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Archie Ingersoll, Published February 08 2014

The second-largest refugee group to settle in area in recent history, the Bhutanese community sees a future in Fargo

FARGO - A year ago, Harka Rai left behind the confines of a refugee camp and came to Fargo where she, along with her parents and 13-year-old son, moved into an apartment in a public housing complex.

Soon after arriving, Rai’s elderly mother slipped on the snowy ground and broke her leg. She had to spend two months in bed recovering. Her injury was not helped by the fact that she missed her homeland of Bhutan.

“She was always talking about the past,” said Rai, 31.

But as their family met other Bhutanese families in the city and Rai found a job as a nursing aide, her mother’s mindset changed.

“She’s started to like everything here,” Rai said.

During the winter, the family’s basement apartment is a magnet for neighbor kids. Because no one lives below, rowdy play in the living room is no problem. The young visitors do much to brighten the days of Rai’s mother and father.

“My parents really love children,” she said.

For Rai’s family and hundreds of other Bhutanese refugees, Fargo is now home, a place where they see a future for the next generation.

“We are having better life than in the refugee camp,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for almost all of the Bhutanese refugees to be here in United States, I hope.”

Bhutanese refugees began settling in North Dakota in 2008, and by the end of 2013, more than 1,500 had arrived, said Darci Ashe of Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit group that helps refugees find work and adjust to American life.

With those numbers, the Bhutanese have become the second-largest refugee group to settle in the state in recent history. The largest group consists of roughly 2,000 Bosnians who came between 1993 and 2004, Asche said.

Nepali camps

Bhutanese refugees, who are 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. For close to 20 years, they lived in the thatched-roof-and-bamboo shelters of Nepali camps.

Nepal never afforded these refugees citizenship or a chance to integrate into its society. That’s why in 2007, the United Nations set out to resettle the group in the U.S. and other countries.

By April 2013, more than 66,000 Bhutanese refugees had come to the U.S., according to the U.N. The resettlement of Bhutanese locally and nationally is now winding down, Asche said.

Bhutanese have made their homes across the country, with large enclaves in Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia and California. About 70 percent of the Bhutanese in North Dakota live in Fargo, while the rest are in Grand Forks, Asche said.

Shyam Rai, 35, arrived in Grand Forks in 2008, and for close to four years he’s been working as a case manager for Lutheran Social Services. He said life is good for refugees in North Dakota, but health care is a major concern for those who don’t work full time.

Ages 40 to 65 are particularly hard hit because many are unemployed or they don’t qualify for government health care programs, said Kul Basnet, secretary of the Bhutanese community group in Fargo.

“Our people are facing lots of health problems because they don’t have health insurance,” Shyam Rai said.

The language barrier

Last year, Harka Subba and a few friends opened the Himalayan Grocery at 1000 45th St. S. The store, which caters to the Bhutanese and other Asian immigrants, is stocked with rice, peas, beans, chutney, herbs, spices and fresh vegetables.

Subba, whose family fled to Nepal when he was 2 or 3 years old, said coming to Fargo has given him a chance to prosper. “Back in Nepal, you know, if you don’t have money, you can’t do anything,” the 26-year-old said.

Like other Bhutanese refugees, Subba’s mother tongue is Nepali, and he learned English in the camps. But many people, especially those of older generations, struggle with English, which complicates landing a job, passing the citizenship test and navigating American life in general.

Another hurdle for the Bhutanese has been getting driver’s licenses. North Dakota offers the driver’s test in Nepali, but that does not help those Bhutanese who are illiterate or speak a Nepali dialect, Basnet said.

“Wherever, whenever we go asking for a job, one of the questions is, ‘Do you have a driver’s license?’ ” he said.

In North Dakota, many Bhutanese have found entry-level jobs in factories, hotels and stores like Wal-Mart and Kmart. In Raj Chhetri’s case, he was able to secure work as a medical interpreter because of his English skills. He is also president of the Bhutanese community group.

A place of their own

Chhetri, 38, said one of the group’s goals is to create a place where the Bhutanese can celebrate festivals and where seniors can gather.

“People are all scattered. People are very busy,” he said. “Back in the country, they used to live together. They have place to meet at least once a week, place to go and worship.”

Bhutanese refugees practice various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity or Kirat, a faith rooted in the natural world. Despite the diversity, the group sees itself as one community, Chhetri said.

“We strongly support the religion freedom. We didn’t have that opportunity back in the country, in Bhutan,” he said.

Cristie Jacobsen, a cultural liaison officer with the Fargo Police Department, said she’s seen this side of the Bhutanese people.

“They’re so open in their mindset. They’ll invite anyone and everyone to their weddings and community events,” she said. “Their parties, if you ever get invited to one, it’s no two-hour celebration. It’s all day.”

As a liaison officer, Jacobsen works to teach the Bhutanese about the law and their rights, and let them know that police want to help them. She said that so far, the group’s transition to life in Fargo has been smooth.

“They’re one of the communities we’ve had the least struggles with,” she said.

Harka Rai said that since moving here, she has not had any struggles with her son, who speaks English well enough that he’s in mainstream classes at his middle school.

“He’s doing great. He learns so many things like making clay pots,” she said. “I have never imagined that. That was not taught in our country.”

Harka Rai, a single mother, is aware of the challenges confronting her people in the U.S., but she’s confident they can be overcome.

“We face difficulties, but it’s all dependent on the individual,” she said. “We will adjust.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734