Refugees from Bhutan settle in Pittsburgh

Chitra Prassad Gautam and his family watch in awe as water comes out of the shower head in the bathroom of their new apartment.

"I have a question," Gautam says, holding up a bottle of shampoo. "Do I put this in my hair before going in the shower or after?"

Gautam, 19, his parents and his two siblings are among the first of about 5,300 ethnic Nepalese refugees from the tiny south Asian country of Bhutan who this year started leaving refugee camps to resettle in the United States. The U.S. has agreed to take in 60,000 of them.

Unlike other, high-profile refugee groups such as Iraqis and Burmese, the ethnic Nepalese have gone largely unnoticed. Since there are no Bhutanese communities in the United States, most are being resettled near cities like Pittsburgh, where housing is affordable and officials hope diverse populations will reinvigorate urban areas hurt by deindustrialization.

Charitable organizations responsible for resettlement get the families apartments, food, Social Security cards and English classes, and help them find jobs. After three months, the families will have to provide for themselves, usually working minimum wage jobs.

Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist constitutional monarchy bordered by China and India. In the early 1990s, the monarchy instituted sweeping legislation that effectively stripped the ethnic Nepalese, a Hindu minority also known as the Lhotsampas, of their citizenship, their right to own property and their ability to get government jobs.

Since then, an estimated 100,000 ethnic Nepalis have fled to refugee camps.

Bhutan has significantly opened up in recent years, embracing democratic freedoms and coronating a young king on Nov. 1. Nevertheless, the tiny Himalayan kingdom remains tightly controlled. Traditional robes and colored sashes indicating class rank are mandatory and only 20,000 foreigners are permitted to enter the country annually on supervised trips.

Like most others in Bhutan, the Gautams were farmers. Chitra Prassad Gautam and his sister, Uma, 17, were born in Bhutan. Their younger brother, Raju, 15, is part of the generation born in refugee camps in Nepal. They were educated in schools run by the United Nations, an education that gives these children an advantage over their parents, many of whom are not even literate in their native Nepalese.

In 1992, the Gautams moved into a one-room, dirt-floored hut in a camp about 25 miles from the Nepalese city of Damak. They often had to wait in line for hours to fill two cans with water. They shared a latrine with another family and bathed in a river.

But now they are in their new apartment in the Pittsburgh suburb of Castle Shannon. They have suddenly had to adapt to running water, indoor toilets, carpeting, closets, a refrigerator, electric sweepers and clock radios - because, as their caseworker explains, promptness is important in America.

"I've never seen a house like this," Gautam said when caseworker Molly Ferra took them through the three-bedroom unit, showing them the small kitchen already furnished with bags of rice, tea, hot pepper sauce and a box of pots and pans.

She explained the use of the refrigerator and freezer to Gautam, the only member of the family who speaks English. "Very cold," Gautam noted of the freezer.

Although life in the United States is far easier, some of the refugees do not want to leave the camps.

"Most of us want to return to Bhutan because we love our country and our roots," D.P. Kafle, a resident of one of the camps, said in an interview in Nepal. "We are patriotic Bhutanese and there is no way we will go anywhere else."

However, Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said 55,000 refugees from Bhutan have already signed up for relocation.

Norm-Anne Rothermel, Pennsylvania's refugee coordinator in the Department of Public Welfare, said most cities are eager to take in the ethnic Nepalese.

"Refugees are excellent workers," she said. "They do not want government assistance ... all they want is a fresh start, so it's a win-win situation when it comes to refugees."

Mark Hetfield, senior vice president for programs and policy at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said his group has settled 117 refugees from Bhutan this year and expects to double the number in 2009. HIAS is focusing its Bhutanese program on Charlotte, N.C.; Springfield, Mass.; Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio. Some will likely be resettled in Pittsburgh as well.

"There is no well-established Bhutanese populations in the U.S., so it is better to put them in places where housing is affordable and they could have the opportunity to buy a house in a few years," he said.

Despite the refugees' struggles with the language barrier, bureaucracy, job hunting and learning to live with modern amenities, Gautam had a question about something that to him seemed equally basic.

"A computer, will we get a computer?" he asked the caseworker. "I need the Internet to send e-mail to my teacher." - his U.N.-run school had Internet access.

Ferra told him the family will receive a TV but they will have to purchase their own computer. At the library, she explained, they can access the Internet.

"Yes, the library," Gautam says grinning. "My teacher told me I can get a card and use for free."

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