When we talk about immigrant communities in Detroit, the Hmong don’t usually come up in that conversation. The ethnic group from Southeast Asia began settling in Northeast Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood in the years after the Vietnam War.
More recently, many of Detroit’s Hmong families have left the city for Warren, Center Line and Sterling Heights. There are, however, still Hmong families living in Osborn, like the Changs.
Richard Chang moved to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1976. He and his family bounced from Minnesota to Washington, and then eventually to Detroit in 1981. "Because the economy in Michigan was really good," Chang remembers.
At the time, he was a teenager, attending what was formerly known as Osborn High. After the first wave of Hmong families settled in Osborn, the Detroit Public High School had a student body that was, according to one former teacher, one-third Hmong. After high school, Richard Chang got married, found a job, and started a family. In 1996, they left Detroit for Warren. Better schools, better neighborhoods. Not an uncommon story.
But then Chang lost his job with Ford in 2008 and couldn't keep up with Warren’s property taxes. So the family moved back to Osborn and bought a house for $10,000. By the time he returned to his old neighborhood, many of Richard Chang’s Hmong neighbors were gone.
“Used to be this street," he says as he walks me around his block, "All the way to 7 Mile, a lot of Hmong people live here. Now they all sold.”
Though there are still Hmong people living in Detroit, the numbers have significantly dwindled. From 2000 to 2010, the Hmong population in Osborn dropped from around 1,700 to 500. Today, Richard Chang’s daughter, Mika, is the only Hmong student in her 10th grade at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology. Osborn MST is a DPS school that used to be part of the old Osborn High. In 2009, the large high school was divided into three small schools: Osborn MST, Osborn Evergreen Academy and Osborn College Preparatory Academy.
Talking about living in Detroit, 15 year-old Mika Chang is blunt.
“This places sucks. I can’t ride my bike anymore," she says. "The neighborhood's not safe enough. I like to ride my bike in a safe place.”
She also misses her old school and classmates in Warren.
“I feel dumb. We don’t learn anything at all. I used to be as smart as my friend Alexis. Or maybe even smarter. And on the same par as my friend Amy who’s a straight A student. Now when I see their work, I’m like what is this!? I don’t really blame the teacher. I don’t blame the students either. I don’t know who to blame.”
There are some bright spots at Osborn MST, Chang explains, like her Spanish teacher, Mr. Peck.
“He is the best Spanish teacher I’ve ever had in my life. I know more Spanish probably than I do Hmong. Honestly I would make him teacher of the year.”
Mika is thinking about leaving Mr. Peck and MST for Osborn Evergreen next year. She’s got the ACT test coming up. And she thinks Evergreen’s math teachers are better than Osborn MST – a school where "math" is right in the name. But Mika says what she really wants it to feel like she’s getting as good an education as her old friends in Warren are getting.
*Support for Bringing Up Detroit comes from The Skillman Foundation. Kids matter here.
**MUSIC CREDIT: "Two in the Sun" and "Granz Graf Trio" by Omar Ajluni aka OJA.