OWASSO, Okla. (AP) -- During the Vietnam War, the Hmong people of Laos rescued U.S. pilots who were shot down in their country. After the war, many came to the United States with the help of American churches.
Now, the task before Benjamin Lee and his congregation at the Hmong Alliance Fellowship is to help his people continue to build lives of their own in this northeastern Oklahoma town.
When the Laotian government was under communist control after the war, many Hmong, such as Lee, trekked through the jungle into Thailand and joined refugee camps in an attempt to make it to America.
Once there, they settled anywhere there was work or could find sponsorship and aid from an American church. Thomas Yang, 43, said he knew he had to leave when U.S. troops left.
"The Hmong had no choice but to come to the U.S. To live (in Laos) is to die because the communist government already knew the Hmong helped the CIA," he said.
Yang's father never tried to leave and still lives in Laos, where he remains under house arrest, unable to leave the borders of his village. His older brother died trying to escape from Laos in the mid-'70s.
Lee's uncle had come to America years before. He saved his own money and also contacted a church in New York that raised money to fly Lee and his five family members to America.
Both Lee and Yang said that once they were here, churches and their belief in the Christian faith helped them make it through troubled times.
Lee said a church helped pay for his family's plane ticket to America, after which his family settled in Denver, where his uncle lived.
While a government grant paid his family's rent, a church in Denver paid for the family's furniture and food. After about a year, Lee said, he had learned enough English to support himself, but he said he never would have made it through his first year in the country without help from the church.
He said he remembers the generosity of the churches as he now leads his own congregation in Owasso.
"If the churches didn't help, we might not have survived in this country," Lee said.