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Another mountain to climb 

Bhutanese refugees move from Nepalese camps to our slow job market

The smile that plays across Bishnu Upreti's face barely recedes while he describes his recent struggles in Colorado Springs.

The 24-year-old recently learned he could lose one or both of his shifts working as a 7-Eleven cashier — the manager wants someone who can work days, which conflict with Bishnu's main job on a landscaping crew.

"They are hiring someone else," he says, without a hint of bitterness.

Meanwhile, October's cold snap warned that full weeks of landscaping work may not last much longer.

Though the Upretis have been in the city slightly more than a year, Bishnu's wife Dil has been unable to find any kind of work, meaning Bishnu's income and fluctuating food-stamp payments are the main support for them and their 4-year-old son.

"I'm worried about the winter," he says. When asked what he will do if the work disappears, Bishnu goes silent, and his smile dims slightly further.

Escaping the past ...

With unemployment edging into the double digits, lots of people are worried about money. But the Upretis and about 15 other refugee families settling in Colorado Springs — more than 70 people in all, according to the U.S. State Department — face the unique challenge of surviving a time of economic turmoil while acclimating to a new culture and new language, all with decreasing assistance.

Lisa Kistler, who used to work as a homeless advocate, and Greg Guffey, manager of a local apartment building, met some of the refugees through a friend at Mirch Masala, an Indian restaurant. They have helped them find donated clothes, and Kistler has helped some navigate the county's social-services system to get food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits.

But with few refugees seeking help and fewer people available to assist them, Guffey is worried it won't be enough.

"I don't think [the Bhutanese] understand how bad the situation is for everyone," he says, before continuing with a note of admiration: "I don't know how some of them are surviving at all."

The truth is, they've survived much worse. For close to 18 years, Bishnu and thousands other former Bhutanese residents lived in a bizarre stateless purgatory, filling seven refugee camps in Nepal. Denied citizenship in either country, they spent much of their lives restricted to camps where they lived in bamboo huts with no electricity or running water.

Says Bishnu's friend, Hari Pyakurel: "People don't have enough clothes to wear."

The refugee families actually descend from Nepal, but their ancestors immigrated to Bhutan in the 19th and 20th centuries, settling in the southern region of the small country at the east end of the Himalayas. Mainly Hindus, they were ejected from the predominantly Buddhist country in the early 1990s as tensions boiled over from previous efforts to encourage assimilation.

Nepal insisted the refugees were Bhutan's responsibility and refused to give them citizenship. So they were ushered into the camps, which eventually held more than 100,000 people. In 2007, the United States and six other nations agreed to accept the refugees, with the U.S. signing on to absorb about 60,000.

The first refugees started arriving in early 2008, and the State Department says nearly 19,000 have arrived so far.

Hari got here nearly a year ago with his wife, who was then pregnant. His parents and siblings trickled in over the past four months. Unlike Bishnu and his brother, Bhola, Hari doesn't have a car; he sometimes walks an hour or more late at night to get home from his gas-station job.

Yet Hari's among those who sees the relocation as a fresh start, and he's excited about being in the United States. And even as Bishnu worries, and Bhola supports his mother and three sisters on a paycheck from The Broadmoor, Hari says he and others in the tight-knit community of Bhutanese refugees draw hope from his friend's family.

"They may have problems," Hari says, "but they are doing good."

... and preserving it, too

Lutheran Family Services of Colorado, a nonprofit that works with refugees and provides adoption and foster-care services, is bringing some of the refugees here; the next family is expected to arrive late this month. Floyd Preston, director of the group's Colorado Springs office, refused to speak about the program or the total number coming.

Though some refugees are struggling to stay registered for food stamps and other federal assistance, most are reluctant to criticize LFS, which gets new arrivals housed and started with English instruction before phasing out support after about eight months.

Maybe that's because according to some refugees, making ends meet in a new place is actually less a problem than preserving traditions there.

"We feel that culture is more important than anything else," says Bhuwan Pyakurel, Hari's brother, who taught physics and math in Nepal and now works at a 7-Eleven to support his family.

You can see snippets of that culture inside the apartment of Hari and Bhuwan's parents. Their father, Ganapati Pyakurel, wears the traditional red and white lines of a devout Hindu on his forehead. Greeting Hari inside his apartment on a Monday morning, he carries a tray loaded with scented water and sliced apples. He pours three spoonfuls of the liquid on Hari's palms before offering him a slice of the apple, which has been blessed.

Hari explains that without a temple here, the family has fashioned a worship area in a bedroom.

Moving to the U.S. has placed an uneven burden on the generations. While his parents stay home and try to re-create a sliver of Nepal, Hari seeks whatever employment he can.

After a trying period shifting between convenience store branches, he found a job at a gas station run by a sympathetic man who immigrated from India decades ago. But Hari can only get 30 hours a week, and he makes just $7.50 an hour.

"We are in the situation of underemployed people," says Hari, who, like his brother, won permission in Nepal to leave the refugee camps temporarily so he could teach at colleges and high schools. "It is very difficult for us to run our life and pay our rent."

A report last spring from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the national organization associated with Lutheran Family Services, highlights the gap between the $850 in federal money for getting each refugee settled and the thousands it can actually cost. Robert Carey, vice president of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement organization based in New York, says the troubles are national, with the federal government offering declining support for arriving refugees.

"The problems have been disguised by a strong economy for a long time," Carey says. Now he's hearing of refugees getting evicted from apartments or local resettlement agencies overwhelmed by the new challenges.

Carey doesn't think that should be happening: "Our feeling is, if people are being brought here by the U.S. government, they need the tools to start over."

Hari, for one, finds the work situation frustrating. But there are signs things are improving. After scraping money from friends and family, he is looking to buy a used car. That should help him hold his job and avoid late four-mile walks along Academy Boulevard. He's also looking for a way to get back into teaching.

His brother, Bhuwan, is even more upbeat, readily reciting the pathway to citizenship: one year to a green card, citizenship almost five years later.

"The hope of getting citizenship," Bhuwan says, "is the biggest hope for me."

lane@csindy.com

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