Skip to main content

Refugee Studies Center, University of Minnesota records

Identifier: IHRC2968


Collection consists primarily of rich resource material pertaining to recent refugees from predominantly Southeast Asia, but also Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. Included are statistical reports, files documenting the individual ethnic groups' histories and cultures, newspaper clippings and information regarding other organizations nationally working with refugee groups. A large segment of the records relates to the various research projects the RSC conducted or participated in such as the Hmong Resettlement Study.

The Refugee Studies Center collection comprises organizational records; correspondence documenting its activities; published works of scholarship; unpublished manuscripts; journals and articles; Hmong language audiotapes; slides of refugees abroad and in the United States; reports of information provided to the federal government as well as studies about refugee lives; and videos documenting the living conditions of refugees in refugee camps and in the United States. Generally, the videos cover broader refugee groups while the books are primarily on the Hmong, but also include Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese refugees and migrants, as well as some general information about refugees. Articles covering Southeast Asians prior to migrating to the West and their experiences in the United States are also included. Over the course of its existence the RSC broadened its focus on Southeast Asian refugees to include other refugees as well, from eastern Europe and West Africa, but the contents of the collection pertain primarily to issues Hmong refugees face on their journey from Southeast Asia to the United States.


  • ca. 1970-1999


Language of Materials



Open for use in the Elmer L. Andersen Library reading room.


This collection may be protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright ownership and to obtain all necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials. Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law.

For further information regarding the copyright, please contact the IHRCA.


REFUGEE STUDIES CENTER (RSC)1980-1999 As a nation comprised largely of immigrants, the United States has a history of providing aid to individuals fleeing persecution from countries around the world. Throughout the postwar period, however, those granted refuge in America came in large numbers from communist countries. In 1975, after the Vietnam War, thousands of Southeast Asians became stranded and faced political persecution for having aligned with the United States, resulting in the exodus of refugees (Cambodians, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and other ethnic minorities such as Mien). While Minnesota did not receive the largest concentration of these refugees, the state and, more specifically, the Twin Cities, became a central location for Southeast Asian refugees.

As the numbers continued to increase throughout the late 1970s, a number of faculty members at the University of Minnesota became interested in the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees. Thus, the idea of an initiative to capture the experiences of Southeast Asians began, culminating in the establishment of the Southeast Asian Refugee Studies (SARS) project in 1980, which was changed to Refugee Studies Center (RSC) in 1995. This historical sketch provides an overview of why the RSC was created, its activities and accomplishments, and the challenges that led to the Center’s closing in 1998. Materials contained in the Refugee Studies Center’s collection are also highlighted. Data sources include a review of Center meeting minutes, other organizational documents such as proposals and correspondences, and interviews with founders and/or key supporters of the Center during its existence.

Origin and Purpose

In the summer of 1980, a second wave of Southeast Asian refugees began arriving in significant numbers in the Twin Cities. Interest in these new immigrants prompted a group of faculty members at the University of Minnesota, including linguists, anthropologists, historians, and other social scientists, to found the Southeast Asian Refugee Studies (SARS) project. The project’s original mission was “to encourage, coordinate and support research related to the people from SE Asia who have resettled in the U.S.” Although the founders were interested in other Southeast Asian peoples, the primary interest from the project’s creation through the 1980s was Hmong language, culture and resettlement problems. Eventually, the focus was expanded to include people from Cambodia and some materials on the Vietnamese population were also collected. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) provided space and administrative financial support to the RSC.

Under the leadership of linguist Bruce Downing, the initial steps in the development of a cooperative research and training program were taken during summer 1980. Program goals included determining research and training activities at the University directed towards the local Southeast Asian population; establishing communication with Southeast Asian organizations; establishing a reference collection; planning and organizing a conference on research and Hmong resettlement; working with local government and social service providers to train Southeast Asians in mental health services; and identifying external sources of funding that would allow for a permanent project structure to be implemented during 1980-81. Doug Olney was hired as a graduate research assistant to facilitate communication and gather information about who at the University of Minnesota was working with the Hmong and/or any other Southeast Asian refugee populations. Throughout most of the 1980s, SARS activities were coordinated by anthropologist Glen Hendricks. Budget reductions and priority changes required CURA to cease its administrative support to the Center in 1993. Supporters discussed possible new directions for the project. Given the arrival of refugees from the former Soviet Union and African nations, the Center’s name was changed from SARS to the Refugee Studies Center (RSC) in 1995. While it maintained its focus on Southeast Asians, the RSC’s mission broadened to include new refugee populations who were resettling in the U.S. and Minnesota. Under the leadership of Dan Detzner, the Center’s primary objective was “to promote interdisciplinary collaborative research projects on refugees amongst interested groups of colleagues who are affiliated with RSC.”

The Center’s institutional home moved from CURA in the Humphrey Center to the Institute of International Studies and Program (IISP) in Nicholson Hall. RSC remained housed in Nicholson Hall until 1998, but it experienced difficulty securing the necessary funding to keep its doors open. In summer 1998, the Office of the Associate Vice President for Multicultural Affairs extended its planning grant funding for an additional four months to allow more discussions about RSC’s future. RSC’s mission was expanded to “promote the creation, gathering and dissemination of knowledge about refugee populations and resettlement, serving as a clearinghouse and as a catalyst for collaborations among students, researchers, refugee communities, service providers and policy makers.” Structure According to anthropologist Tim Dunnigan, “The Refugee Studies Center was a loose confederation of faculty members with common interests.” A coordinator led RSC activities and was supported by a faculty advisory committee. Committee members participated based on their specific interests. Throughout its eighteen years of existence, RSC also relied on graduate and undergraduate student workers to fulfill many administrative tasks.

Activities and Accomplishments

The RSC provided not only valuable information to faculty members, students, policy makers and other researchers, but it also played an important role in connecting academia with the community through its newsletters and roundtables. One of the main functions of the RSC was responding to requests for information. Practitioners and interested people from varying fields wrote to request publications and information on strategies for working with Hmong and other Southeast Asians. Those doing research on these populations sought support for their projects and submitted papers. In essence, RSC served as an information clearinghouse for researchers, educators, students, policy makers, foundations, and health and human services providers. RSC was one of the three refugee studies centers of this magnitude in the US, Canada, and England. Below are descriptions of key RSC activities and accomplishments:

Archival Collection.

The RSC archival collection contains one of the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian refugee resettlement materials, in particular the Hmong. It contains both published and unpublished, rare materials. Materials pertaining to the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees form the core of the collection, which includes monographs, research papers, dissertations, and government reports. Documents on the culture, language, adaptation, education, physical and mental health of refugees; local newspaper clippings; newsletters from nongovernmental organizations and research organizations; periodicals; and WWW documents are also included.

Hmong Language Audio-Tapes and Curriculum. An audio-tape of white Hmong lessons accompanies a Hmong language curriculum developed by Doris Whitelock. The series of audio-tapes include conversational Hmong language. Newsletter. RSC’s quarterly newsletter had a national and international readership of more than five thousand people. The newsletter included updates on research and other events relating to refugees, abstracts of new refugee publications, and a calendar of related conferences and seminars. It was distributed free of charge. Conferences. RSC held the first Hmong research conference on October 2 and 3, 1981, with researchers and practitioners presenting on issues such as culture and culture change, language and communication, language learning issues, and problems and prospects for Hmong Americans. The second Hmong conference took place on November 17-19 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In 1995, RSC co-sponsored the Hmong National Education Conference. Research and Publications. RSC collaborated on a number of research and outreach projects. In its earlier years, the Center played a significant role in two projects: the Hmong Refugee Study, a national project funded by the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and the Technical Assistance Center for Refugee Mental Health funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (1985-1988). Other studies produced by those affiliated with RSC addressed issues such as culture, history, education, and substance abuse. RSC also published a series of research papers known as the “Occasional Papers,” as well as annotated bibliographies on topics of interest. CURA published papers presented at the 1981 conference on Hmong refugees while the 1983 conferences papers were published by the Center for Migration Studies of New York in 1986. University/Community Roundtables. In an effort to bring together faculty and community members, students and other interested individuals, RSC convened roundtable discussions during the last few years of its existence. In addition to faculty and community members, participants included students, policy makers, researchers and other interested individuals. Issues addressed at roundtables included family violence, racism, education, health, bicultural parenting, youth mentoring, secondary migration, sexual orientation and identity, housing, resettlement success stories, and disability.

Challenges Leading to the Demise of the RSC The vision of RSC coordinating campus research and instruction remained unfulfilled due to a lack of staff able to devote sufficient time and effort to support these activities. Despite the involvement of many faculty members over the years, all four interviewees identified the lack of a core person to incorporate the RSC activities into their work as one of RSC’s key challenges. In reflecting about the early years, Bruce Downing stated that large national studies overtook RSC activities. Tom Scott, director of CURA, stated, “No one involved seemed to be prepared to devote their career to it. Although there were certainly devoted people, there was no core committed faculty member.” Tim Dunnigan explained, “Members moved on to other interests and commitments.” Dan Detzner, who served as the coordinator from 1994 to 1997 further articulated, “Beginning in the early 1990s, SARS was about to go under. Although much support was provided, it was underutilized.” These statements echoed findings by the Office of the Associate Vice President for Multicultural Affairs in 1998 that led to the closing of RSC’s doors. The two key findings included the absences of 1) systematic research and interdisciplinary teaching activities tied to the center with low usage levels, and 2) strong faculty leadership in driving a research and teaching agenda. Interviews with RSC supporters revealed several additional challenges faced by the Center. Limited budget for acquisition of new materials resulted in the RSC’s inability to keep up with current publications. Additionally, most paid staff were students, which caused discontinuity each time one graduated or moved on. Frequent staff turnover also slowed down the process of collection maintenance and responding to requests for information. A lag often occurred between when items were received and when they were cataloged and made available to users.

Tom Scott explained, “CURA’s problem was funding. As more and more materials came in, there was not enough staff to consistently catalog them. There were times when materials would remain in boxes for as long as six months. The function of [RSC] became more of library tasks. We just couldn’t do what it needed to be done to keep it going.” Dan Detzner explained, “Another problem was that everything SARS was providing was free of charge. The newsletter was mailed out to hundreds of people here and abroad and requests for information resulted in photocopying expenses . . . We had excellent turnouts at the roundtables, but all of the activities have costs attached to them. We just couldn’t keep up. We didn’t have the funding for publishing the newsletter. [The Center] got weaker and weaker. After the two-year planning grant, there was no other funding even though we tried very hard . . .The Center was moved the IISP. It was willing to be home to the Center but only as long as there was funding. The leadership there changed, and my own responsibilities grew as associate dean in the College of Human Ecology. I just couldn’t devote any more time.” Despite strong efforts by RSC staff and faculty advisory committee members, no additional funding commitments were obtained.

Consequently, RSC closed its doors in 1999 and became part of the newly emerging Asian American Studies initiative. In March 2000 the RSC collection, along with its administrative files, were moved to the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). 1) Face-to-face interviews were conducted with Dan Detzner, Bruce Downing, Tim Dunnigan and Tom Scott in summer 2004, all of whom were asked to reflect on SARS/RSC’s activities/accomplishments and challenges. 2) Bruce Downing letter to Will Craig at Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, June 2, 1980. 3) The ORR study was a joint project between SARS and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (Portland) the University of Minnesota (SARS), and Lao Family Community in Santa Ana, California.

By Chia Vang, University of Minnesota, 2004


35 Linear Feet


The collection is organized in the following series and subseries: SERIES 1. Office Resources SERIES 2. Statistics SERIES 3. Refugee Organizations (From SARS) SERIES 4. Other organizations not filed by the RSC SERIES 5. U of M Associated Programs SERIES 6. Resource files SUBSERIES 1. General SUBSERIES 2. Asian/Southeast Asian SUBSERIES 3. Afghani SUBSERIES 4. Armenians SUBSERIES 5. Balkans SUBSERIES 6. Bosnian SUBSERIES 7. Burma SUBSERIES 8. Cambodians SUBSERIES 9. Chechnya SUBSERIES 10. East Africa SUBSERIES 11. Haiti SUBSERIES 12. Hmong SUBSERIES 13. India SUBSERIES 14. Korea SUBSERIES 15. Kurds SUBSERIES 16. Lao SUBSERIES 17. Mein SUBSERIES 18. Somali SUBSERIES 19. Sudan SUBSERIES 20. Tibet SUBSERIES 21. Vietnamese SERIES 7. Articles SERIES 8. Newspaper Clippings SUBSERIES 1. Southeast Asians SUBSERIES 2. Hmong SUBSERIES 3. Lao SUBSERIES 4. Burmese SUBSERIES 5. Cambodians SUBSERIES 6. Vietnamese SUBSERIES 7. Tibetans SERIES 9. Projects SUBSERIES 1. Miscellaneous SUBSERIES 2. Hmong Resettlement Study SUBSERIES 3. Other SARS Projects SERIES 10. Manuscripts SERIES 11. Guam/Red Cross SERIES 12. Office Correspondence SERIES 13: Administrative records SERIES 14: Audio/Visual materials SUBSERIES 1: Audio tapes SUBSERIES 2: Video tapes SUBSERIES 3: Slides SERIES 15: Miscellanea


Collection acquired in 2000 from the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Minnesota. It was processed in stages by Heather Muir, Daniel Necas, Kate MacLean, Jessica Johnson, and Chia Vang in 2000-2004 under the direction of Joel Wurl, and during 2017-2018 by Sidney Callaghan and Lisa Calahan.

Inventory of the Refugee Studies Center, University of Minnesota records.
IHRC Archives
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding Aid in English

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Immigration History Research Center Archives Collecting Area