Northern California’s refugee communities will come together this weekend to mourn the passing of Chaosarn Chao, an ethnic Iu Mien who helped thousands of Hmong, Afghans, Iu Mien and other refugees escape poverty through the nonprofit group he co-founded, Lao Family Community Development. Chao died on April 5 at age 66 following a bone marrow transplant and health complications.
Sacramento Mien activist attorney Koy Saephan said Chao’s agency lifted up generations of refugees from all over the world by teaching them to read, write, find jobs, secure housing and win U.S. citizenship. He started with the Iu Mien, tribal villagers and farmers from the mountains of Laos who were recruited by the CIA’s guerrilla army to battle Lao and Vietnamese communists.
“He commands a lot of attention, is very passionate about the issues impacting minorities and has always been concerned about the disenfranchised and less fortunate,” Saephan said.
Iu Mien from around the world are expected to attend Chao’s celebration of life funeral service at 10 a.m. Sunday at Richmond Civic Auditorium, 403 Civic Center Plaza. Final viewing will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Wilson & Kratzer Civic Center Chapel, 455 24th St. in Richmond, followed by his burial at Sunset View Cemetery at 101 Colusa Ave., El Cerrito.
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Chao’s father was Chao Mai, a farmer who himself hailed from a long line of leaders. At age 18, Chao Mai became the chief of his village and later served as the tasaeng, or district leader, of 15 villages before becoming a commander in the French army in Laos.
As part of the Secret War Oral History Project, compiled for the Elk Grove Unified School District, Chao described growing up in a small mountain village in Laos.
“At 8 years old, while helping my mother raise chickens, pigs and and cows, I finally went to school, because in the mountains we didn’t have a school until a military teacher came to our village,” he recalled. “There were a lot of tigers who would bite our cows.”
Chao went on to serve as a lieutenant in the CIA’s guerrilla army from 1968 to 1975 and as a chief of staff for his uncle, Maj. Chao La, a leader of the Iu Mien army.
In 1978, 28-year-old Chao became one of the first Iu Mien to resettle in America when he moved his family into a three-bedroom apartment in Richmond.
Thousands of Iu Mien refugees ended up joining him in some of Northern California’s toughest neighborhoods, such as Oakland, Richmond and south Sacramento, where many fell prey to street violence.
“In East Oakland and Sacramento, for over 30 years we worked with the state of California’s victims assistance program and recently piloted a program for underserved children who are victims of crime, violence or trafficking,” said daughter Kathy Chao Rothberg, a former mayor of San Pablo and the current executive director of Lao Family Community Development.
In 1980, Chao, along with the legendary Hmong general, Vang Pao, founded Lao Family, and the agency now has eight offices from Oakland to Sacramento and annually serves 15,000 clients in 25 languages, Chao Rothberg said.
Chao also founded the Iu Mien American National Coalition and was president of the Lao-Mien Veterans Association. In those capacities, he helped Iu Mien seniors who had suffered permanent physical and psychological damage as crime victims, said Chao Rothberg.
Chao made his home in both Richmond and Sacramento, where more than 5,000 Iu Mien form the biggest Mien population centers in the U.S.
Sacramento educator Chiem-Seng Yangh called Chao “a legend in the Iu Mien community in the U.S. who will be really missed.”
“He was instrumental in not just resettling and establishing our community, but for his long support of many other refugees and leading the effort for recognition of Mien veterans,” Yangh said.
For the past 10 years, Chao had been working to establish the Culinary Arts Recreation Education community center in East Oakland to help people on welfare as well as the homeless, refugees and crime victims supplement their income by establishing their own food businesses, Chao Rothberg said.
“To his last breath he wanted to be remembered as a humanitarian,” she said.
Chao is survived by his wife Faychoy Chao, his eight children – Samson Chao, Kathy Chao Rothberg, Michael Chao, Frank Chao, Peter Chao, Jerry Chao, John Chao and Linda Chao – and six grandchildren.
Donations can be made in Chao’s memory to Lao Family Community Development, 1551 23rd Ave., Oakland, CA 94606.