much to attend college. So that’s what she set her mind to, teaching herself to read and to write and to speak English with fluidity. It wasn’t until a year or two into her college experience that she finally encountered for the first time an extraordinary appreciation for the Hmong, both her culture and her people—the very thing she had so readily rejected all these years.
“I was working at a library, shelving books,” says Chris, ”when I came across the title, Contemporary Laos. Toward the back of the book was a chapter on the Hmong people, which covered the Secret War and the role they played in it, their bravery and how they had been allies with the United States. And I was like, Here I am in college, and I finally find out who I am and why I’m here! I uncovered so much richness in my heritage, and I had only just discovered it! That was when I finally took pride in who I am and where I came from.”
It also became the pivotal moment when she decided to switch the focus of her studies away from computer science and toward education.
“I had this dream of creating a community for my people, the Hmong. To teach them who we are and to be proud of who we are. To maintain our heritage and culture, and ultimately, to share the richness of our heritage and culture with others.”
It was no more than an inclination at this point in her life. But little did she know it, Chris Her-Xiong was now permanently fixed on a path that would eventually lead to the founding of her very own school.

“Everything came rushing back,” she says. “The struggles of living, being constantly cold and hungry, a tarp over my head, the cardboard floor my father had made for us. All of it.”

Return to Thailand

By 1990, Chris Her-Xiong had become the first Hmong teacher hired by Milwaukee Public Schools. She was teaching middle school Hmong students at the time—orphaned refugees, mostly, of parents who’d either been killed during the war in Laos or trying to escape it—all of whom reaffirmed her fear. Namely, that they were facing the same identity crisis she once faced upon emigrating to the United States. It also reinforced her dream from college, to create a curriculum specifically geared toward young Hmong students, which would teach them the value of who they are and where they come from. And given Milwaukee’s growing Hmong population (Wisconsin is home to the third-largest Hmong community in the nation, many of whom live in Milwaukee), Chris knew the need was great. But the timing wasn’t right, having only started her teaching career.
So for a time, Chris allowed her strong desire to create a Hmong-specific curriculum to remain in the background of her mind. But every moment she spent with those students fed her insatiable belief that she was bound for something more.
“I loved my profession,” she says, “and I was perfectly satisfied doing what I was doing, being a teacher. But I knew, in my heart, I was edging toward something more. I just didn’t know what it was yet. I knew I could impact more than just the four walls of my classroom. I knew I could make an impact beyond my school, into the greater community.”
Eventually, this “intuition” sent her back, along with her husband, to the refugee camps in Thailand in the year 2000. And what she saw there would change her life forever.
But the low point came when she witnessed a group of girls as young as 10 and 11 years old climb willingly into a van, their families believing they were on their way to jobs in the restaurant industry, but who were actually being sold into the sex trade.
“It just broke my heart,” says Chris. “All of a sudden, tears were just coming down my face and my husband says to me, ‘Honey, after 25 years nothing has changed. How can we go back to the States with all of our opportunities and not do something? What can we do for our people?’”
And that’s when it dawned on her: We will open a school that will serve the Hmong community in the city of Milwaukee.
With her husband’s support, Chris enrolled at Alverno College shortly after returning from Thailand. Two years later, she received her principal license.

Birth of a Dream

By the time she completed her master’s degree at Alverno, Chris had already laid much of the necessary groundwork for her planned school. But her work was only just getting started.
She had approached members of her Hmong community with this message: If we don’t do anything for our young people, we will do nothing to break the vicious cycle of poverty, and our kids, too, will grow up depending on welfare and have nothing but low-paying jobs to look forward to. Her message was well received. She rallied support for her school and garnered trust among Milwaukee’s Hmong.
She met with key stakeholders, forged necessary partnerships, and began planning. For four years, Chris spent nights and weekends hosting community focus groups, speaking to educational experts, gathering best practices, and creating a curriculum that would enhance overall performance. She would settle for nothing less than the promise of a world-class education that would prepare her students to compete in a global market and maximize opportunity.

She crafted a vision based on three pillars:

First was laying a foundation of cultural strength in each student. Second was to ensure she create a community of peacebuilders. And finally, third was to couple one and two with rigorous academics.
With these three pillars in place, the Hmong American Peace Academy (or HAPA for short) opened its doors in 2004 to 200 students, roughly 60 percent of whom were refugees that came to the United States in the last wave from Thailand, just prior to the opening of the school. Today, 15 years later, HAPA is home to more than 1,800 K4 - 12 students.
“It’s like everything has come full circle,” says Chris. “Two years ago, our valedictorian was one of the students that came to us in that last wave of refugees in 2004. She came to us in K5, and I remember she did not know how to hold a pencil. The first thing we did was teach her how to hold a pencil and draw concentric circles. Just as I had learned so many years ago! Today, she’s in her third year at UW-Lacrosse, majoring in pre-med.”
Having celebrated so much success in its first 15 years of operation, HAPA has much work yet to accomplish. The facility HAPA calls home was intended for 800 students, and today at its peak, it holds more than 1,100. Shades of the past sneaking back into Chris’s life. Albeit this time, it’s because what she has built is something to be desired.
“We have an extraordinary school,” says Chris, “But in order for our kids to receive the best education, they need an environment that will allow them to be the very best they can be. How can we say we provide a world-class education when we have 40 kids per class? We don’t have the technology we need for our chemistry lab, our physics lab, or our biology lab. How can we say we are providing a first-rate education for our children and equipping them with 21st Century skills when we lack resources and technology?”
For these reasons and more, HAPA is entering a new phase, one of development and expansion. While it builds an ecosystem of success in each individual that passes through its halls, the time has come for HAPA to physically build new halls, so to speak.
“The need has never been greater,” Chris continues. “To grow our school, to serve our community, to positively impact our kids and the surrounding area, the city of Milwaukee. I believe the saying applies: Great today, better tomorrow! We are only just getting started!”
Indeed, our story began in Laos, in 1975. But it certainly doesn’t end here.