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Shooting deaths rattle small, tight-knit US Hmong community

FRESNO, CA – Fresno has been the heart of California’s Hmong community for decades, drawing refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia who built a tight-knit population in the farm town. Now, they’re reeling from the shooting deaths of four Hmong American men at a weekend party.

The central California city has the nation’s second-largest concentration of the ethnic minority group from East and Southeast Asia — about 34,000 people — and is home to a festive weeklong Hmong New Year’s party that draws tens of thousands of Hmong from around the country every year.

“Obviously, everyone’s in shock,” said Steve Ly, the first Hmong elected mayor in the country in the city of Elk Grove. “Fresno is the old stomping grounds for many of us who are spread all over the state.”

Police have not determined a motive, and no suspects were identified in Sunday’s shooting that killed four and wounded six others. The gunmen targeted the house where some 16 men had gathered outside to watch football on television, police said. Women and children were inside the house and were not hurt.

The dead include Xy Lee, a Hmong singer and musician whose videos on YouTube have been viewed millions of times. Also killed were Phia Vang, 31; Kou Xiong, 38; and Kalaxang Thao, 40, all of Fresno.

Three others remained hospitalized in serious condition, hospital officials said.

Fresno police say they formed an Asian gang taskforce and were worried about possible retaliatory violence leading up to the Hmong New Year’s celebration. But friends and family say the victims had no such ties and are sensitive to the shootings being dismissed as gang-related or promoting stereotypes.

“We don’t want this to be a stain on the people,” said Bobby Bliatout, 42, the child of Hmong refugees who is now campaigning for the seat of U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes.

Hmong fought for the United States during the Vietnam War. Recruited by the CIA in Laos to fend off communist forces, they guided U.S. bombing missions and rescued downed American pilots, often at risk to their own lives.

After the war, Hmong refugees moved to Minnesota, California and Wisconsin. In California, they settled in the Central Valley, where sponsors hoped they could find work given their agricultural background.

There are about 300,000 Hmong in the U.S. — California has the most of any state, while Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota has the most of any metro area. About 72,000 Hmong live in the Twin Cities, about 34,000 in Fresno and about 31,000 in Sacramento, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report.

“They’re a very humble and respectful community, and it’s a tragic situation to experience,” said Miguel Arias, a Fresno city councilman. “They literally ran away from a war-torn country and sought refuge here, and for them to experience the same tragedy they ran from is heartbreaking.”

Arias was an aide in Congress in the 2000s when he was tasked with helping relocate a last wave of Hmong refugees from Thailand. He worked with the elders, who serve as the community’s spiritual and cultural leaders and who fought in the Vietnam War.

The Hmong community in Fresno has flourished, Arias said, with children growing up to be doctors, lawyers, teachers and elected leaders. The community has done better than other ethnic groups in graduating from high school and avoiding gangs, he said.

Hmong Americans struggle with poverty more so than most other Asian American ethnic groups, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the University of California, Riverside, School of Public Policy. But the community also has a strong sense of solidarity and high rates of political participation, he said.

“This shooting, this killing, is having reverberations not only in Fresno or in the Central Valley, but throughout the country. It is a significant population,” he said.

Paula Yang, a community advocate who is serving as a family spokeswoman for two of the four victims, said the deaths are devastating.

“I can’t get over what happened. These are innocent people who wanted to do better,” Yang said.

She was among the initial wave of refugees who came to the country as a young child in 1976.

Yang said her father had served with the famous Hmong general Vang Pao and that when the general told him to move to the Central Valley, the family left Orange County for Merced, 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Fresno. They tended a strawberry farm, she said.

“We live like sheep herders. You go from one town to the next, and everybody sticks together,” Yang said.

Fresno, which has about 525,000 people, is only 5% Hmong but has numerous markets, retail stores and other businesses catering to the broader Hmong community in the region.

And every year, tens of thousands of Hmong flock to Fresno for the annual New Year’s celebration from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. They wear traditional dress bursting with colors and dance and sing. They have soccer and volleyball tournaments and a beauty pageant.

Arias, the councilman, said it appears no group of Americans can escape the terror of mass shootings.

“The sad irony of this tragedy is they were doing the most American of traditions: Watching a Sunday night football game over a barbecue,” he said.

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Har reported from San Francisco.