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Bhutanese refugees find a home in Hilltop communities


The Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh Dance Group has entertainen at local events with their performances of traditional dances.

Kishor Pradhan lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 14 years after being forced out of Bhutan.

He arrived in the U.S. in 2005.

“I felt there was an opportunity for better living here,” he said of his choice of Pittsburgh for home. His wife and two children joined him later.

Today, after attaining an MBA in health care management from Point Park University, he works as an I.T. (information technology) consultant for Highmark.

He is also president of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh which, among other sites, holds monthly meetings in Mount Oliver.

Its mission is to ensure a high quality of life for all members of the Bhutanese community in Pittsburgh, and to support their integration into American society through culturally-informed services and activities.

Besides celebrating their heritage, the association provides assistance such as English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, civic education aid, driver’s education, family financial help and more.

Mr. Pradhan, 42, of South Fayette, is among the roughly 3,500 ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan who have chosen to plant new roots and make their homes in the Pittsburgh area, and largely since 2008. Many hundreds of these refugees live on the Hilltop.

The area is preferred as it is on the bus line, affordable, close to jobs and other Bhutanese, and offers the Pittsburgh public schools, Leslie Aizenman said.

She is director of refugee services for the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) in Squirrel Hill.

“They are very community- and family-centered,” she said of the Bhutanese.

A Hilltop resident is Pushpa Rai, 36, who lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 20 years. Today, he resides in Mount Oliver with his wife, daughter, and two sisters.

Mr. Rai is enrolled in a GED class with the hope of eventually studying hotel management. In the meantime, he works at a hotel as a houseman.

His wife, Pabitra Rai, is taking cook training, while his nine-year-old daughter attends Concord Elementary School.

“I’m doing good here. I want to thank everyone for their support,” he said.

The JF&CS is one of the three organizations -- the others being Catholic Charities and Northern Area Companies -- which work to resettle refugees.

“Our government saves lives through the refugee program.

“They decide at the federal level among millions forced out of their countries due to persecution,” she said.

The exodus of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan began in the late 1980s with what the Nepalis viewed as attacks on their cultural identity by the ruling party of Bhutan, such as removing the Nepali language from school curriculums, and depriving many of citizenship.

Once in Nepal, refugees like Mr. Pradham, lacking proper identification documents, were not allowed to be part of Nepal society and, as a result, were confined to the camps. As he was not authorized to work, he was paid less than those who performed comparable jobs.

In the camps, water was provided a few hours at a time. Food rations would be cut if, for example, a camp dweller left the camp for a visit elsewhere at unsanctioned times.

Mrs. Aizenman said before emigrating in the U.S., refugees are screened overseas for communicable diseases and criminal backgrounds. Interviews are conducted by Homeland Security.

As a settlement agency, the JF&CS looks for affordable housing, and helps the refugees establish new lives in America, such as tackling the paperwork for Social Security cards and food stamps.

As holders of “refugee status,” they are eligible for all government benefits, she said.

“They are not a people who are coming to not work.

“We have a very robust employment program,” she said of the work requirement for refugees.

Most of the jobs are manual labor, such as housekeeping and working in warehouses. Obtaining citizenship within five years is a primary goal.

The refugees are taught to avail themselves of community resources, such as the office hours offered by JF&CS on Brownsville Rd. in the Oasis Coffee Shop and the Hilltop Computer Center.

Mrs. Aizenman has met with Zone 3 police personnel, and city Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, all of whom she said were welcoming.

Mrs. Aizenman said the refugees are very appreciative of assistance as they are typically not prepared for all the challenges of their new homeland.

“A refugee did not plan to leave their countries in the first place,” she said.


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