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Bhutan Refugees Straining US Resettlement Agencies

Latest refugee wave from Bhutan: Hundreds expected over the next few weeks, straining resettlement agencies.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

By Maureen Sieh Urban affairs editor

Catholic Charities' Refugee Resettlement Program is scrambling to find homes, beds, furnishings and jobs for 450 refugees, majority of them Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese who were expelled from their home in Bhutan in the late 1990s.

Last week, the agency's staff made several trips to Syracuse Hancock Airport to pick up 30 Bhutanese refugees who arrived over three days. About 20 more Bhutanese refugees are expected next week, and this weekend the agency was still trying to find apartments for them, said Kip Hargrave, director of the refugee program.

In July and August, the agency resettled 200 refugees, mostly Bhutanese, said Felicia Castricone, executive director of North Side CYO, the Catholic Charities agency that runs the refugee program at 527 N. Salina St. Typically, the agency resettles 200 refugees a year. Last year, it received 380 refugees, she said.

"It's very tight. We're getting apartments ready, but it's very, very busy," Castricone said. "We had to hire a new case manager and hired refugees to help set up apartments."

The Bhutanese arethe latest wave of refugees coming to Central New York. The first Bhutanese refugee arrived in Syracuse in March. The rest - about 200 - will be coming in the next several weeks.

These Bhutanese, who are mostly Hindus, are descendants of Nepalese agriculturalists who migrated in the 19th century to Bhutan, a landlocked nation in South Asia that is located in the middle of the Himalayan Mountains.

Bhutan granted them citizenship in 1958, but the Bhutanese government revoked their citizenship in the early 1990s and called them "Lhotsampas" or illegal immigrants. During the 1990s, more than 100,000 fled to refugee camps in eastern Nepal, where they've lived in limbo for up to 17 years.

This year, the United States agreed to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees.

Hari Adhikari, 47, was one of the leaders in the refugee camps who advocated for the refugees to be repatriated to Bhutan. When that effort failed, he pushed for them to be resettled in the United States.

Adhikari arrived in Syracuse seven months ago, and now resettles many of the people he helped find food, shelter, access health care and education in the refugee camps.

Before he fled Bhutan in 1992, Adhikari was imprisoned seven times by forces loyal to the Northern Bhutanese government that expelled the southern Bhutanese from the country. His prison stay ranged from several days to 17 months.

"This was ethniccleansing they did," said Adhikari, a caseworker at Catholic Charities' refugee program. "The democratic wave that was coming to our region, the group in power felt threatened. I am one of the examples of the tortures. They used to beat us. They hanged me upside down and blood came from my nose and mouth. We suffered in silence. Our silent suffering, nobody knew about it. People died of torture in the prison. Seven-year-old girls and 72-year-old women were raped."

Kazi Gautam, 27, was 11 when his family fled Bhutan. Life in the refugee camp was tough because, he said, there was no future for him. He left the camp to attend Katmandu University, where he majored in English, and worked illegally as a journalist because refugees aren't allowed to work in Nepal.

In May, Gautam and his wife, Santi, settled in an apartment on Syracuse's North Side. A month later, his parents came. The couple's son, Basan Ethan, was born July 15.

The Bhutanese, he said, were expelled because they wanted to replace the monarchy government with a democratic government. The country is still ruled by a king, he said.

"In the 1990s, the people revolted against the government and wanted to establish democracy," he said. "Because of the revolt, we were expelled from the country. I wanted to return to Bhutan, but it was impossible."

The Syracuse school district's Refugee Family Program on Park Street hired Gautam as a interpreter to help the new refugees.

Because of the rushof refugees, it's taking 60 to 90 days to get people in for medical checkups and sign them up for health care and public assistance. Normally, that takes 30 days. Because of the delays, Catholic Charities has had to rely more on donations to buy people food and medicine for new refugees, Hargrave said.

Local agencies say the bubble of refugees is caused by the federal government's attempt to resettle refugees before the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Officials said they wouldn't be scrambling if the refugees were spread out throughout the year.

"We're having trouble working with that many people," Hargrave said. "The Department of Social Services is having a great deal of problems getting people through Medicaid, food stamps and public assistance. We can't manage to get them through the system."

In June, Hargraveallowed a Bhutanese family of six to stay in his home in the Syracuse University neighborhood because he didn't have an apartment ready for it. In some cases, Hargrave ask members of the Bhutanese community to host people until he can get apartments ready for new families.

Some schools have started new English as a Second Language classes to accommodate more refugee children, Castricone said. In the summer, the agency received a grant to run a six-week ESL orientation class to prepare refugee children for school.

About 70 children, ages 5 to 18, participated in the program where they learned what to expect in an American classroom, she said.

Jasenko Mondom, a job developer at the Refugee Family Program, said the biggest challenge is finding jobs for new refugees. Local companies that typically hire refugees for entry-level jobs have either shut down or moved those jobs overseas.

It's taking longer to find people jobs, he said. Typically, Mondom said, local companies hired two or three people a week. Now, he's lucky if he can get one person hired a week.

Marsellus Casket closed five years ago and DC Motors cut its second shift, he said. The agency has been reaching out to some new employers - Plainville Turkey Farms, U.S. Optical and Maplewood Hotel.

"You're facing refugees with limited English, and the fear is coming at a time when we don't have much job openings in the area," he said.

ENDS

Maureen Sieh can be reached at msieh[at]syracuse.com or 470-2159.

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