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Bridge generation: Children of southeast Asian refugees carve out niche in Huron

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Bridge generation: Children of southeast Asian refugees carve out niche in Huron

Sep 15, 2023 | 3:10 pm ET
By John Hult
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Bridge generation: Children of southeast Asian refugees carve out niche in Huron
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Lah Soe speaks before the start of a Miss Knaw pageant at Huron in July 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

HURON — Until age 6, Kler Hae roamed the highlands of southern Thailand after school with his friends, hunting birds with slingshots and stones. If they got lucky, they’d bring home dinner.

Now he’s a real estate agent in Huron, an eastern South Dakota town of about 14,000. 

At age 12, Pywe Der moved to the U.S. and started learning English. In 2016, he was crowned Huron High School’s homecoming king.

Now he’s a Huron police officer.

A woman leaves an Asian market in Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A woman leaves an Asian market in Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The Karen people in Huron

This is part of a two-story report.

Part 2: Desperation and renewal: How Huron embraced new Americans and thrived.

At 12, New New Win’s mother gave their home and nearly everything in it to an uncle who wouldn’t be able to join them in the U.S.

Now she’s a community health worker for Huron Regional Medical Center.

At 16, Hezekiah Moo and his family had to duck Thai police on the rare occasions they’d venture out of their refugee camp. His parents made him read before school, after school, and again before bed, believing education was the clearest path to a brighter future.

Now he’s a paraeducator with the Huron School District.

All four are members of the Karen (kuh-RIN) ethnic group, a people native to Myanmar (formerly Burma) whose members have fled the world’s longest civil war for decades to create a global diaspora of nearly 2 million. Another 5 million Karen still live in Thailand or Myanmar. 

Since 2006, nearly 3,000 have either moved to Huron for jobs, initially at a turkey processing plant, or have been born there to migrant parents. 

The Karen were among the first in a continuing wave of migrants from southeast Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America that turned Huron into the state’s most diverse city per capita outside of Indian Country.

Hae, Der and Moo are part of a bridge generation for Huron’s Karen. They and others in their late teens and 20s spent their childhoods translating documents, medical instructions, contracts and even their own report cards for their parents. 

Der is the second Karen-speaking officer hired by the Huron Police Department. Hae is the first Karen-speaking Realtor in South Dakota. Moo is one of nearly two dozen Karen paraeducators on the Huron School District payroll working with English language learners of all backgrounds across the school system.

Lah Soe, meanwhile, leads the Huron Karen Association and organizes an annual soccer tournament. It doubles as a three-day Karen culture festival that draws thousands from the global diaspora to the Pepsi Soccer Fields each July.

In addition to men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball – the top prize is $15,000 – the 2023 event included a beauty pageant, fashion show and two nights of concerts.

Simon LerDee of Colorado was there to play volleyball, but also to connect with others who speak his language and share his culture.

“This is the biggest tournament of the year for the Karen community,” LerDee said. “Everywhere you go, people say ‘hi’ and want to talk to you.”

Hae and Der played soccer at the tournament; Moo live-streamed the shows and photographed the action.

The presence of white Huron residents at the festival, particularly younger people, was a sign that the city’s transformation has moved beyond awkward beginnings and varying degrees of discomfort to a point of pride. 

“Our kids are paving the way for us as adults,” said Huron School District Superintendent Kraig Steinhoff. 

Beyond the factory

Dakota Provisions, whose management recruited the first Karen families to Huron for work in the turkey processing facility in 2006, is the largest employer in Beadle County, with around 1,000 employees. 

Huron’s Karen residents still make up a sizable chunk of its workforce, but the company’s recruiting efforts shifted toward migrants from other southeast Asian nations in recent years.

Many of the children of that first set of refugee workers are less interested in the close quarters of a slaughterhouse. Some new Huronites have picked up trade skills and work for companies like Terex or Horizontal Machining and Manufacturing. 

The pool of skilled foreign-born workers has helped the turkey plant, too.

“That’s where we get our electricians,” said Mark “Smoky” Heuston, a former recruiter for Dakota Provisions.

Hezekiah Moo leads a Sunday school class in Huron, SD. (submitted photo)
Hezekiah Moo leads a Sunday school class in Huron. (Courtesy of Hezekiah Moo)

 At Terex, just under half its Huron workers are minorities, the bulk of whom are Karen.

“About 25% of our workforce in Huron is Karen,” Terex Vice President Eric Kluver said. “And it’s growing. It’s helped us quite a bit.”

Other Karen have opted to open businesses, which include grocery stores and restaurants and recently, a body shop called Kaw Thoo Lei. 

Laurie Shelton, head of the Huron Chamber of Commerce, estimates that around a third of the new local businesses opened over the past decade are owned by new Americans.

Some of Huron’s Karen children have gone to college and returned to town with degrees. Huron Regional Medical Center has long employed Karen translators and now has community liaisons and health care aides with Karen heritage. Dakotaland Federal Credit Union keeps Karen employees on staff.

“The second generation is really stepping out into the community,” Shelton said.

Win’s job for the hospital is to step out into the community. The 24-year-old graduated from Huron High School in 2016, then attended Northern State University, where she majored in biology and psychology. After a few years working in human resources for Jack Link’s, a jerky plant in Alpena, Win latched onto the opportunity to become a community health worker for the hospital. The grant-funded position opened up last fall, and she fit the job description for several reasons: she’s outgoing, speaks Karen and cares deeply for the health of her community. 

She earned a community health worker certification during her first months on the job, which the hospital calls “community liaison.” She’s one of two, the other being a former nurse from Puerto Rico who works with Spanish-speaking residents. 

Win’s work involves some translation, but mostly involves getting out into the community to help connect people to hospital service, encourage preventative health care like colonoscopies and mammograms, and stress the importance of a healthy diet. 

One older Karen woman with diabetes started with a visit from Win to discuss nutrition. Shortly thereafter, Win took her shopping to find health foods to help keep her blood sugars in check.

Win also works to overcome ingrained beliefs, especially in some older residents, about the effectiveness of herbal or natural remedies or the notion that a visit to the hospital is a sure sign of impending death.

There’s no need to turn to traditional medicine for most ailments, Win will tell them.

“We live in the United States now,” she’ll tell them. “We have everything that we might need.”

New careers, new focus

Officer Der is the second Karen-speaking officer to have joined the Huron Police Department. The first left town with a spouse who got a higher-paying job. 

Factory work was never appealing for Der. He always wanted to be an officer, as his father was back in the camp in Thailand. Camps don’t have certified officers with badges, bodycams and firearms certifications, but the elder Der served as a peacekeeper, working to break up ugly situations before Thai authorities got involved.

Pywe Der of the Huron Police Department. (submitted photo)
Pywe Der of the Huron Police Department. (Courtesy of Tony Mangan)

“If there were troublemakers or if people were drunk and fighting, they would have him come and get involved,” Der said. “It was a lot like what I do now, actually.”

Der headed to the Law Enforcement Academy in Pierre on the third week in August to work toward his officer certification, but he’s been patrolling for months. He speaks English to anyone who can, and Karen to those who don’t or prefer their native tongue.

His work is grounded in concern for public safety, but also for his people. He remembers his father getting into an accident early on in their time in Huron. It was a minor fender-bender, but no one was around to translate. His father wasn’t sure what he was legally obliged to do, and knew even less about what to say to the other driver.

A lot of new Americans need help wrapping their arms around the laws and expectations of their adopted country, Der said. 

“They don’t want to break the law, but they don’t know it,” Der said. “They don’t understand it at all.”

Moo, the paraeducator, knows he could make more money at the turkey plant than he does at the school. But he enjoys working with people, likes his summers off and prefers a work environment whose climate is controlled for the comfort of humans, not the safety of turkey meat.

“I don’t like the cold,” said Moo. “I don’t think I could work in the factory.”

The 29-year-old is the breadwinner for his family, a role he took on in the U.S., where he’s purchased a house for himself, his mother and his sister. Moo’s father died from diabetes complications and high blood pressure in 2010, just months before the family left Thailand and more than a year after applying for visas.

“He was the one who wanted us to come to the U.S.,” said Moo. 

New New Win, left, helps a Karen woman shop for healthy food in this undated photo. (courtesy Huron Regional Medical Center)
New New Win, left, helps a Karen woman shop for healthy food in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Huron Regional Medical Center)

After high school, Moo got an associate’s degree through Huron Community Campus, a remote learning site on the grounds of an old college. After a few months at a clinic, he signed on to help high school students who are just learning English tackle their coursework.

Moo doesn’t speak Spanish, but he’s picked up a bit. Otherwise he relies on student translators and Google Translate. 

Helping students at the school where he began to learn English as a 16-year-old freshman is gratifying, he said.

“I’m a person who’s always been very curious about other people and their languages,” said Moo, who was the district’s paraeducator employee of the year in 2021. “I want to learn about their languages.”

Win enjoys her work for the hospital. She likes working with people in general, and especially enjoys helping her community. But even if she wanted to work at Dakota Provisions, she wouldn’t do it.

“My mom, my whole family is working hard for us to have a better opportunity,” Win said. “To see their kid work in a factory, that would break their heart.”

Hae has similar motivations. As a real estate agent, he can help make sure Karen children don’t have to guide their parents through mortgage contracts.

Huron, SD Realor Kler Hae of Ace Realty. (submitted photo)
Huron Realtor Kler Hae of Ace Realty. (Courtesy of Kler Hae)

“I’ve been trying to translate government papers since I was 9 or 10 years old,” Hae said. “I don’t think that’s fair to a lot of kids. That’s hard. Even today, for me, explaining the contract and translating it from English to Karen is difficult. I just thought there should be someone working in that field, instead of having kids do it for them.”

Hae remembers coming from San Antonio to Huron on a bus, about six months after his family landed in the U.S. It was the middle of winter, and he’d never seen snow. 

Initially, he was mystified at the sight of it. 

“Now I hate it,” he said.

There’s plenty he does enjoy in Huron, of course, including his work. Hae did a job shadow day with a real estate agent in high school. The experience helped him realize that the career offered him a chance to satisfy another prime motivator: his competitive instinct.

“Being a Realtor, the sky’s the limit,” Hae said. “The harder you work, the more you get paid, so it’s very competitive. I’ve always liked competing in sports and stuff like that, so that really drives me.”

Huron as a hub

Hae and Der still compete on the soccer field. When he’s not selling homes or toiling as a landscaper at his second job, Hae works as an assistant soccer coach at Huron High School. During this year’s Karen soccer tournament, Der and Hae both competed for the $15,000 top prize as members of the Huron Thunder (they didn’t win).

The swell of southeast Asians at the soccer tournament is a reminder that Huron is far from the only city to have been adopted by Karen refugees. The largest concentration of Karen in the U.S. is centered around the Twin Cities, where nearly 20,000 Karen have settled, but the diaspora is wide.

Wah Fishpaste, a social media influencer of Karen heritage, plays guitar at a July 2023 soccer tournament in Huron, SD. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Wah Fishpaste plays guitar at a July 2023 soccer tournament in Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

At the 2023 event, the question “where are you from?” was met with answers including Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, as well as the U.S. states of Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, New York, Arkansas, Missouri and, occasionally, Thailand.

That’s exactly the kind of gathering envisioned by the tournament’s late founder, Paw Sae, according to Der, the Huron police officer. The tournament is officially called the Paw Sae Memorial Soccer Tournament.

“He was the face of the Karen people, there and here,” Der said. “He wanted all the Karen people to at least once a year to all come together and see each other, check in on how everyone is doing.”

Like Der, many of those in attendance in 2023 came to their adopted homes at a young age, learning English and translating for their older relatives. Some have taken up the causes of Karen independence and humanitarian aid. 

A Karen social media influencer who lives in Norway who goes by Wah Fish Paste runs a nonprofit organization called “I Am Knyaw,” a reference to the Karen word for his people. Proceeds from the sale of T-shirts, hoodies and other items goes to support the families left behind in the camps. 

Two teenage collaborators from Minneapolis and Omaha, Ka La Moo and April Htoo, were on hand to sell their clothing, purses and other Karen-centric items, as well. The “I Am Knyaw” clothing often includes the year 1949, the year the Karen insurgents launched their campaign against Burma.

A vendor uses a machine to extract sugarcane juice at a soccer tournament in Huron, SD in July 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A vendor uses a machine to extract sugarcane juice at a soccer tournament in Huron in July 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The gathering was a unique opportunity for another young Karen man, the rapper Star2 of San Diego. He raps in English, and most of his songs aren’t directly about the Karen experience, which made his performance to an expo building on the state fairgrounds packed with southeast Asians special.

“Most of my fans don’t even know I’m Asian,” he said.

The rapper arrived at the Pepsi Soccer Fields that afternoon with a social media manager in tow, documenting his interactions with a professional-grade camera. 

While most of the visitors had kind words for Huron as a welcoming place, Hae feels like the generation after his could be drawn to places like San Diego or other urban locales, like the children and grandchildren of some earlier South Dakota immigrants.

For now, at least, he’s glad to call Huron home. He and his friends are busy working to make it their own.

“I think a lot of the younger generation, they’ll go to college, they’ll get jobs and they’ll want to make it – eventually,” Hae said. “Eventually. Right now, you know, it’s still just graduate and work. A lot of my friends work at Terex or Dakota Provisions or Jack Link’s, but eventually, I think the younger generation will move to cities.”

Win agrees, at least partially. She’s not sure how the next generation will view the city of 14,000 in a country with so much opportunity in so many places. With her hard-won language skills, a college degree and a certification in the high-need field of community health work, Win could punch her own ticket to a life just about anywhere in the U.S.

But she’s not interested. 

“Huron is home for me,” Win said. “This is my community. I want to settle down and raise a family here.”