Four University of Arkansas at Fort Smith associations will work together to bring the Asian American and Pacific Islander Festival to UAFS students from 4:15 to 7 p.m., April 21 on the campus green. The event will celebrate and share the cultures and traditions of the students.
The Hmong Association is joining with the Japan Club, the Filipino Club and the Cultural Network to showcase an evening of traditional foods, dances, music and more. The event will end with a candlelight ceremony to honor and remember those killed during recent acts of violence against the Asian community in the United States, said Kia Yang, president, of the UAFS Hmong Student Association (HSA).
On March 16, 2021, there was a series of mass shootings at three spas and massage parlors in the Atlanta metro area. Eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women, and one other person was wounded. A suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was arrested for the crimes. The FBI warned at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US that it expected a surge in hate crimes against those of Asian descent, said a report by BBC News.
On Jan. 28, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was shoved to the ground while taking his morning walk in San Francisco, and he died just two days after the assault. Antoine Watson, 19, was charged with and pleaded not guilty to murder and elder abuse.
Since the start of the pandemic, Asian Americans have faced racist violence at a much higher rate than previous years. The New York Police Department reported that hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment jumped 1,900% in New York City in 2020. Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting database created at the beginning of the pandemic as a response to the increase in racial violence, received 2,808 reports of anti-Asian discrimination between March 19 and Dec. 31,said a Feb. 18 Time report.
“This has been a very difficult year for everyone and none more so than members of our Asian American community and members of the Hmong community. I know all of you may have a sense of concern for your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your community,” UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley said during the virtual 12 Annual Hmong Night April 3. “We want you to know you are important to us, and we want you to know we will do everything we can to make this campus safe and inclusive. Know how much we respect, appreciate and value all you bring to the university.”
The Hmong Night event is an annual event conducted by the HSA to showcase Hmong traditions and customs to UAFS students and the Fort Smith area. HSA was started at UAFS in 2009. It is open to all students, not just those of Hmong descent. There are 33 members, though that number ebbs and flows over the years, Yang said.
“We are a diverse group. We are open to everyone. It’s nice to have this diversity. We promote the Hmong culture to the community,” Yang said.
The mission of the association when it began was to develop leadership skills in its members, promote culture awareness through the university and community and promote higher education among high-schoolers in the Hmong community, said Mia Amao Yang, co-founder of the UAFS Hmong Student Association and first HAS president. Mia Yang is now a registered nurse and student at Simmons University in Boston, where she is working toward her master’s degree in nursing as a family nurse practitioner.
Kia Yang said she finds that many people do not know much about the Hmong history or how they helped “the U.S. in the Vietnam War or Secret War and how they escaped to Laos after the war and then were able to come to the United States.”
The Hmong are members of an ethnic group that have not had a country of their own. For thousands of years, the Hmong lived in southwestern China but migrated to Laos, Thailand and other neighboring countries when their freedoms were limited by the Chinese in the mid-1600s, said a report on Minnesota Public Radio. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong in Laos aided and partnered with American forces to fight Southeast Asian Communists.
“After the United States pulled out of Laos, Communist forces began retaliating against the Hmong for siding with the United States. Thousands fled – and died – and numerous refugee camps were set up in Thailand,” according to the report. “Many Hmong families eventually resettled in the United States, France, Australia and other parts of the world.”
Along with sharing Hmong history, the Hmong Night and the upcoming Asian American and Pacific Islander Festival allow students to showcase their authentic self and celebrate their culture.
“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the atrocities we have witnessed against the Asian community and my Asian brothers and sisters. We see you, we value you, and we stand with you in solidarity,” said John Blue, executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion at UAFS. “People must begin to recognize that there is beauty in diversity. As a society, we should embrace our differences and the beauty it brings to the world. I believe that has started on the UAFS campus and the Fort Smith community, but it must spread to the entire river valley and beyond.
“Never let anyone have the power to mute your voice,” he challenged students at the virtual Hmong Night event.
In 2020, UAFS had 297 undergraduate students who identified as Asian and 20 who identified as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, said Rachel Rodemann Putman, UAFS associate director for strategic communications.
HSA member Adora Kiatoukaysy said she hopes the organization grows in the coming years and finds more ways to go into the community, do volunteer work and promote the Hmong culture. She said she also hopes everyone at UAFS and the Fort Smith community begins to take action against any discrimination or racial violence they witness.
“As a community, we all need to recognize there are issues, and when we see something, we must speak up and do something,” Kiatoukaysy said.