After the Vietnam War, Annie Vang’s parents escaped persecution in Laos and traversed the Mekong River in the dead of night to seek safety in Thailand. “My family had no choice but to flee or die,” she says.
Vang and her family are Hmong, an ethnic and cultural group who lost their land—and way of life—after siding with the U.S. in the fight against Communism. Like so many other Hmong people, Vang’s family resettled in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. in the late ’70s. Growing up in Iowa, Vang remembers being bullied for having an accent and “looking different” than everyone else. “I was told to go back to my country every day,” she says. “I just wanted to be like everyone else and assimilate and forget about my Hmong roots.”
Yet as an adult, the 44-year-old is doing everything in her power to preserve her cultural history. For more than a decade, the app developer has been digitally documenting the Hmong language with HmongPhrases, an app she created to teach the Hmong language to English speakers. “It is critical we capture this, so that our language, legacy, and stories can live on,” she says.
Read more: Elle