Minnesota Immigrants: People on the Move


Immigrants and refugees are not the same. An immigrant chooses to leave their home and live in a new one. A refugee has no choice but to escape from their home due to war, persecution, or fear for their safety. Many refugees want to return home eventually, but others choose to stay.

Refugees have come to Minnesota from many dangerous places in the world. Some have benefited from relief and resettlement organizations formed by Minnesotans to help them. In recent decades, Minnesota has become a haven for refugees from areas in Asia and Africa, particularly the Hmong and Somali people.


The Hmong are an ethnic minority originally from China who moved to the southeast Asian region of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the pro-American government in Vietnam in 1975, many Hmong, who had worked with the Americans, were forced to flee their homes.

The U.S. government created the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act to welcome and resettle the Hmong, along with Cambodians and Vietnamese, in the country. Many Hmong ended up in Minnesota, joining members of their clans in new neighborhoods of St. Paul. By the 2010s, Minnesota had the second-largest population of Hmong people in the United States.

Cy Thao was born around 1971 in Laos. His father was an army sergeant, so they had to leave Laos immediately when the communists took over in 1975. His family stayed in the Ban Vinai refugee camp with other Hmong before they moved directly to Minnesota in 1980.

In this interview, he recounted his first impressions of Minnesota, his early years in school, his family, and his work as an artist, entrepreneur, and state representative.

Interview with Cy Thao, 2014


Other refugees from the Indochinese region of southeast Asia include the Lao. The Lao people are the majority in Laos, as opposed to the Hmong, which are a minority ethnic group there. Many Lao also had to leave their homes once the communists took over in 1975, and they were resettled in communities across the United States.

Saksady Xai Song Kham fled Laos during the conflict, crossing the Mekong River to escape to Thailand. After spending time in a camp there, he arrived in Minnesota as a refugee in 1980. In Minnesota, he has helped build and support the Lao community as a union representative and organizer.

Interview with Saksady Xai Song Kham, 2012. Inset photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society.


At the same time as the Vietnam War was ending, the Cambodian Civil War was raging. The Khmer Rouge, a brutal Communist regime, took power in 1975 and ruled Cambodia for four years. Many Cambodian people fled for their lives, joining other refugees from Southeast Asia at camps and in Minnesota.

Kim Sin was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge War. When he was very young, his family escaped to the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand. After relocating to two other refugee camps, they arrived in the Philippines to get ready to immigrate to America. He describes the conditions in the camps and what it was like to resettle in America in his interview.

Interview with Kim Sin, 2012. Inset photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society.


The Khmer people are an ethnic group of Southeast Asia that is native to Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, many Khmer people also became refugees. The Khmer people were resettled throughout the United States and many came to Minnesota.

Thaly Chhour had to leave her home village in Cambodia during the Cambodian Civil War. She was fourteen years old when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, and fifteen when her father and brothers died from starvation. She lived in refugee camps near the border of Thailand and Cambodia with her mother and sisters, but conditions were terrible there, too. She was sponsored to come to the United States from a refugee camp and arrived in Minnesota in 1982.

Interview with Thaly Chhour, 1992

Monoram Hang was nine years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. His father was in the Army and was killed in the fighting. He fled the city with his family on foot. After being sent to a work camp, he eventually crossed into Thailand to live at a refugee camp. His American sponsor helped him come to Minnesota in 1988.

Interview with Monoram Hang, 1992


The country of Somalia is experiencing an ongoing civil war, which started in 1991. In the years since, more than one million Somalis have fled the country and the war. Many have come to the United States as refugees or political asylees.

Minnesota has the largest population of Somali people in the country because many came to join friends or family members who already found refuge here. Some Somali refugees hope to return someday, but many are working to make their new home in Minnesota.

Before coming to Minnesota, Hared Mah grew up in Somalia and lived in Kenya for several years. His migration pattern is similar to other Somali refugees, who found temporary settlement before being allowed into the United States. In this interview, he describes what life was like in Somalia after 1991, as well as how he was treated in Kenya. He also discussed his first impressions of America and what he hopes to do here.

When I was in Somalia after 1991, there was no government. Then I was young; I didn’t know. I grew up in a system where there is no government. There is no police. Everything is in chaos… I didn't know what was going on… I thought the whole system was that way: the militia men running in the streets killing, you know. You don't know what will happen. You just have to stay there. Sometimes there are clashes between two groups. They're using these big gangs. It's very hard.

– Hared Mah

Interview with Hared Mah, 2004

Abdisalam Adam grew up in Somalia before going to school in Nigeria. He arrived in the United States on a student visa and worked in Wisconsin before moving to Minnesota and joining the Somali community here. In this interview, he talks about how the Somali people decided to come to Minnesota.

Interview with Abdisalam Adam, 2004. Inset photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society.


The Karen people are a minority ethnic group in Burma. They have been fighting the Burmese government for their independence since the end of World War II. Many have been driven from their homes. Starting around 2000, many Karen refugees began to arrive in the United States. As of 2018, more than 10,000 Karen people lived in Minnesota. They are the state's most recent refugee group.

Both Robert Zan and his father Mahn Ba Zan were military leaders in the Karen fight for independence. He decided to stop fighting and work to provide education and opportunities for Karen people in America, so they would be better prepared to build a Karen nation. He arrived in St. Paul in 2000.

In this interview, he spoke about what life was like in Burma for Karen people, which illustrates why so many of them had to flee.

Interview with Robert Zan, 2011. Inset photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Bless Say was born in Burma in 1950. After fleeing to Thailand and living in refugee camps, she came to Minnesota in 2008. After being in the U.S. for three years, she was learning English and hoping to become a United States citizen. In this interview, she explained the dangers of being Karen in Burma, her journey here as a refugee, and her goals for the future.

My goal is one year to be a citizen. All of my family needs that – to become citizens. If I try hard it will be easy (to pass the citizenship test). I would tell newcomers, America is good for the Karen people. You can get jobs; get education, safety and freedom.

– Bless Say

Interview with Bless Say, 2011

For more information about this exhibit and the others in this series, use the page links below.