North Carolina & The Southeast Asian Refugee Community

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Cat Bao Le, Director of the Southeast Asian Coalition (in partnership wih the Vietnamese Association of Charlotte) -- an 18MR community partner -- shares the love and hustle that comes with engaging APIA communities in the South:

When community members smile at me slightly embarrassed, and say they don’t want to vote because they are not political, I can’t say I take it completely at face value. Coming from a community where our lives have been uprooted and re-routed from our homelands to the U.S. because of politics and war, how can I believe that our people are not ‘political’?  Our histories have been directly political, and by histories I don’t mean 400 years ago, but more like 40. The memories of struggle and war are still fresh within our lifespan, and still evident in our everyday lives.


But because of this, I ‘get’ it. I understand the spectrum of reactions that I get from my community when registering them to vote: from the excited newly naturalized immigrant who feels they finally have a place in America, to the reluctant grandma who has learned that survival often means not speaking up --  these are the beautiful contradictions that happen within a community that has had to make sense of a trauma-filled past in order to survive in the current. These are the different ways it can manifest.


I try to remember this in my own work in the community, because although nothing changes overnight, I also believe that very little gets done without love and compassion. There is an importance in understanding the dynamics within the community, to better understand how our strengths can best be built. To me, it’s about moving the community from the inside, which is what we have tried to do at the Southeast Asian Coalition (SEAC). With little Asian partner organizations in the South, we’ve had to work through churches, temples, and even unofficial groups -- but this has allowed us to organize in a more genuine way and to build trust.


I work in North Carolina, and it just so happens that this state has a very diverse Southeast Asian refugee population. For example, outside of Charlotte -- in the Hickory area -- there's a large rural Hmong community, many of which have moved there from California. This community may work in factories or manufacturing centers during the day, but many come home and grow their own food on their land, similar to how they did in Laos. In fact, this Hmong community is fourth largest in the nation after Fresno, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.


The Vietnamese population is also certainly growing, and has doubled in the last decade to 30,000 -- many of which have also moved from other states. North Carolina is also home to the largest population of Montagnards outside of Southeast Asia. This ethnic group from Vietnam fought alongside the US Special Forces and CIA during the war, much like the Hmong in Laos, but are made up of different tribes -- all with distinct languages. The first group of Montagnards came in 1986, and subsequent waves continue to be resettled in North Carolina.



With the population growing so quickly, there’s a lot to be done around services and support, but along with that comes the need to build power. At the Southeast Asian Coalition we're building power by providing free legal services for members to naturalize, and then fostering this base to become engaged: through community education on issues such as deportation, poverty, and yes -- voting. Voting is touted by leaders and elected officials as the way our communities’ voices can be heard -- and the power of voting is a beautiful thing, no doubt. But the process of getting the community to vote through embracing our complexities, building awareness and trust, and instilling community confidence is just as powerful -- and perhaps even more beautiful and long-lasting.


                                           -- Cat Bao Le


Cat currently works in Charlotte, North Carolina to increase civic engagement, citizenship, and community empowerment in the growing Southeast Asian American community. In 2012 Cat co-founded the Southeast Asian Coalition, and is currently  Director. Cat also serves on the Board of Directors for the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) in Washington D.C.



If you live in North Carolina, make sure you register to vote by Friday October 12th!

People with valid photo ID and a proof of address may register and vote during the early voting period (from the third Thursday before the election until the Saturday before the election). One-stop voting site registration and absentee voting is available at particular polling sites. Please contact your elections office or board of elections for your county, city or state to learn more about this option and specific locations. In order to register during a one-stop period, you must show acceptable proof of name and residence in the county.