MILWAUKEE — Two young people are charting an important path forward for the City of Milwaukee.
Simon Thao and Sakura Xiong will be the first Hmong-Americans to go through the Milwaukee Fire Academy and become city firefighters in the history of the Milwaukee Fire Department.
Thao graduated from Wauwatosa West High School, while Xiong is an alum of Milwaukee Riverside High School. They’re close to completing Milwaukee’s two-year Fire Cadet Program.
“Knowing how the Hmong people are, and the Hmong background itself, no one would ever think that you’d just go and be a firefighter, especially as a Hmong woman,” Xiong said.
Xiong wants her son to see her working hard to achieve something important.
"I want him to know that if you want something, you can work hard for it,” she said. “Whatever makes you happy, you can go out and do it.”
Thao’s family is also his inspiration.
“My parents are proud of me,” Thao said. “That means everything.”
Thao is the youngest of 10 kids. His parents spent most of their life in Thailand.
“As a kid growing up, I knew that I always wanted to help people, but I never really thought about the fire service until my senior year of high school, when a firefighter came and explained the cadet program,” he said. “I feel lucky to be here.”
Milwaukee is home to the fourth-largest Hmong population in the country. Having Hmong representation within the Milwaukee Fire Department is important.
“During a recent ride-along, I did reach a Hmong family and just by the look on their faces when they saw me, I could tell they were surprised and relieved,” Xiong said.
“It's comforting for us and them,” Thao said. “They always ask me about my ethnicity, and say they’ve never seen a Hmong firefighter before.”
Thao and Xiong are the only fire cadets who can communicate with Milwaukee's many Hmong residents in their native language during emergency situations.
Through the cadet program, they're already licensed Emergency Medical Technicians, and will soon be licensed Paramedics.
They’ll graduate as fire cadets this year, and will become recruits. By the time they're assigned to a city fire house this fall, they will be the first Hmong Americans to go through the academy and become Milwaukee firefighters.
“It’s special to know that,” Thao said.
Their hope is to inspire others.
“Take the chance,” Xiong said. “It’s worth it.”