Bhutanese Refugees face a ticking clock of self-sufficiency
laden with many hurdles and challenges along the way
Story by Tom Crain
Durga, Nirmala, Bishnu, and Kailash Ghimirey
Durga Ghimirey is one of 120,000 Bhutanese refugees being relocated around the world. He is a member of the Lhotshampas, the unlucky ethnic group in Bhutan who fell victim to ethnic cleansing.
As a teen, he fled to India, then was trucked to Goldhap, one of seven refugee camps in Nepal. Here, he spent nearly two decades highlighted by his marriage to wife Bishnu and raising two children, daughter Nirmala and son Kailash. He and his family lived in a cramped bamboo hut without running water or electricity. He received rice rations once a month having to make them last, earning extra money to pay for supplemental food or having his family go hungry. He and his family experienced several bouts of life threatening starvation and illnesses, and witnessed other camp residents dying all around them.
Despite the hardships, Durga accomplished many things. He studied art at a school in India where he also learned British English. He later went on to earn a teaching certificate in special education for hearing impaired and blind students. He also became a braille transcriber.
In April 2009, he and his family finally got the nod to leave the camp for resettlement. With only the clothing on their backs, they left behind years of desperate circumstances, including a devastating fire in March 2008 that consumed their entire home and everything in it, including his hard-earned teaching certificate.
Borrowing several thousand dollars from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) for flights to America ($1500 per head), he flew his family of four to Khatmandu for Hong Kong, then on to America via New York City and Charlotte, and finally, destination: Akron, Ohio.
Coming to Akron, Durga still couldn’t rest easy, living under the pressure of having three short months to become self-sufficient in a totally new culture at the height of one of America’s worst recessions.
For many of the newly-arrived Bhutanese refugees in Akron like Durga, 2009 was the perfect storm. As a brand new refugee group, they were unknown, and therefore, untrusted by hiring managers. To make matters worse, there were few jobs available, even those low skilled where they could qualify.
“I finally faced my day of reckoning when I had no job and my loan came due,’ recalls Durga. “Unable to pay it back, I called the USCRI to see what options I had.”
Misunderstanding the agent, Durga thought he had to wait to pay until he had the full amount available. In reality, he could have paid the loan back in small increments.
“My credit was immediately shot,” says Durga. “I couldn’t get a credit card and no bank would touch me.”
Desperate, he went door to door in his South Akron neighborhood asking for any work he could find including yard clean-up, mowing, window washing and snow shoveling. Fortunately, he managed to patch together enough work no higher than $7 per hour to pay the rent for his two bedroom apartment (that was no longer subsidized after three months) and was able to extend his food stamps for six months. Bishnu pitched in by selling handbags that she learned to weave and sew.
“I couldn’t understand how my family was accepted to come to America with only a 30-90 day safety net in place without having any jobs available to us,” says Durga.
Fortunately, two lucky breaks soon came through. One day, Durga got up enough courage to meet with a program director to inquire about why he was unable to find work even though he had good English skills and work history back in Nepal. “Once I gained attention by meeting with the program director, I got a job in a matter of a couple days,” he says.
He also met Terry Kuhn, a retired music teacher from Kent State University who was introduced to his daughter Nirmala when she was a student at North High.
“A friend of mine worked for the Red Cross delivering donated furniture and equipment to refugees,” explained Terry. ‘She was asking around for anyone that could donate calculators to refugee students. I happened to have a few handy and so one dark cold and snowy night, I brought one over to the Ghimirey’s apartment. Nirmala was so excited. She ran out the door and slid across the snow-covered parking lot in her flip flops to pick up the calculator. I then got to meet the rest of her family, and learned about her father’s plight with his bad credit.”
Soon, Terry kicked into action for the Ghimireys. He was able to find a credit union that would open up an account for Durga; and develop a reasonable payback plan with the USCRI and repair strategy for Durga’s bad credit.
Today, Durga is moving up in his job at the Akron foundry producing aluminum castings and assemblies while Bishnu is working retail at a major discount store. They purchased a home in Cuyahoga Falls and upgraded from a car share with relatives to driving their own car. Durga’s extended family has for the most part relocated to Akron including his parents, Bishnu’s parents and four of his five brothers. His only sister and another brother are nearby in Pittsburgh and Northern Virginia.
Durga’s two children are in college working hard on their degrees. Nirmala, who is now attending Kent State University, moved in with Terry and his wife who live conveniently next to the campus.
Durga, like most other middle-aged Akron refugees, is experiencing life as bittersweet. On the one hand, he feels fortunate to be living in America with his extended family all around him (many refugee families are split apart in different countries as well as continents), but on the other, he is forlorned, unfulfilled in his career to ever work as a professional educator or return to his homeland.
“What’s most important, though, is that my children are doing well here,” says Durga. “Every year they seem to move up in the world. That makes me a proud and happy father.”
Durga’s proudest moment came a few years ago when Nirmala was chosen as class valedictorian of her 2012 graduating class. She said in her graduation speech in front of a packed auditorium where not a dry eye in the house could be found: “I recall that my journey began when I was born and raised in a refugee camp in Nepal after my family was forced out of Bhutan. My parents made a great sacrifice to bring me from the refugee camp in Nepal to the United States. In the refugee camp there was only today. I had no dreams for the future. What I have learned since coming to Akron is that there can be a tomorrow. There can be a dream for the future.”