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A family protector dies of COVID-19: Sai Shoua Yang, 88, led dozens to safety through jungles of Laos

20December 2020

Der Yang remembers joining friends and relatives on the walk to school each morning within the United Nations refugee camp she called home. Her uncle, an early riser and dedicated family protector, would greet the kids outside his property, the first residence by the gate to their fenced-in area, counting each head.

“He’d say, ‘I see you!’ You’d know that if uncle saw you, you don’t go play,” said Der Yang, a St. Paul-based attorney. “He would stand by the gate to our section and count how many kids left and how many came back.”

Sai Shoua Yang (Courtesy of the Yang family)

It would become an emblematic role for Sai Shoua Yang, or “Uncle Sai,” a legal officer who presided over multiple Hmong villages in Laos at a young age and would go on to become an unlikely rebel leader in the U.S. “Secret War” against communism, a guiding voice among fellow refugees, and finally a strawberry farmer in the United States.

Sai Shoua Yang’s final battle ended Dec. 9 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, where he died of complications related to COVID-19 following at least a two-week hospitalization. He was 88, and neither the first nor last Hmong elder to survive war and resettlement but lose his life to the virus.

“He was the protector of everybody,” Der Yang said. “But at the end of his life, it was an invisible enemy that he couldn’t see and we couldn’t protect him from. My cousins are obviously devastated.”

It was unclear how Sai Shoua Yang became infected with the virus, though several family members he lived with worked outside of the home.

“He was always home,” Der Yang said. “When COVID came on, we all locked our parents away.”

‘THE LATE HOMECOMER’

The educational values Sai Shoua Yang attempted to instill in his extended family live on, in part, in their many accomplishments.

He lost his father at a young age, but his mother’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren number some 300 or more, Der Yang said.

Sai Shoua Yang makes an appearance in the acclaimed family memoir “The Late Homecomer,” written by his niece Kao Kalia Yang, as well as in her book “The Song Poet.”

His nephew Adam Yang, a judge presiding in Ramsey County District Court, said it’s been frustrating trying to educate skeptical elders about the virus, and for many, it’s too late.

RELATED: Surgeon says funerals, family get-togethers fueling COVID-19 transmission among Hmong

“I know a number of elders who are now hospitalized with COVID,” Adam Yang said. “My father didn’t believe in it. My mother’s sister’s son died of COVID early on. When they see that, it hits them.”

TouFu Vang, a former lieutenant colonel in Laos who worked closely with the U.S. Air Force and revered Hmong Gen. Vang Pao during the “Secret War,” died at St. Joseph’s Hospital on Thanksgiving Day.

TouFu Vang (Courtesy of the Vang family)

In the U.S., TouFu Vang had worked for the federal Department of Health and Human Services for decades, helping to resettle refugees across the Midwest.

Adam Yang said misinformation spread by word of mouth abounds among his father’s generation, who are in their 80s, and sometimes their adult children fail to abide by public health guidelines such as masking and social distancing. In the refugee camps, he said, there was no discussion of germs or viruses.

“I want to say they do get it now, especially my father, who is taking it seriously,” he said. “But it’s a lack of education, lack of understanding.”

FLEEING ACROSS THE MEKONG

From a relatively young age, Sai Shoua Yang had served as a Tasseng, or chief legal officer, presiding over a series of villages in the sub-district of Xiangkhoang in northeastern Laos. He mediated disputes, collected taxes and even had powers of arrest.

Der Yang recalled he also drew villagers to his home for days at a time, “people who don’t have a family and need a family,” she said. “Even in the refugee camps, people came by for a couple days. People visited him a lot. People sought his counsel.”

As a result, Sai Shoua Yang was already known for his fatherly leadership when he made the decision to flee through the Laotian jungles and across the Mekong River to the relative safety of the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. It was a decision, borne of necessity, that likely saved countless lives.

When the U.S. secretly rallied Hmong troops against communism in Laos, Sai Shoua Yang had become a troop leader, organizing small arms forces in the hills, Der Yang said.

“I think he was an unlikely leader, because my family is a farming family,” she said. “You don’t necessarily look to somebody who was born poor to lead thousands of people. So many of the military leaders at the time were relatives of Gen. Vang Pao, and we weren’t.”

ONE OF THE LAST RESISTANCE GROUPS

In 1975, when U.S. military planes carried an estimated 2,500 leaders of the Hmong insurgency from the CIA’s secret Long Tieng military base in northeastern Laos, everyday soldiers like Sai Shoua Yang were left behind to fend for themselves against Laotian forces intent on crushing them.

“His was one of the last resistance groups,” Der Yang said. “He didn’t just lead his village. Many, many people followed him. Everyone heard he would travel in a certain direction. People would pack up and follow.”

Later, when Sai Shoua Yang immigrated to the U.S. to build a new life for himself as a strawberry and vegetable farmer alongside his eight siblings, he’d frequently be asked to speak at cultural celebrations. His themes always touched on peace, prosperity and education, Der Yang said.

“Just his strength, and how people counted on his strength and his courage,” Der Yang said. “And they came to him to find strength, too.”

After arriving in the U.S. in 1988, Sai Shoua Yang and his eight siblings were resettled in Fresno, Calif., where he took up farming. In 1997, he moved his family to Minnesota, following his brothers, and held a prominent role as a Hmong elder and oral historian of the Secret War and its aftermath, while still maintaining a humble garden plot in Forest Lake.

His funeral has been deferred until conditions are safer for everyone, Der Yang said.

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