LA CROSSE, Wis. - The villages in Laos were once quiet. Lemon trees, garden beds and yard tools. This was home.
"They were peaceful here until they got involved in the war," said Jason Rutz, La Crosse School District 4th grader.
So begins the story of the Hmong people.
Who were forced from their homes and into the jungles of Laos.
They ran from communist soldiers from North Vietnam who were angry with the Hmong for helping American Soldiers during the Vietnam war.
"It was a really harsh time," said Rutz.
The reality of the difficulties Laotian natives faced in the 1960s and 70s is being taught through an interactive learning experience called the Hmong Education Project.
"I was born in Laos," said Tony Yang, Hmong Education Project advisory committee member.
Yang is one of the project's facilitators. The project is designed to give 4th grade students in the La Crosse School District a learning experience outside of a textbook.
"The opportunity for students to actually step into an environment and to become... actually step into role... that it really feeds the mind and the heart in understanding the dilemmas that different people have faced in their lives," said Wendy Mattison, dramatic residency artist for the La Crosse School District.
The project is made up of four learning stations and was developed, in part, through authentic stories from the Hmong elders and Hmong children like Tony.
"Many Hmong people, for their own safety, they had to move their family to the jungle," said Yang.
At the age of 6, that is what Tony's family did.
And when they escaped the jungle, the Hmong families had to cross the Mekong River to reach the refugee camps in Thailand.
"I lived there for 8 years," said Yang. "So, I experienced everything in the refugee camp."
Families lived in tight quarters, and you couldn't leave the camp.
"You're not living in there," said Yang. "You're basically trying to survive in the camp."
"A lot of people get sick, especially kids and children."
These facts were eye opening for the students who could not have imagined what that would have been like.
"It's just too horrible for me to think about," said Rutz.
"They had to live there for many, many years before they can register with the United Nations to come to America," said Yang.
"Students come out of these experiences with more questions," said Mattison. "And they also have empathy for experiences that people in our community today have experienced. And we have found that to be the heart and soul of this work."
And where there is empathy, there is peace… much like the Hmong once had in the villages of Laos.
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