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Choua Yang, Hmong refugee and educator, dies at 53

This obituary is one in a series on people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the others here.

When the Laotian government fell to the Communists in 1975, 9-year-old Choua Yang fled with her family across the border to Thailand. Three years later, the family was granted asylum in the United States.

Young Choua would grow up to be an educator, helping other Hmong immigrants to balance the cultures of their native country and their adopted home. She and her husband, also a Hmong refugee, founded the Prairie Seeds Academy in Minneapolis, a charter school focused on Hmong language, culture and heritage; she would receive national recognition as its longtime director.

To direct Prairie Seeds, she sometimes drew on her personal story of surviving a civil war, a story that included time spent in a refugee camp.

“She had seen conflict,” said Brody Derks, education manager at Prairie Seeds, “and she really wanted this school to be a place where students could learn in a peaceful environment.

Ms. Yang died Oct. 9 at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was 53 years old.

The cause was Covid-19, her daughter, Crystal Vang said. Ms. Yang was among a number of Hmong educators from the Twin Cities to have died from the virus, including Marny Xiong, the president of the St. Paul School Board.

Warm and gentle, Ms. Yang fostered a community where staff members were treated like family and made comfortable with her humor.

“If you were to see her, you would hug her, smile and then laugh,” said Kita Her, the school’s director of studies. Ms. Yang’s office has been described by colleagues as a revolving door of people seeking mentorship and advice. Every now and then she would soothe a crying student.

Choua Lee was born on October 30, 1966 in Laos, the third of six children born to Phomma Lee, who was Laotian, and Pheng Lee, who was Hmong. (As was customary at the time, Mr. Lee had a second wife, with whom he had three children.) His father was a battalion commander and educator who built the first one-room school in the area.

In 1969, the family moved to Long Tieng, the mountain air base for the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert efforts to prevent a Communist takeover. Mr. Lee, who was appointed major in 1974, served alongside the famous and charismatic General Vang Pao, a fighter in the CIA-backed guerrilla army, made up primarily of Hmong tribes.

Choua sat in the trunk of his father’s military jeep, his legs dangling in the back as he navigated pockmarked roads to rally his Hmong comrades against the Communist insurgency.

In 1975, Mr. Lee’s family fled to Nong Khai Refugee Camp in Thailand. In 1978, they joined the more than 115,000 Hmong refugees seeking asylum in the United States over the decades.

The family landed in New York and settled in Syracuse, New York, where Mr. Lee’s older brother already lived. Mr. Lee accepted a job with the Syracuse Parks and Recreation Department. Ms. Yang’s mother worked in the laundry services at James Square Retirement Home.

Ms. Yang graduated from Henninger High School in Syracuse in 1985, received her Bachelor of Education from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 1995, and in 1998 she received her first of three master’s degrees, in the K-12 program. His other master’s degrees were in bilingual education and educational administration.

In 1984, she met Cha Ger Yang, a Hmong refugee who was an educator living in Pennsylvania. They got married the following year. The Yangs moved to the Twin Cities area, which is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the country.

Ms. Yang started her career in 1996. She worked in public schools as a bilingual social studies teacher, Hmong literacy teacher, project coordinator, deputy director, director and director of English learning. for Minneapolis schools.

In 2004, as the charter school movement enabled the Hmong diaspora to pursue their own vision of education, the Yangs founded the Prairie Seeds Academy. The school initially offered kindergarten through eighth grade education, but then expanded to include high school classes and moved to Brooklyn Park, a northern suburb. Today, it has around 800 students.

Ms. Yang was a director from 2008 to 2020, and her husband was a general manager. In July, she was named successor to her husband, who retired. Later that summer, the Yangs both tested positive for Covid-19. Mr. Yang has recovered.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Yang is survived by five children, 14 grandchildren, and eight siblings and half-siblings.

Bao Vang, president of the nonprofit Hmong American Partnership, who worked with Ms. Yang from 2017 to 2020, called on the education pioneers Yangs.

“Parents are very proud that their children are able to speak Hmong, that their children participate in Hmong spelling lessons, that traditional Hmong arts and dances are preserved and transmitted,” Ms. Vang said.

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