Published September 26 2010
Struggling to succeed
In America, you don’t bow your head, gaze at your shoes and mutter softly when you talk to a potential boss. Instead, found the soft-spoken, unfailingly smiling Hari, “you should stare them right in the eye. Shake hands without fears.”
Hari, a 30-something Bhutanese, spent his adult life in a Nepali refugee camp. When he arrived in Fargo last fall, he brought a pair of shoes, six pairs of socks and his laminated transcript from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, where he received a master’s in mathematics.
Lutheran Social Services touts the 370 Bhutanese it has resettled in Cass County since 2008 as a success story in the making. They are a spirited, outgoing bunch, bent on getting “American” right. But even as they’ve made a promising start, Hari and fellow Bhutanese say success can sometimes seem elusive.
Some refugees grapple with the specter of unemployment, eviction and medical bills – the very challenges of U.S.-born neighbors, compounded by their profound novelty.
“Back home, we were educated; we were teachers,” says Hari. “Now we are lost. In the country of opportunity, optimism and freedom, we are lost.”
An awesome new place
Next to a string of south Fargo apartment multiplexes is a long tunnel of garages, their white doors facing each other impassively. Smack in the middle is an explosion of color and activity: Hari’s garage.
On any given weekend, there might be women dancing there in pink, red and turquoise saris. There might be a Hindu service at a makeshift altar in the corner, a U.S. flag fluttering over the pictures of Krishna and Ganesha, candles and ficus plants.
Men and women might practice staring each other in the eye and shaking hands fearlessly. Hari’s friend Kashi Adhikari might invoke the dangers of drugs, complacency and excessive Facebook use to cross-legged preteens.
“Seventeen years of refugee life is harder than what we have to do here,” Hari tells them.
The refugees, a Hindu minority of Nepali descent, were driven out of Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom wedged between India and China that embraced a “One Nation, One People” policy in the early 1990s.
They settled in Nepali camps, thatched-roof-and-bamboo affairs with no indoor plumbing. The camps’ close quarters fostered the tight-knit sense of community the Bhutanese are trying to replicate in Hari’s garage.
Nepal never afforded these refugees citizenship or a chance to integrate into its society. That’s why a few years back, the United Nations set out to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese in six new host countries. Fargo is slated to welcome another 300 Bhutanese in the next three years.
Compared with camp life, America is “awesome,” Hari says. “We were deprived from citizenship all our lives. America is the only country that has recognized us as human.”
Enthusiasm for America runs deep in the Bhutanese community, which turned out en masse to sandbag the past two springs.
Already, there are success stories. A few Bhutanese have bypassed the typical refugee “starter jobs”
in hospitality and manufacturing, Darci Asche of LSS says, including a man LSS hired as a case worker. “There’s a sense of urgency with them. There’s no need on our part to push them or motivate them.”
At first a paraprofessional in the West Fargo School District, Kashi now teaches at the district’s Newcomer Center. Other Bhutanese still search for a sense of belonging.
Finding their stride
On a weekday afternoon, Hari pores over a textbook for the teacher’s license exam known as Praxis in his three-bedroom apartment, which he shares with his wife, brother, sister and parents. On the walls are maps of Bhutan, sayings by Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Then Hari puts on khakis and a navy polo shirt. His wife, Sumitra, herself in a traditional orange tunic, has ironed his clothes. He purposefully strides the mile to Walmart, where he takes his spot at cash register No. 9. “Have a good one!” he tells customers.
Like fellow refugees, Hari and his relatives each received an initial payment of $900 to get them started and monthly cash assistance after that. The stipends – $353 per month for a single refugee or $570 for a family of three – stop eight months later, earlier if a family member finds a job.
“I owe to Walmart because when I had my adversity, it was my first step,” Hari says, adding that the store and Fargo’s Holiday Inn have both given the Bhutanese a shot.
But Walmart and the Holiday Inn don’t have jobs for all of the community’s Bhutanese.
Community leaders say about 20 percent of Bhutanese of working age in town are unemployed. The newcomers are eager for work, but in an already tough job market, their candidacies can run into extra pitfalls.
Many don’t speak English, and those who do say their accent gets in the way. “Most people don’t understand our accent,” says Hari, “but we understand theirs.”
In Nepal, most Bhutanese had only two employment options: teach youngsters in the camp or work on nearby farms. So they arrive in America with little in the way of work history or references.
These workers, Marty Aas of Fargo’s Job Service office says, run into many of the same hurdles as U.S.-born workers. Many area employers have welcomed them, but “there are still some employers out there who are a bit reluctant because they are concerned about the language and the safety side,” Aas says.
Keeping up with bills
Even some of the Bhutanese who lined up jobs can find themselves living paycheck to paycheck.
Hari can think of at least 10 families who have received eviction notices. With seven of them to his name, one of Hari’s friends, he jokes, is “addicted to (the) eviction notice.”
“When we get eviction notice, we have the ghost in our brain that if we don’t pay, we have bad credit,” Hari says. “That’s killing us.”
So if a family is in such a bind, the community chips in to keep its members in their apartment. There’s also the Salvation Army, which helped four or five households a month this summer whose rent assistance applications identified them as immigrants or refugees. But Tai Leathers, the Salvation Army’s family services director, says many refugees check off “other” on the application.
“Some of them are still optimistic,” Leathers says. “Some of them are very frustrated because that’s not how they expected it would be.”
Chilling stories about outsized medical bills have spread through the community. A retinal detachment surgery Kashi’s wife needed in the Twin Cities, for instance, set the family back about $12,000, which he’s vowed to pay off gradually.
“If we are sick, we don’t go to the hospital – this is our scary part,” says Hari, who swears by his free health care regimen: meditate for 10 minutes each morning, drink lots of water and banish negative thoughts, which sap the immune system.
Pierre Atilio, until recently a longtime immigrant advocate at Cultural Diversity Resources in Moorhead, says refugees across the board are grappling with economic survival.
In December, he accompanied an Iraqi widow to the Salvation Army. She resettled in the area with her teenage daughter and son in his 20s in 2008. Of the trio, she alone had lined up a job, four months after arriving here: a $7.50 an hour housekeeping gig.
It was a Friday; save for the Salvation Army intervention, she would have been evicted that Sunday.
“You are confronted with poor people with fear in their eyes,” Atilio says. “And they are in America, the most powerful country in the world.”
The new-American services team at LSS says 2008 and early 2009 was a rough stretch for refugees. New arrivals weren’t landing jobs, and some who came earlier saw their hours or positions cut.
But things have picked up more recently with Job Service seeing job openings swell and traffic in its office subside somewhat. Few families are hitting the eight-month limit of cash assistance. And the recent crop of refugees has dodged actual evictions, a fact LSS is proud of, says Sinisa Milovanovic: “Within a year to a year and a half, we don’t see people contacting us anymore.”
The only solution
Hari’s father, Bhim, sits in their living room and watches “Ramayan,” a 78-episode Indian series from the 1980s. The series is a remnant from the final years Bhim spent tending his banana orchard before fleeing Bhutan.
Most days, he spends a few hours with the show, as his increasingly busy children drift in and out of the living room along with a stream of Bhutanese neighbors who waltz into the apartment without knocking. Mostly, there’s not much to do.
Hari picks up a four-pack of tiny bottles, each promising five hours of energy, for Bhim, 61. He downs all four in one sitting.
The transition to America has been rough on Bhutanese elders, says Hari. They cherish prayers and celebrations in his garage, a sliver of refugee camp closeness that was splintered in dozens of apartments across the city.
Now, winter threatens to shut down Hari’s garage, and elders, their gazes firmly on their shoes, ask a visitor to pass on an appeal for a temple to the North Dakota governor.
“Our parents are blaming us,” says Hari. “We convinced them to come here. They are not happy, and they want to go back.”
But Bhutanese youngsters are getting the hang of America fast.
Every Saturday, boys and girls gather in the garage for an hour of instruction – a blend of insights into the ways of America and reminders of their cultural identity. Ganga Adhikari, wearing the Hornbacher’s jacket he dons before bagging groceries, teaches the kids to spell “United States of America” in Nepali. The English word “discipline” keeps popping out of his mellifluous Nepali.
Things are looking up for Hari, too, even as they get more hectic. He landed a second job as a paraprofessional at West Fargo’s Eastwood Elementary School. He started taking secondary education classes at NDSU, which recognizes most of his Nepali credits.
“There’s no alternative,” he says. “Going to college is my only solution.”
In a brief lull in the customer traffic at Walmart, he strides to the front of register No. 9. He straightens up the magazine display. Then, he gazes beyond the bristle of signs, announcing, “Unbeatable!”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529