The Hmoob Kaj Siab house is open and running at Life Center just off of Stoughton Road in Madison. In partnership with Anesis Center for Marriage & Family Therapy, Hmoob Kaj Siab (previously known as Kajsiab House) will provide warmth, mental health services, daily home-cooked meals, personalized case management and individual counseling.
Over 60 people attended the Hmoob Kaj Siab Grand Opening on Friday afternoon. Guests were treated to a massive food buffet, speakers, and a tour of the new facility.
The sprawling Life Center has the amount of space coupled with a homely feel that allows the Hmong, Laotian, Kamai and Cambodian elders to feel at home while facing the difficulties springing from the painful memories of war that continue to haunt an entire generation.
In September of 2018 the Journey Mental Health Center decided it could no longer operate the Kajsiab House, a place of refuge for the elders who escaped war-torn nations and built new lives from scratch in the United States.
Journey’s decision to close Kajsiab House was a shocking development in the lives of elders who did not need additional stress in their lives. For its part, the closing of Kajsiab house wasn’t something Journey had wanted to do but as an entity Journey felt Kajsiab had too many longstanding financial issues to continue to be a viable option.
There was much backlash in the Hmong community. The announcement spiraled into a finger pointing contest between a number of organizations, but the Hmong community came together and was strong, vocal and organized about continuing to provide the care services elders needed.
Hmong leaders raised over $130,000 and made sure there weren’t gaps in services.
“So back in the fall of 2018 when Journey made the announcement they were shutting Kajsiab House down, the community came together to raise some funds to make sure there’s no gaps in services,” Hmong Institute CEO Peng Her told Madison365. “That carried us through December and then we partnered with the gracious Catholic Multicultural Center and they housed us temporarily until we could find a new home for the elders. And so that’s how this came about. I was fortunate enough to meet with the Pastor here, Adam Clausen, and we talked about the space availability here.”
Her said that the warmth and size of the building really made it the right place to be the elder’s new home. Many of the elders view it as a home away from home, a place where they make vital connections with their peers and enjoy new experiences like monthly field trips.
But it is also a place of healing and recovery from the traumas of earlier lives.
“Many of them suffer from PTSD because of atrocities during the war that are unspeakable. They lost loved ones whether it was a family member or a spouse or a child,” Her said. “Most of them didn’t really have a chance to mourn that loss because as they got to America it was kind of sink or swim, right? You swim and you make sure that you can survive and provide for your family. So for the first, you know, 15 to 20 years it was just trying to survive here in America.”
The generation that came over in large part during major Hmong relocations were able to make lives for their children. They sacrificed and scratched and clawed. They preserved their vibrant culture along the way, all the while learning how to put down roots and avoid the feeling of being nomads.
As a result of their strength, their children’s generation were able to be successful and educated and employed. But the years took their toll on the elders.
“As they became inculturated and their children started getting jobs and being able to support the family, now the elders have more free time and that’s where the thinking about all the atrocities they witnessed and happened to them and mental health issues start coming to the forefront,” Her explained. “And so Hmoob Kaj Siab is a house and program to use refugee trauma-informed health services to work with these elders who can suffer from being involved with the war. So Hmoob Kaj Siab is really about providing culturally competent and bilingual staff and using the informed mental health service to provide case management and psychotherapy and group therapy and individual counseling. To make sure we address some of the challenges that some of these elders face every day.”
Hmoob Kaj Siab House is a cozy place with a big community room that has comfortable couches and a blazing fireplace. Her said that the fireplace was a big hit during the below zero weather Madison has been hit by for much of the winter. But now that March has rolled around, the elders have begun to think about Spring and what they want to do with things like the garden.
“They’ve already begun planting their seedlings and they’re already sprouting,” Her said, laughing. “I hope spring comes soon because it’s cabin fever around here.”
Her said they try to provide the elders with new experiences as much as possible as well. He pointed to a recent bowling trip that was a big hit with some of the elders who had never been bowling before. In December they went down to Chicago so the elders could buy Christmas presents for their grandchildren and see the city.
“That’s what we’re all about. We’re giving them experiences they haven’t had before to lessen the stress that they have in their daily lives and make sure that we provide a safe environment.,” Her said. “We respect and honor them. Having this place now that has lots of room for them to be at; A kitchen and a cafeteria where the cooks are Hmong and they make Hmong dishes. Then after lunch, the elders like to walk, so having a gym where they can walk and talk to each other and get daily exercise has been heaven sent.”
Her said that the idea of being together with other people who have had the same experiences, faced the same hardships and swam instead of sinking is therapy enough. Hmoob Kaj Siab has group therapy and elders meet with individual counselors to talk about personal issues as well. But togetherness has been the best remedy.
“The fact that they all went through the same challenges, being in a room together in itself is therapy because they don’t need to talk about the challenges or the problems they’re having because they know that in that room, all the other folks have some of the same challenges.”
Peng Her says some of the seedlings the elders have planted are starting to sprout. Thanks to the strength and togetherness of an already strong community, this generation of elders will continue to have a place to watch them grow.