Fue Lee: The Refugee

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates men and women who make Minnesota a better place to live.

Fue Lee was too young to get what was going on. All he knew was his dad was important.

As a child growing up in poor neighborhoods of north Minneapolis, Lee remembers his home was often filled with people he barely knew. They were usually angry.

Only later did he learn that as leader of the Lee clan — which Fue says numbers in the hundreds in the United States alone — his father was tasked with mediating internal disputes.

This familial authority meant a lot to Lee’s immediate family, who got by on government support and lived in housing projects. His first taste of expendable income didn’t come until his teenage years, when he got a job scooping cookies at a North Side bakery through a nonprofit for kids with no prior work experience.

Lee sucked the marrow out of what he recognized as a “networking opportunity,” and saved his earnings to buy new threads. By his senior year at Patrick Henry High, he was wearing a suit and tie to school at least three days a week.

“Any of my high school colleagues would probably tell you I was one of the better dressers in school,” he says. “I wanted to present a professional look.”

Lee intended to use that professionalism to help his neighborhood, having seen inequality’s wounds up close. He interned with DFL Congressman Keith Ellison and worked on the city council campaign that saw Blong Yang become the first Hmong-American elected in Minneapolis. It was that year that Lee realized some politicians took their constituents for granted and didn’t put in the effort to engage.

Lee had just graduated from Carleton College. He plotted his next move. In 2016, he challenged longtime DFL incumbent Rep. Joe Mullery, a risky move in a party that often tells its young hopefuls to wait their turn.

Lee tapped his family’s connections in the tight-knit Hmong community to meet people and raise funds, and retraced the steps he’d taken to help get Yang elected. He comfortably ousted Mullery in the primary with 55 percent of the vote.

Recently, Lee’s aunt died, and his father and uncle told stories of crossing the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand as children, a desperate attempt to escape fallout from the United States pulling out of the Vietnam War. His father lived in Thai refugee camps for 15 years. In the late 1980s, he had a chance to move his family to the United States, but balked after “fear-mongering” from people who warned him about the evil that awaited him in this country.

The next chance came in 1992, and this one he didn’t pass up. Fue Lee was just a baby then. He hopes now to prove the fear-mongering wrong.

“The politicians I grew up on, like Keith Ellison and Barack Obama, have said if you see inequity, you can’t just complain about it,” Lee says. “You have to do something.”

Click here to see other entries in this year's City Pages People Issue.