After living for more than 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, Ram Rai is very happy to be settled here.
“We had nothing there. I want to thank America for giving us a chance to start a new life,” the 30-year-old man said during a recent interview at Lutheran Social Services of New England, where he is a caseworker. “We are struggling, but hopefully we can pass through this phase and make a contribution to America.”
Rai, whose family moved from Nepal to Bhutan four generations ago, was among the ethnic Nepali driven from Bhutan about 20 years ago. The government was bent on having a “one people, one nation policy,” he says.
Rai and his family were among about 120,000 ethnic Nepali living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. Rai was truly a man without a country as Nepal would not grant citizenship to the ethnic Nepali driven out of Bhutan.
Bhutan is a small, landlocked country wedged between India and China. It has a population of little more than a half million people.
The camp in which Rai lived had about 10,000 people living in huts. At first, the inhabitants used the jungle as bathrooms, but after people became ill and died, latrines screened by bamboo were provided. There was one water tap for 115 to 125 families. The wait in line for water could take as long as three hours. Sometimes the lines were too long to get any water at all, Rai said.
Despite the hardships he has endured, Rai, a slightly built, soft-spoken man with glasses, is quick to flash a wide smile.
He was educated at a school in the camp and went on to get a degree in English and sociology from Mahendra Morang College in Birathnagar, Nepal. Rai went on to teach English in Katmandu, all the while having to go back and spend weekends in the camp.
Since moving to West Springfield about a year-and-a-half ago, he has learned about such conveniences many Americans take for granted, like driving a car and using credit and ATM cards. “At first I was confused about how to use the cards,” Rai said.
His work at Lutheran Social Services of New England lets him help other refugees get resettled in the area.
“For me, it is OK, but I worry about my people who have no English at all,” he said. “Some refugees don’t even know how to write their name.”
Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit group loosely affiliated with the Lutheran Church, works with about 300 refugees a year to get them settled in this country. It helps with everything from learning English to filling out employment applications. It is now working mainly with refugees from Bhutan, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia and Burma, the country now known as Myanmar.
Despite all the challenges of adopting a new country, Rai said the refugees have been wise to come to the United States.
“They made the right decision to come here,” he said.