How Suni Lee, Tokyo Olympics all-around winner, represents a refugee community, the Hmong

·5 min read

When Suni Lee won gold in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gymnastics all-around competition Thursday, her Hmong community also won.

Lee is the first Hmong-American to make the U.S. Olympic team and is representing an ethnic community that has never had a home.

Hmong communities made up less than .001% of the U.S. population in 2019, according to U.S. Census data.

Lee's parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were children in the late 1970s when they and their families fled Laos to refugee camps in Thailand to resettle in Minnesota, The Star Tribune reported. The largest communities of Hmong reside in California and Minnesota, with 81,000 living in St. Paul, Minneapolis.

Lee was born in St. Paul and is set to attend Auburn University after the Olympics.

Suni Lee in photos: Incredible images of Suni Lee from the women's gymnastics all-around at Tokyo Olympics

Winning gold: Suni Lee wins gold in Tokyo Olympics gymnastics all-around competition

Before the Tokyo games, John Lee predicted just how historic an Olympic medal would be for not only his daughter but for his people.

"It would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the U.S. ever," John Lee told Elle Magazine. "It will go down in history."

So who are the Hmong, what nationality is Suni Lee and what is her culture?

What does Hmong mean?

Hmong people are an ethnic group who lived in southwestern China but migrated to Laos and Thailand seeking more freedom. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong fought against the Southeast Asian communists they fled from and partnered with American forces. The fight between America and South Asia is now known as the "Secret War," according to Hmong American Peace Academy.

But once the U.S. pulled out of the war, communist forces sought to punish the Hmong for siding with America so the Hmong people fled their homes once again. Hmong families settled in refugee camps in Thailand before moving to the U.S., France, Australia and abroad.

Hmong families, such as Lee's, came to America because the State Department gave the resettlement contract to volunteer agencies such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Service and Church World Service, according to HAPA.

Lee identifies as Hmong American, as a daughter of Hmong refugees. John, Lee's father, was 7 when his parents brought him and his siblings to the U.S. from Laos. John's father was a Hmong soldier who fought alongside the U.S. military during the Secret War, ESPN reported.

Contestants in a beauty pageant wait backstage during Hmong New Year celebrations Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006, in Nong Hoi Mai village, north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Hmong, who trace their roots back to China, have large populations in Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
Contestants in a beauty pageant wait backstage during Hmong New Year celebrations Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006, in Nong Hoi Mai village, north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Hmong, who trace their roots back to China, have large populations in Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

What is Hmong culture?

In the past, Lee has described her Hmong community as "really close" and said it feels rewarding to have their support during competitions and the Olympics. Hmong culture is traditionally centered around family and clan members.

There are 18 clans in the Hmong culture, members within the same clan consider themselves family regardless of blood ties. The name of the clan is also their surname, according to HAPA. The culture also places an emphasis on respecting elders and history.

Hmong American Phillipe Thao said because the Hmong don't have a country or land to call home, they've bonded as a community.

"Hmoob yuav tsum hlub Hmoob, which translates to 'Hmong have to love Hmong' is a saying that our elders have always echoed," Thao told USA TODAY. "As a displaced ethnic group from Southeast Asia, we don't have a land to call our own. What we do have is the love we show one another in our community."

Hmong women wearing formal dresses used for special events, watching as Hmong and other Laotian-born vietnam veterans march to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Thursday morning in Washington, D.C. The color of the dresses indicate the village from which they come. (GNS Photo by Heather Martin Morrissey)
Hmong women wearing formal dresses used for special events, watching as Hmong and other Laotian-born vietnam veterans march to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Thursday morning in Washington, D.C. The color of the dresses indicate the village from which they come. (GNS Photo by Heather Martin Morrissey)

The Hmong are traditionally animist, people who believe in souls or spirits, in their practice of religion. The Hmong believe the spiritual world influences the human life, spirits such as ancestral spirits, household spirits, spirits in nature, and evil spirits, according to HAPA.

Thao added they also culturally practice shamanism and believe the spirits of their ancestors are always guiding them. He said in times of need or during celebrations, Hmong people will cook feasts and burn incense to thank theancestors.

According to Hmong tradition, when a person dies, their soul must return to their birthplace, then travel on to meet their ancestors in the afterlife. The Hmong perform rituals during the dayslong ceremony to ensure the souls safe passage.

What does Suni Lee's win mean for the Hmong people?

When Lee stood on the Olympic platform to accept a gold medal in front of the world, Thao said it felt like the Hmong people were finally seen.

"Hmong parents sacrifice so much, that's what our ancestors did with their lives when they crossed the Mekong River. Suni Lee's parents and family serve as an inspiration to our community that we must support our youth, especially Hmong girls, and build solid foundations for their success," Thao said.

The Hmong community has rallied around Lee's victory, posting congratulatory messages and videos on social media. In one video, Lee's parents and community are seen shouting and crying as they react to her win.

"The Hmong here are very proud to be American,'' Sia Lo, a St. Paul attorney and a member of Lee's extended family told the Star Tribune. "We hope all of America is proud of Suni. What she's achieved showcases what is possible here in the United States.'

From fleeing war and violence as refugees to assimilating to the U.S., Thao said Lee's victory is a reflection of the Hmong people's drive and spirit.

"Through this trauma, the Hmong have a strong sense of resilience. And we see that very same resilience in Suni Lee," Thao said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Olympics all-around winner Suni Lee represents Hmong community