Bhutan Refugees Find a Toehold in the Bronx


Nearly every immigrant group in New York City has a neighborhood, or at least a street, to call its own. But for refugees from the tiny South Asian nation of Bhutan, the closest thing to a home base is a single building in the Bronx — a red-brick five-story walk-up, with a weed-choked front courtyard and grimy staircases.

Eight families — more than 40 people — have taken up residence here in the past several months, part of a stream of thousands of Bhutanese refugees who have flowed into the United States in the past year and a half. With the help of resettlement agencies, many have found apartments in the Bronx, and the largest concentration has ended up here in the building on University Avenue. bhutan.600.1

This is their small toehold in a strange new world. The only life most have known was in the rural plains and Himalayan foothills of Bhutan and the dusty refugee camps of Nepal. Few have ever lived in homes with electricity or indoor plumbing, or between walls made of anything but bamboo.

Now they dwell among high-rise canyons, contending with wild traffic, a miasma of cultures and languages, and New York’s frenzied pace. Their challenge now is to bridge those two worlds — finding jobs and enrolling in classes — and move beyond the building.

“We have started inventing our lifestyle,” said Abhi Siwakoti, 24, who arrived last November and lives with his family in Apartment 5G.

That style has none of the standoffishness of the typical New York apartment block. Neighbors drop in on one another for advice and company.

A porridge of humidity and street noise oozed through the open windows one sweltering morning as Suk Man Tamang, 30, sat on the edge of a bed in his ground-floor three-bedroom apartment. The place was furnished with a couple of bureaus, several beds that doubled as couches and little else. The walls were bare. His two sisters and a niece dawdled for a while, barely concealing their boredom, then went for a walk. Two Bhutanese neighbors stopped by to say hello.

Mr. Tamang arrived on Aug. 3, joining his parents, who arrived a week earlier. But in this busy building he could already see a glimmer of a future neighborhood.

“There’s Chinatown, there’s Koreatown, there’s Indiatown,” he said. “One day there will be a big Bhutanese community.”

All of the newcomers are Bhutanese of Nepalese origin who had migrated to Bhutan or were descended from immigrants. In the early 1990s, Bhutan expelled tens of thousands of Nepali Bhutanese, most of them from poor farming families, accusing them of immigrating illegally. The majority ended up in seven refugee camps in Nepal, where they lived in bamboo-and-thatch huts and were cared for by international aid agencies.

Bhutan refused to take them back and Nepal refused to give them citizenship. In 2007, the United States agreed to resettle at least 60,000 of them. The first arrived in early 2008.

Through an elaborate process involving consultation between resettlement agencies, about 170 Bhutanese refugees have been placed in New York. The families in the University Avenue building were brought by the International Rescue Committee, an agency that has a longstanding relationship with the landlord.

There was no significant Bhutanese population in New York to receive and help assimilate them. So except for the guidance of the resettlement agencies, they rely largely on one another to solve the puzzles of American city life and, for the first time since they were exiled from Bhutan, become self-reliant.

Inside the 60-unit building, where they are a distinct minority, they share meals and information about job leads and educational opportunities, and simply hang out in one another’s apartments to pass the time. The refugees say the flow resembles the comfortable circulation of neighbors and relatives from hut to hut in the Nepalese camps.

One morning, the Tamang family needed to go shopping but their food stamps had not yet been issued. So the Siwakoti family, from upstairs, lent some of theirs.

The seven-member Gurung family, who arrived in four groups during the winter and spring, invited the Tamangs for a traditional Bhutanese meal at their apartment on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. Though the Gurungs had been in the country less than a year — “we’re just-born,” said Gyan Gurung, 33 — they were relative veterans.

The two families sat on the floor of the tidy apartment to eat. The walls were decorated with a New York subway map and a Buddhist bead necklace.

“The sweetest matter is that all Bhutanese have a universal brotherhood,” said Mr. Siwakoti, who works with several other Bhutanese refugees at a food-packing plant in Brooklyn.

On the sidewalks of the Bronx, the refugees move comfortably and without much trepidation. Slender, short and unassuming, they are easily absorbed into the commotion. Yet with each week, they are learning facts about urban life, and their other neighbors, that should concern them.

Mr. Tamang said that one day his elderly parents, who speak no English, were alone in their apartment when they heard loud knocking. Opening the door, the father was confronted by several young men. Although he understood none of the words the men were using, he gathered from their angry gestures that they were looking for a missing bicycle and were demanding to search the apartment.

Mr. Tamang said his father, small and mild mannered, stepped aside to allow the group to enter, but the men eventually went away, leaving the father shaken.

“They were trying to get in,” Mr. Tamang recalled, surprise and pain in his voice. “We are very honest people.” Mr. Tamang said he would no longer leave his parents without one of their English-speaking children.

Most Bhutanese households in the Bronx, in fact, have experienced something of a role reversal: the children, most of whom speak English, have now become the caretakers of their parents, who do not. They chaperone their elders to doctor’s appointments, enroll younger siblings in school and work to support the family.

“It’s our turn,” Mr. Tamang said. “It’s very hard.”

The shift was evident in apartment after apartment. As members of the younger generation described their plans to a reporter, their parents sat listlessly, saying nothing, or slipped away for a nap. Several younger refugees said their parents, anticipating an isolated existence in the United States, were yearning for the day they could return to Bhutan. They, on the other hand, are intent on succeeding in their new country.

In Apartment 2H, T. P. Mishra, 25, who edited a monthly newspaper in Nepal, has been using his blog, Journalism in Exile, to share his and other refugees’ experiences — including the challenges of navigating New York, and the killing in July of a young Bhutanese refugee in Florida.

Mr. Mishra arrived alone in New York in July, and was later joined by two of his sisters. He had been bracing for “serious cultural shock,” he said, but his fears evaporated when he walked into the building.

“Because the moment I’m about to enter my apartment, there were dozens of Bhutanese around me,” he recalled. “Some looked like my mother, some looked like my father. They said, ‘You will be O.K..’ ”

Source: The New York Times, September 24