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Pittsburgh’s New Immigrants: For many refugees, a life in limbo

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Sanischare, Nepal: In the dusty courtyard of his hut, Ganga Ram Khanal folds his fragile frame to sit on a low stool. His face hangs with sadness as he recounts the story of the time he almost came to America.

It was late March 2010 when he got word of his “travel date,” the day he would get to leave behind the sweltering refugee camp in eastern Nepal, where he has lived for years since fleeing neighboring Bhutan.

His new home would be a place he could scarcely pronounce, Erie, which in his accented English sounds like “Eee-dee.” He knew nothing about the Pennsylvania city except that it would be cold there. To prepare himself, his parents and his brother for their new life, he borrowed 100,000 Nepali rupees (about $1,000) from friends, relatives and neighbors and went on a shopping spree: for himself, a canvas jacket with a fake fur lining; for his father, a pinstripe suit; for his mother, kitchen utensils and a pressure cooker; for all, a large duffel bag to hold the new belongings.

A few days before he was supposed to leave, the International Office of Migration told him that his trip was canceled. Ganga, 28, said he’s never received any official explanation, but his parents believe it has something to do with an incident long before the travel was arranged in which he slapped a young student he was tutoring and a fight ensued. Like many young men in the camp, he was an alcoholic, a problem that he sought treatment for earlier this year.

Smile Devan, 33, a Nepali citizen, says his final goodbyes to his daughter, Rina Shah, 7, before she, her brother and mother leave the refugee camp for the United States. Smile, who is not a refugee, does not know when he will see his two children again because he is not eligible to resettle. (Picture courtesy: Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette)
Smile Devan, 33, a Nepali citizen, says his final goodbyes to his daughter, Rina Shah, 7, before she, her brother and mother leave the refugee camp for the United States. Smile, who is not a refugee, does not know when he will see his two children again because he is not eligible to resettle.
(Picture courtesy: Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette)

Now the suit is gray with dust and its jacket eaten through by rats. His relatives — including many of his mother’s 16 siblings — have departed for the United States and are living in Pittsburgh. His uncle Kul Poudel lives in a comfortable rented house in Pittsburgh with his mother, Ganga’s grandmother. When they speak, he tells Ganga that America is great, that if you work hard, you can buy your own car.

He hears that in the United States, there’s no dust, no smoke and that he can get a steady job. Like many refugees, who are technically barred from working outside the camps, he had once been consigned to work as a day hire on a construction site, hauling heavy bags of concrete up a mountainside.

Ganga and his family live in a torturous limbo. Although his brother and parents are eligible for relocation, they’ve resolved to stay in the camps until their eldest son is approved. Another cousin, 19-year-old Chandra Khadka, is due to depart next, bound for Pittsburgh with his wife.

They’re part of a community of exiled Lhotshampas that shrinks by the week, each departing bus a reminder that someday the camp will close. They are among the 25,000 or so ethnic Nepalis who are awaiting relocation in the United States and in seven other Western countries. It’s the largest active relocation effort in the world. Nearly all of the 108,000 refugees who fled Bhutan have settled in “Third Countries” or are scheduled to do so.

Editor’s note: This story, whose extract has been reproduced here with due permission from the Post-Gazette, can be read here for full texts.

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