Faith Nibbs, 46, Anthropology
Faith Nibbs was living in rural Wisconsin when she first encountered Hmong refugees. Members of the Laotian ethnic group had been recruited by the CIA to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail, and when Laos fell to the Communists, the U.S. government relocated 250,000 Hmong to the U.S. and other countries.
A minister's wife, Nibbs was asked to set up a social services program for the group. To learn more about the group, she started taking an anthropology class at a branch of the University of Wisconsin. "I realized that I didn't know anything, but that this was what I was called to do," Nibbs says.
In 2001, Nibbs' family moved to Arlington so her husband could enroll in a Bible school film program, and Nibbs enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington as a McNair Scholar, a program for disadvantage undergraduates who intend to continue on to a Ph.D. When she finished her undergraduate degree, she transitioned to graduate work in cultural anthropology at SMU.
Nibbs has been interacting with the 1,200 Hmong refugees who live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area since she moved to Texas, getting to know individuals and learning their cultural practices and ways they have adapted to their new home. For instance, traditional Hmong are animists, but about half of the refugees have converted to Christianity. At gatherings such as weddings, there will be two platters of chicken placed out, meat from animals that have been sacrificed for the animists and supermarket meat for the Christians.
The Hmong refugees who located in Dallas, though a relatively small group, have been among the most successful, Nibbs says. There is a 99 percent employment rate among the Dallas Hmong and all but two families own their own homes.
All cultural anthropology doctoral candidates, as part of their studies, spend time living with the group they are studying as "participant observers." That portion of Nibbs studies begins this summer, when she moves for a year to a rural community in German where another group of Hmong refugees have settled. She will learn about the Hmong refugees in that town and compare the two refugee groups. Her two sons are in college, but her husband will travel to Germany with her for the year, and will be making a documentary about the group.
Nibbs' graduated studies are being financed by the Department of Homeland Security.
"It's a long way from rural Wisconsin," she says.