LAO AMERICANS, CHINESE IN LAOS AND REFUGEES

CHINESE AND OTHER ASIANS IN LAOS

Chinese make up between 2 percent to 5 percent of the population in Laos. As is true in other Southeast Asia countries they have traditionally been merchants, traders and businessman. Some have come from the Yunnan province in China. Some come have from via Vietnam. More than half of them are said to live n Vientiane and Savannakhet. Most businesses in these places are owned by Chinese. There are also many Chinese workers in Laos. Many work on road construction crews in the north.

Some Thai businessmen come and go to do business in Laos. There are also some Indians and Pakistanis. Many work in tailor shops. In southern Laos there are some Cambodians. They work mainly as boatmen, truck drivers and smugglers. A significant number of Vietnamese live un the provinces that border Vietnam and the main cities. Many are traders and run small businesses.

Lao Americans and Overseas Lao

There are reasonably large Laotian expatriate communities overseas with around a half million in the United States, 100,000 in France and 50,000 in Australia. Their numbers are roughly divided equally between Lao and Hmong.

About 20,000 Lao live in Fresno. Many have connections with the Vietnam War. About 10,000 live in the Washington D.C. area.

See Hmong

An estimated 185,000 refugees from Laos resettled in the United States after the Communist Party's takeover of Laos in the early 1970s. After the monarchy was abolished and the Communist Lao People's Democratic Republic was established in 1975 an estimated 250,000 people, about 10 percent of Laos' population at the time, sought refugee status in the United States and Thailand.

Robert M. Poole and Paul Hul wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tommy Phisayavong immigrated to the United States and become a citizen. Born and raised in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, he fled the country in 1978 after three years of the Pathet Lao regime. He was 13 at the time. He crossed the Mekong River to Thailand under cover of darkness, accompanied by his 10-year-old brother. They joined an uncle in a refugee camp there, and one by one, other members of the family crossed the river. Eventually, they made their way to the United States, where they settled in California. "I never thought I'd see Laos again," said Phisayavong, who joined the Air Force in 1985 and was eventually assigned to search for MIAs as a language specialist. Now a veteran of many recovery missions, he sees Laos all the time, acting as interpreter and cultural envoy among team members, Lao officials and Hmong villagers.” [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

Khan Bob Malaythong

Vientiane-born Lao-American Khan Bob Malaythong, a member of the USA Badminton Olympic team, competed in the 2008 games in Beijing in Men's Doubles and Mixed Doubles. In the Men’s Doubles he played with 2004 Olympian and 2005 world champion Howard Bach. Malaythong and Bach won the following events in 2007: Irish International Championships, Men's Doubles (Gold), U.S. Open, Men's Doubles (Silver), Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Men's Doubles (Silver), Pan American Badminton Championships in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Men's Doubles (Silver) and U.S. Adult National Championships, Men Doubles (Champion). [Source: Rachel Cooper, About.com Guide]

Malaythong was born in 1981 in Vientiene, Laos. His hometown is Rockville, Maryland. He graduated from William Jefferson Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, where he was a resident athlete at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. He attended Santa Ana College, at got an Associate in Arts Degree there in 2006. In 2008 he lived in Orange, California and was a Part-time badminton coach at the Orange County Badminton Club.

Greg Bishop wrote in the New York Times, “Down the street from Disneyland, a 27-year-old who never had a childhood practices a kid’s game that will take him to the Beijing Olympics. Bob Malaythong is home here, on the courts of the Orange County Badminton Club, playing and teaching and living the game that defines him. He is home here, on courts sandwiched between a printing press and a Thai restaurant, smacking shuttlecocks behind his back, over his head, the sound — thwack! — inducing winces from opponents. “Don’t worry,” Malaythong said. “Ortiz flinched exactly the same way.” Ortiz would be David Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox slugger. He teamed with Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher to play badminton against Malaythong and his partner, Howard Bach, in a national commercial for Vitamin Water. The commercial ends with Ortiz spiking the shuttlecock deep into Malaythong’s leg. Urlacher, the self-proclaimed badminton champion of the Bears’ locker room, came away impressed. “Those dudes could smash it whenever they wanted,” he said. [Source: Greg Bishop, New York Times, July 31, 2008]

Life of Khan Bob Malaythong

Greg Bishop wrote in the New York Times, “Malaythong’s road to Beijing wound from the family home in Laos, from where his sister escaped; to Maryland, where he first settled in the United States; to Colorado, where he cooked for Olympians; to California, where he became one. “He has what we call a fighting spirit,” said Rudy Gunawan, an Olympic silver medalist from Indonesia who helps USA Badminton. [Source: Greg Bishop, New York Times, July 31, 2008 >>>]

“Malaythong’s sister Mary escaped communist Laos in 1980 at age 18. “I was the oldest,” Mary said. “The family was getting poor. It was hard for me, but I didn’t see any future for my family. I had to escape.” She first crossed into Thailand, but not before swimming across a river and not before authorities held her at gunpoint. Six months in Thailand led to five months in the Philippines, until she received sponsorship to move to the United States.Mary landed in Chicago, moved to Rockville, Md., and has not stopped working. For decades, she worked seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, up to three jobs at a time. She nursed the elderly, worked on assembly lines. She never called in sick. >>>

“Back in Laos, Bob, the family’s youngest child, was born in 1981. He remembers only snippets from the nine years he lived there. He remembers the winding dirt roads, the single pair of spandex underwear and the lonely pair of donated sneakers. He wore the shoes only for pictures. Mostly, he remembers his father, Nath, who drove a taxi and waxed philosophically during hot, windless nights on the porch. “If you whistle, the trees will start blowing and the wind will follow,” Nath told Bob. >>>

“In 1990, Malaythong and his mother moved from Laos to Mary’s house in Maryland. Expectations included a college education, a good job, a family of his own. Hobbies stopped at two — baby-sitting for Mary’s kids and badminton, the sport that consumed his dreams. Malaythong drew different emotions from his sister’s path, from her work ethic, from the family still in Laos. He drew strength. And he drew guilt. “I do feel guilty,” he said. “Badminton is just a game. It’s not life or death. Sometimes, if I’m unmotivated, I think about people dying out there, living without shoes, without anything to eat. I consider myself lucky.” >>>

“Six years later, Malaythong, 14, moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he lived for four years. He lived there on a tourist visa, training for badminton, going to high school and working a variety of jobs. He washed dishes, cleared plates, manned the front counter. He took additional work baking cookies and making burritos at restaurants in town. He made more money there than he ever dreamed of — $6, $7 an hour, enough to buy CDs and more than his father made driving cabs in Laos. >>>

“Malaythong moved to California with USA Badminton in 2000. There he was on his own, and admits he took the ease of his life in Colorado Springs for granted. The burden grew. Each advancement in badminton served only to advance his guilt. Five siblings remained in Laos, all with families of their own. He wanted to help, but he made enough only to support himself. He had come to America to study, to make money and send it home. And here he was: single, living for free with a family, chasing a dream he was not sure his family would understand. “They don’t say it, but I feel it,” he said. “The burden.” An Olympic-size burden, one that kept Malaythong awake at night, kept him worried, quiet and reserved. Worse still, his father died of pancreatic cancer in March. Malaythong had promised Nath that he would make the Olympic team. He spoke dreamily of visiting Laos, triumphant, with something to show for all those years of smacking shuttlecocks instead of studying. >>>

“Nath was living in Maryland by then, and after Malaythong found out that his father had cancer, he went to see him. Nath died seven hours before his son arrived. He was 73. “I always have a feeling he’s looking over me,” Malaythong said. “I have a feeling that he’ll give me the strength when the time comes.” >>>

Malaythong recently went to a sports psychologist to talk about his burdens. More than anything, though, he needed to make the Olympic team, to prove to his father — and his family — that the sacrifices meant something. When he did, Malaythong said he felt like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning after he won the Super Bowl — as if 50,000 monkeys were flying off his back. He started to redefine success, worrying less about the degrees he did not earn and the money he did not make, focusing on recognition and respect. Along the way, he learned to play badminton for the one person he found in this whole process — himself. “Now, I am an Olympian,” said Malaythong, who is not considered a medal favorite. “And I’m an Olympian for life.” >>>

“Bach noticed a chance in his partner, a loosening, a man emerging from his shell. But it would be too easy to say the burden lifted. For instance, Malaythong did not tell his family about the commercial. Not enough time to watch it. But Mary, tipped by a co-worker, did see it. “I’m so proud,” she said. >>>

“Two versions of the perfect ending loom. In one, Malaythong stands next to Bach atop the podium, overwhelmed by pride, remembering the sacrifices — of his sister, of his father, of the family he now lives with — it took for him to get there. He shares the medal with everyone, family in Laos and in Maryland, coaches and supporters. In the other, he loses in the Olympics, but no one can remove the fact that he made it there. He moves to Boston, where he has signed a contract to coach a youth badminton program, at once making money to send home and growing the kid’s game that gave him the life he knows today. Then he returns home, full circle, unburdened for the first time since childhood, an Olympian to boot. >>>

Laotian American Criminal Gangs Behind Shootings in Fort Worth, Texas?

Alex Branch wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “It wasn't hard for police to sort out a recent drive-by shooting in northwest Fort Worth's "Laotian Village." It happened within view of a federal agent and police officers. The gunmen, police said, were Asian gang members — the portion of the city's gang population most unfamiliar and challenging for area officers. "We don't have a ton of stuff on Asian gangs," said Sgt. Bill Beall of the Fort Worth police gang unit. "Everything is really closemouthed. We can have a hard time getting information." It's even hard to tell whether the Asian gang presence is growing, police said. Unless somebody is killed or seriously wounded, many crimes go unreported as Asian residents struggle with language barriers and wariness of outsiders. [Source: Alex Branch, Star-Telegram, January 20, 2006]

Several major clashes have come to police officers' attention in the past year, including the gang-related killing of a 21-year-old college student last year outside a Euless bowling alley. Police said two women held the student down while a man shot her in the head. Euless police Lt. W. Pavlik said investigators believe the shooting was an isolated case. Police in Arlington and Haltom City, cities with large Asian populations, said they haven't seen any recent violence related to Asian gangs.

In Fort Worth's Laotian Village, an area west of Saginaw that is heavily populated with Laotians, police say gang members who have moved here from California may be inflaming problems. "I don't know [if] there is more crime or if we are just becoming more aware of it," said officer Gwen Maxwell, the area's community police officer. "But it's picked up the last few years." Several leaders in the Asian community agreed, saying gangs are a big concern in their neighborhoods. "Kids are dropping out of school and getting involved because they think it's something fun to do," said Tom Ha, a Vietnamese-American community leader. "And soon they become a major gangster. This is a major concern for our community."

Officer J.G. Kalbfleisch, who handles intelligence for the gang unit, estimated that Asians make up less than 5 percent of the city's gang members. Their numbers, like all gangs, remain down from the crime wave of the early 1990s. And, like other gangs, they're involved in drugs, burglary, robbery and theft, he said. A difference is that "they're very specific in who they deal with," he said. "That's how they try to stay under the radar."

The recent shooting occurred as authorities were following up on the shooting death of Fort Worth police officer Henry "Hank" Nava at a mobile home in the 7000 block of Seth Barwise Street. Two cars pulled onto the street, and a man in one car fired into the other, hitting an 18-year-old man in the arm and chest, police said. Officers gave chase and arrested three people a few blocks away. The victim is expected to survive. Beall said the shooting may have been retaliation for another shooting.

Maxwell, who has patrolled Laotian Village for five years, said she sees a generation gap within families. The parents and grandparents, honest and hardworking, arrive in the United States looking for a better life. They often don't speak English. Their children, however, go to school and try to fit in and become Americanized, she said. There is a high incidence of runaways. "The children somehow get detached from their family values, their traditional values," Maxwell said. "It's hard for the adults to understand how or why this is happening. They don't know why they're changing."

Tarrant County's Asian Pacific American population has grown more than 550 percent in the past five years, according to the Tarrant County Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Ha said gang members recruit newly arriving young Asians, aware that they will be looking for friends. The child's parents, he said, are working so hard that they don't recognize the warning signs. "The kids leave in the morning and come back at 5 in the afternoon," he said. "Dad and Mom think they're at school."

Language barriers discourage adults who are aware of gang problems from going to police, he said. That's why he thinks cities need more storefront programs like the one Haltom City had with Vietnamese-speaking officers about five years ago. Vietnamese-Americans could go to them with information and concerns, he said. "We need more police officers who understand the Vietnamese culture," Ha said. "People feel comfortable with them."

The Fort Worth gang unit has no Vietnamese-speaking officers, Beall said. But several elsewhere in the department help the gang unit as needed. Beall said the gang unit hasn't needed a permanent Vietnamese speaker. For example, everyone police contacted while investigating the Seth Barwise Street shooting spoke English. Kalbfleisch said Asian gangs are gradually becoming more westernized and easier to understand. "They are not a lot different than any other gang," he said. "They cause the same problems."

Internally Displaced People in Laos

During the Second Indochina War (1954-75), particularly between 1960 and 1973, large numbers of Laotians were displaced from their villages, either to escape frequent bombings or as a result of forced relocations by one side or the other seeking to consolidate control over an area. In the eastern zone controlled by the Pathet Lao, many villages were abandoned, and the inhabitants either lived in caves, fled across the border to Vietnam (where, despite the massive United States aerial war, the bombing was less intense than in the areas to which they moved), or moved to refugee villages or camps in Royal Lao Government (RLG) areas. These villages were established along Route 13 from Savannakhét to Pakxan and continued north of Vientiane. In addition, many Hmong and Mien villages that had allied with the RLG were frequently forced to move as a result of the changing battle lines and were regularly supplied by the RLG and United States. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

At the end, an estimated 700,000 persons, or about 25 percent of the population, were in some way displaced from their original homes. Many of these refugees began to return to their villages, or at least to the same general area, after the cease-fire of 1973, emptying many of the refugee villages along Route 13. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR provided some assistance in transportation and initial rice supplies, and after 1975 the government also assisted to the extent possible with its meager resources. Hmong who sided with the RLG were forced to flee after 1975. *

Not all internal refugees returned to their home districts, however. Some chose to remain in more populated areas near the Mekong and the larger towns, continuing to farm land that they had cleared during the war. Even without the circumstances of war, Laotian villagers traditionally have moved in search of better prospects. Because of the overall low population density, if farmland near a village became scarce or its quality declined, part or all of a village might decide to relocate where there was more potential. This pattern occurs more frequently among upland semimigratory peoples where there is a regular pattern of movement linked to the use of swidden fields, but even the lowland Lao have a history of village fragmentation in search of new lands although their investment in household or village infrastructure has tended to stabilize the population. Since the mid-1980s, the government has encouraged or compelled a number of upland villages farming swidden rice to resettle in lowland environments--a pattern also used by the RLG to more easily control villagers. In some instances, assistance in relocation and initial land clearing has been provided, while in others people have been left to fend for themselves in their new locations. *

Freedom of Movement and Protection of Refugees in Laos

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in practice the government imposed some restrictions. The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Citizens who travel across provincial borders are not required to report to authorities; however, in designated security zones, officials occasionally set up roadblocks and checked identity cards. Citizens seeking to travel to contiguous areas of neighboring countries generally obtained permits easily from district offices. Those wishing to travel farther abroad were required to apply for passports.^^

The government did not use forced exile; however, it denied the right of return to persons who fled the country during the 1975 change in government and were tried in absentia for antigovernment activities. There were no cases during the reporting period of any individuals being denied entry to Laos based on past activities.^^

The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, but the law provides for asylum and the protection of stateless persons. In practice the government did provide some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The government did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status; however, it showed some flexibility in dealing pragmatically with individual asylum cases.^^

The government continued to refuse the UNHCR's request to reestablish an in-country presence, which it had in the 1990s, to monitor the reintegration of Hmong returnees from Thailand. The government stated that the UNHCR's mandate expired in 2001 and that all former refugees had successfully reintegrated. During the year foreign diplomats, representatives from international organizations (including the UNHCR), and the press visited Phonekham and Phalak villages, where some of the Lao Hmong returned from Thailand were resettled, including the Lao Hmong involuntarily returned from Thailand in December 2009.^^

The government's policy both for Hmong surrendering internally and for those returned from Thailand was to return them to communities of origin whenever possible. However, most of the December 2009 returnees resettled in Phonekham village, Borikhamxay Province, where the government provided land, housing, clean water, and electricity plus one year's supply of food. Several hundred persons without strong community links who returned between 2007 and 2009 were relocated in government settlements such as Phalak village, Vientiane Province.^^

Refugees from Laos and Laotian Living Abroad

From 1975 to 1985, after the communists had seized power and were consolidating their hold, some 350,000 persons fled across the Mekong River to Thailand and, in most cases, resettled in third countries. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, this outflow had declined substantially. In 1990, for example, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 lowland Lao and 4,000 to 5,000 upland Lao departed illegally for Thailand. The Thai government refused to admit these refugees as immigrants. Third-country resettlement has grown more difficult with the end of Cold War solidarity with emigrants who claim to be "victims of communism." Moreover, Laos has become more liberal in granting exit permits to those desiring to emigrate. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The fall of the RLG and increased control by government cadres over daily activities in the villages also caused many villagers to flee the country, ending up in refugee camps in Thailand. The outmigration occurred in three phases. An initial flight of RLG officials and Westernized elite began in 1975. A second period of departures by many more ordinary villagers occurred between 1977 and 1981, responding as much to economic hardship caused by poor weather and government mismanagement of the agricultural sector than to political control measures. A later period of less rapid departure lasted through the late 1980s. In all, more than 360,000 Laotians--about 10 percent or more of the population--fled the country between 1975 and 1992. This group included nearly all Western-educated Laotians, and, as political scientist Martin Stuart-Fox has noted, the loss of the intelligentsia may have set the country back an entire generation. Some upland minorities who had supported the RLG and the United States military effort also fled immediately, while other groups continued a guerrilla insurgency, which was not brought under control until after about 1979. *

By the early 1990s, almost as many Laotians were returning to Laos as were leaving. Under a voluntary repatriation program worked out in 1980 by Laos and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 19,000 Laotians had voluntarily returned to their homeland by the end of 1993, and an estimated 30,000 more had returned without official involvement. Most of the returnees are lowland Lao. Of the approximately 30,000 Laotian refugees remaining in camps in Thailand in 1993, the majority are upland Lao. Approximately 1,700 Laotian refugees remain in China. Émigrés who had resettled in third countries are returning in increasing numbers to visit relatives and, in a few cases, to survey business opportunities in the more liberal economy. *

By the end of 1992, approximately 305,000 Laotian refugees had been permanently resettled in third countries, most commonly in the United States and France. Forty thousand Laotians--mostly Hmong-- remained in refugee camps in Thailand, and 12,000 refugees had been voluntarily repatriated to Laos under the supervision and with the assistance of the UNHCR. International agreements mandated the resettlement or repatriation of all remaining refugees in Thailand by the end of 1994. *

Laos a Transit Point for North Korean Defectors

In November 2005, Radio Free Asia reported: “North Koreans fleeing hunger and oppression are increasingly making the risky journey through China to Laos, with the aim of entering Thailand and seeking political asylum, RFA’s Korean service reports. “If they can make it to Thailand, they are safe,” Thailand-based missionary Jun-hwan Kim said in an interview. “If they are caught in Laos or Burma, they are sent to China. But if they are caught in Thailand, they are sent to the immigration camp,” said Kim, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. [Source: Radio Free Asia, November 22, 2005]

All North Asians who are in the province are holders of valid Chinese passports. Some of them speak Chinese, and they look alike. Conservative estimates by international non-governmental groups put the number of North Korean defectors in hiding in China in the tens of thousands, while others say hundreds of thousands may be more accurate.China regards North Koreans fleeing hunger and repression in the isolated Stalinist state as economic migrants, whom it repatriates under an agreement with Pyongyang.

Defectors report frequent abuse from Chinese security forces, as well as being rounded up and sent back against their will to face imprisonment and possible execution. Kim said he knew of about 30 North Koreans who had already crossed the border from Laos into Thailand and were currently staying in Korean churches in Bangkok. If they can make it to Thailand, they are safe. If they are caught in Laos or Burma, they are sent to China. But if they are caught in Thailand, they are sent to the immigration camp. “Some of them are captured at the Thailand border and sent to the immigration camp,” Kim said. “I saw six men and six women in the camp and six people in [the northern town of] Chiang Mai. If we include all of them, the number of North Koreans who crossed the border might be higher,” he added.

According to Lao officials, Chinese nationals holding valid passports are allowed to cross freely into the three northern provinces of Bokeo, Oudomxay and Luang Prabang without visas for up to one year, after which they must seek an extension of their stay. A provincial-level official in Laos told RFA’s Lao service that the authorities could not tell if some of those Chinese passport-holders were in fact North Koreans. “All North Asians who are in the province are holders of valid Chinese passports,” the official said. “Some of them speak Chinese, and they look alike.”

Kim said the off-road trip through the mountains from Laos was risky for defectors, especially when the authorities stepped up border checks during the narcotics-trafficking season. “The guards are tight in the area and North Koreans’ attempts to enter Thailand could coincide with a drug monitoring period,” Kim said. “If North Koreans try to enter Thailand during these times, they could be in big trouble.” He said he had received a call for help from North Koreans inside Laos in recent weeks but had been frustrated in his attempt to cross the border. The guards are tight in the area and North Koreans’ attempts to enter Thailand could coincide with a drug monitoring period. If North Koreans try to enter Thailand during these times, they could be in big trouble.

Kim took 13 hours himself to travel from the Thai border town of Chiang Khong to Laos’s Louangnamtha province where the North Korean defectors were hiding. “Two weeks ago, 46 people asked for rescue help, so I went to Laos. However, we encountered a problem on the border in China, and four of them were captured and two of them were being pursued,” he said. “We tried really hard, but there was nothing we could do to cross the Chinese border, and we just had to return.” “Many North Koreans are still trying to go to Thailand,” he told RFA reporter Wonhee Lee.

Although most North Korean refugees flee their native country through China, increasing numbers are believed to be fleeing through Southeast Asia instead—with the ultimate goal of reaching South Korea. Around the end of 2004, Korean-American missionary Jeffrey Park disappeared along the Chinese border with Burma and Laos, as he tried to shepherd six North Korean defectors to safety.

The 63-year-old Park, who is known in Korean as Park Junjae, was working with the Seoul-based Durihana Missionary Center and had intended to accompany six North Koreans from Yanji, China in November to the Chinese-Burmese border, according to Cheon Kiwon, director of the mission. But they ended up heading for Laos instead. According to one account, Park went missing somewhere along the so-called “southern route” that takes North Korean defectors to Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. This route runs through notoriously steep and rugged terrain.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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