Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bhutanese Refugees make St.Louis home

Ganga Ram Upreti fusses with his hair, combing it back with his fingers. He can't find an oil here that he is accustomed to using, so strands fall into his eyes as he shows off his new home.

Of all the things he has had to deal with in his first month in America — food, housing, caring for his wife and young daughter — keeping his thick, dark hair out of his face has been the most annoying, though he readily admits, not a big deal.

Otherwise, he says in limited English, acclimating to the United States after 17 years in a refugee camp of thatched-roof huts in Nepal has gone quite well.

Upreti, his wife and daughter are the first Bhutanese refugees to be resettled in the metro area. Already, Upreti, 23, is finding his way around his new neighborhood, a cluster of well-kept, four-family buildings southwest of South Grand Boulevard and Chippewa Street.

The second-floor apartment Upreti shares with his wife, Nar Maya, 24, and their toddler Hretika, is a spacious but sparse four rooms. The furniture, including the compact plaid couch and round dining table with two chairs, came with the apartment. So did the small TV with a built-in VCR. Hretika jams a tape the wrong way into the slot, pulls it out, then looks at her father. He smiles. She laughs and does it again.

"She doesn't like dolls," Upreti said.

The Upretis will be joined this summer by more than 100 Bhutanese, including some members of his family, who also have been living in refugee camps in Nepal.

Threatened by cultural and religious differences, the Bhutanese government expelled the ethnic Nepali population that had been living for more than 100 years in the southern part of the country. After 17 years, with little hope of returning to Bhutan, the refugees are seeking a fresh start.

By the end of the year, as many as 60,000 exiled Bhutanese will be in the United States.

They face a challenge that other refugees often do not — a lack of family or immigrant community ties. Only about 150 Bhutanese are thought to be living in the United States, scattered among Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and Washington.

The Upreti family and other arrivals are a new ethnic group taking root in a country where they hope to shed the tag of foreigner for citizen. Over time, they will be able to connect with other refugees with whom they share commonalities. Exiled Bhutanese, for example, share parts of their culture with the Nepalis, a population more prevalent in the U.S. And, like the Nepalis, the Bhutanese refugees are Hindu.

Still, Upreti's happiness is subdued. He sees the promise of a good life, but is eager to get settled so he can help relatives expected to join him.

"I'll be happy when all my family is here, here with me," he said.

When that might be, he does not know. Neither do those who helped him resettle here.


The apartment is a five-minute walk from the International Institute, an agency that has been resettling refugees in the area since the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Upreti is taking English and job readiness training classes at the institute. He and his family received their health screenings there shortly after arriving.

From the moment the plane hit the ground, the South Asian refugees have been immersed in modern American life.

The Upretis were introduced to money — something they did not have in the camps. Electricity, plumbing and television were new, too. They applied for Social Security cards. Upreti must register for Selective Service, or he will be denied citizenship.

"Resettlement is very difficult for the client because they are asked to do many things in a short amount of time," said Ariel Burgess, director of social services at International Institute. "Get a job, learn English, get kids in school and acclimate to American ways."

The federal government gives each refugee a one-time $425 stipend. It has to go to rent, food, utilities and transportation.

Once a three-day job readiness class is completed and a refugee is employed, federal matching grants supplement income for four to six months.

In Upreti's first job class, he and 10 other students were taught how to introduce themselves to a prospective employer.

When instructor Rene Kreisel greeted Upreti during a mock interview, Upreti stuck out his hand and gave a confident handshake. He smiled and looked Kreisel in the eye.

"I'm happy to meet you. My name is Ganga."

In the camp where Upreti lived since age 6, he learned some English in school.

"Learning English will provide you better job opportunities," Kreisel told the class.


Upreti, like many of those living in the camps, refers to himself as Nepalis. Those working in human rights refer to the latest resettlement group as Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin.

The camps set up in the lowlands of Nepal in the early 1990s are basically communities of thatched huts. There is no fencing, but those living there are not allowed to work or live outside of the camps. Still, relationships between refugees and Nepalis occur, sometimes producing children. This makes resettlement more challenging.

Charcoal is used for cooking and heat. There is a constant black, smoky haze over the camps. Such conditions would explain Upreti's first impression of St. Louis.

"It's clean. Too much pollution in Nepal," he said.

The differences between the camps and a city such as St. Louis are astounding, said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group.

Here, they adjust to the sounds of sirens, buses and bass-thumping cars. In Nepal, days can go by without seeing a vehicle. Views from the camp are of water buffalo and rice paddies.

"They will be in a state of culture shock," Frelick said. "Even Kathmandu, the biggest city they have probably ever been in, is still a much poorer place."


The Upretis have been able to walk to get everything they need so far. Last week, with their Electronic Benefits Transfer (food stamps) card activated, it was time to stock the kitchen.

Inside the Aldi market, the Upretis picked up a gallon of milk, a large bunch of grapes and bags of apples and oranges. Eggs and a 12-pack of soda also filled the cart.

Upreti swiped the debit card at the checkout. Wrong way. Again. Declined. The third time, the bill for $36 was approved. At the bag-your-own grocery, the Upretis came empty-handed. He walked back to the cashier, who told him the bags were 11 cents each. He tried to pay her. To the back of the line, she said.

Once outside, they seemed satisfied with their first shopping experience. They found almost everything (Still no hair oil for Upreti.) Food stamps don't cover hair products. Once Upreti or his wife gets a job, he'll shop in earnest for hair care.

"When I have money, I'll buy," he said.

Upreti shrugged and smiled. Then his hair fell into his eyes.

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