Carrick home for ethnic Nepali refugees


Carrick has a new distinction. It has become a destination.

Over several years, the neighborhood has attracted the largest population of ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan of any in the city.

“It struck me for the first time when I was driving to work one day, a crisp morning in January [2010],” said District 4 Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. “Five Asian men were carrying a sofa down Brownsville Road. They were not wearing winter clothing, and I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

In 1989, the Bhutanese government began a purge of ethnic Nepalis whose forebears had gone to Bhutan to farm.

In the early ’90s, more than 100,000 fled to refugee camps in Nepal.

Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, said an estimated 3,000 now live in the Pittsburgh area, roughly 500 in Carrick in the southern part of the city. Her agency is one of three in the city that shepherds refugees in the first months of their resettlement.

The influx to Carrick has resulted in more than 60 Nepali children in Concord Elementary’s English as a Second Language program this fall. There was none last year, said Jon Covel, director of ESL at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“We found willing landlords in Carrick,” Ms. Aizenman said. “And people like it there” because of its bus service and proximity to countrymen in nearby boroughs. But most of the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t know what to think.

“People don’t know what’s going on, and you’re always fearful of the unknown,” said Phil Ricciardi, owner of a shoe repair and retail store on Brownsville Road. “A lot of people are saying they were dumped here and are on welfare.”

Told that they were persecuted and have help getting on their feet, he said, “It’s good to know that. My own grandfather came here from Italy with a $10 gold piece. I wore my cousin’s hand-me-downs. I see these guys carrying furniture people put out for the trash, and that’s recycling, like we did.”

He acknowledged that, with limited English, they are unlikely to be his customers. “But I doubt we will ever have trouble with their kids. They’re out with them on the streets, holding their hands and talking to them. They seem to be great family people.”

When Andrew McCauley was renovating an eight-unit apartment building on Brownsville Road three years ago, he said “they were lining up outside my door. I didn’t mind the risk of them not being established. I was going to be in that building all the time. I had a hunch they were going to be good tenants, and they have been. They have the same incentive to stay as I have to rent to them.”

Pittsburgh became a city of choice for refugees from original resettlement cities by word of mouth. But even a pleasant, affordable city is bewildering to these refugees, especially elders.

“They need people to translate for them and help them on the bus and to an appointment,” said Ragu Gautam, a freshman at Duquesne University who was born in a refugee camp.

“They don’t go out much and are frustrated and depressed,” said Bhim Dahal, a student at Community College of Allegheny County.

Mr. Gautam and Mr. Dahal are among the founders of the Bhutanese Student Group of Pittsburgh. Their goal is to do good works, guide younger kids and accompany and translate for their elders. They staged a recent litter pickup in Prospect Park in Whitehall, where many refugees live. To pay for the garbage bags and rubber gloves, they sold T-shirts and videos they made about their lives.

Mr. Gautam, who has a job as a night janitor, said most of the students have jobs.

Devi Sharma saw an opportunity to open a business here when he was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and so many people were moving here. A science and math teacher in a refugee camp for eight years, he opened the Himalaya Store on Brownsville Road in Brentwood in 2010.

“I was looking for a convenient place for people to walk because communication is the biggest issue. You have to know some English to get on the right bus. It is much less expensive here than Brooklyn, and I have been well supported.”

Ms. Aizenman said that what looks like a large influx is a drop in the bucket of millions of refugees throughout the world. Homeland Security scrutiny can take up to two years. Although refugees have the right to work and live here indefinitely, the future is daunting.

Service agencies get furnishings and money donations to pay security deposits and several months rent. Refugee benefits run out in several months. None of the families qualifies for Section 8 because they come here without Social Security numbers, she said. Many don’t have work histories or credit because of their length of stay in camps.

“Some jobs you can work without English,” she said. “But even with some English and education, they have to find work so quickly. Without understanding our culture, they typically start at the bottom.”

At the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, Matthew Onega is one of several teachers focusing on career pathways and practical English for the Bhutanese who can speak passable English.

He advises that “anything, anytime” is not a good answer to a potential employer. “Give an honest answer,” he said to his class one day. “If you can’t work at night, tell them why. If there is no bus, tell them. You have to be able to get there on time and get home.”

Gita Raj Gurung leans toward anything, anytime. “I am willing to take any job,” he said. “I need to get some experience.” Now 29 and living in Brentwood, he was 9 when his family fled to a refugee camp.

“They need so many things to begin life in America,” said Mr. Onega, who has been teaching at the council for five years after having served in the Peace Corps. “But they are hard-working, interested and committed.”

Ms. Rudiak said she was initially worried about Carrick’s response to the newcomers. Some dress in traditional clothing and most look markedly foreign.

“It’s a delicate situation because Carrick is a working-class neighborhood where people haven’t seen people who look so different,” she said.

She initiated a get-acquainted meeting at a Zone 3 public safety meeting, she said, “and 10 men showed up with interpreters. They know where the police station is now, and some have come to renters’ meetings.

“We get complaints that they don’t speak English,” she said. “I am acutely sensitive to this. My great-grandparents never spoke English. My first words were in Polish. My mother and I learned English together watching ‘Sesame Street.’ Who’s to say that one of these Nepali kids might not be a future councilperson?”

CourtesyPittsburgh Post-Gazette