A Day in the Life with Guru (Part IV)

At 11 a.m., after we have visited two families and Guru has patiently answered all of my nosy questions, it is time for some food. There is only one Nepalese restaurant in Clarkston—and it happens to have Bhutanese owners—so we walk into “Kathmandu Kitchen & Grill,” named after the capital of Nepal, to eat our early lunch. As I can tell from the buffet line, Nepalese cuisine features dishes with a lot of rice and vegetables, as well as various meats. Curry is common, as is a dish called “dal-bhat-tarkari,” which Guru insists that I try. “Dal” is a stew that contains split lentils, tomatoes, onion, and a host of spices; it is a staple that those in Nepal sometimes eat twice daily. A somewhat cautious eater, I try to be as adventurous as possible, picking out some fiery-looking chicken to go with my rice, vegetable stir-fry, chick-pea stew, and naan.

I am rewarded for every risk that I take: the “dal” is thick and delicious; the chicken is tender and spicy, though not as spicy as it looks; the naan complements the stews perfectly. It is a memorable way to end my morning with Guru. When he drops me off at the Avondale train station a half-hour later, the skies have cleared, and I can stroll around outside for a few minutes before taking the train back to work. Not so for Guru: once I close the door, he’s off again, heading out to Clarkston to drive the rest of his clients to their health screenings.

Jeff Banks is the communications coordinator for LSG. If you have questions or comments, please contact him at jbanks@lsga.org.

A Day in the Life with Guru (Part III)

After Guru and I leave Rajesh’s townhouse, we drive over to Southern Place, the apartment complex where LSG houses many of its refugee clients. The townhouse of the family we are visiting next is similar to the one in which Rajesh lives, except that this one is made of brick.

We walk into the complex and knock at the door of the family’s apartment. After some audible fumbling with the lock, a Bhutanese man opens the door and welcomes us. Half-expecting to see another solitary person in his apartment, I am surprised to see a large family waiting inside the living room. The father invites me to sit on a couch, and Guru settles into a spot beside me. No one in this family speaks English, and while Guru can translate easily for me, I find myself unsure of what to say or whom to address.

But soon our conversation gets going, and before long, with Guru’s help, we are talking about Bhutan, farming, and modern technology. Damber Gurung was a farmer in Bhutan before he and his family had to flee to a refugee camp in Nepal in 1992. The eldest daughter, now 20, was two-months old when the family left Bhutan for Nepal. Damber’s other two daughters were born in the refugee camp, so none of the children remembers Bhutan. The family arrived in America in early September, not quite two weeks ago. Because they have come to Atlanta so recently, they are just beginning to adjust to the new conditions and way of life in the U.S. During an awkward pause in our conversation, unable to think of anything interesting to say, I resort to the easiest escape from silence: I ask what they think of Atlanta’s tall buildings. Damber says that they are unlike anything he has ever seen, and tells me that while his wife was afraid on the elevator ride to the 18th floor of the Woodruff Volunteer Center, where LSG’s office is located, he assures me that he rode without any fear. Soon we are wrapping up our discussion, with Guru telling Damber about food stamps and orientation at LSG. After a round of goodbyes, during which I try to pronounce “dhanyawad,” a way of saying “thank you” in Hindi that I learned from Guru, we walk out to the minivan.

Check out the blog next Thursday for the fourth and final installment of A Day in the Life.

Jeff Banks is the communications coordinator for LSG. Please contact him at jbanks@lsga.org with any questions or comments.

A Day in the Life with Guru (Part II)

Although Bhutanese refugees may experience some relief at being resettled to a new country such as the United States, where they can begin to build new lives, they often encounter considerable challenges in the first few months. Not able to speak the language, these newcomers do not easily find work. Once they find a job, a process that the case manager and others in LSG help them through, they have difficulty getting to it, especially if the job is in a poultry processing plant that is not easily accessible by public transportation. Since few of the refugees are able to drive, let alone afford a car, they ride in a van driven by a more experienced refugee. This carpooling can be efficient, but if the driver quits his job or moves to a different city, the new employees are temporarily stranded at home. When we arrive in Clarkston, Guru points to the different places that serve the refugee community: the health clinic; Georgia Piedmont Technical College, where the refugees receive English lessons; and the apartment complexes where many live. Soon afterward we drive up to the townhouse of our first host, a man who recently arrived from a refugee camp in Nepal.

Rajesh Rai opens the door and invites us in. He greets me by placing his hands together in front of his chest and saying “Namaste” with a slight bow—the traditional Nepalese greeting. Then we shake hands—an American addendum to the introduction. Walking through the doorway, I first notice the number of shoes and sandals lying at the foot of the stairs. These, Guru tells me, are donations from the clothing drives sponsored by LSG. To the left of the doorway is the kitchen, where a large rice-cooker is at work on the counter. Out in front of me I see a table pushed against a wall with several chairs next to it, as well as a couple of comfortable-looking couches. Rajesh invites us into this living room, and we plop down on the couches.

Having served as an English teacher in the Nepalese refugee camp, Rajesh understands and speaks some English. We begin to discuss his life in Atlanta, but our conversation eventually flows to his family and his background. For all the difficulties faced by refugees as they are uprooted from their homes, placed into temporary camps, and then transplanted into a new country, their stories are also filled with moments of joy. Rajesh recounts one of these moments. Two years ago, his wife, pregnant with their daughter, came to America, leaving Rajesh behind in the refugee camp. This summer Rajesh was finally granted permission to come to the United States, and on August 7 he moved in with his wife and two-year-old daughter, whom he had never seen. At first, he told me, his daughter was hesitant toward him, for, after all, he was a new presence in her life. But now, after having been with him for a month and a half, she crawls onto his lap without reservation.

Check back here next week for the third installment of A Day in the Life

Jeff Banks is the communications coordinator for Lutheran Services of Georgia. If you have questions or comments, please contact him at jbanks@lsga.org

"A Day in the Life" with Guru

It is 9 a.m. and rain falls steadily outside the Avondale train station in Decatur, where a group of commuters lingers under the roof of the station, hesitant to get wet so early in the morning. Some people, however, do not have the luxury of waiting around until the rain abates. For a refugee services case manager, the morning is already in full swing: rain or shine, refugee clients need to be driven to health screenings, English lessons, work interviews, and orientations. Guru, one of LSG’s Refugee Services case managers, has already been quite busy this morning. When he pulls into the train station in his minivan to pick me up a few minutes after nine, he has already shuttled several clients to a clinic near Clarkston.

Guru has graciously agreed to take an inexperienced and inquisitive intern along with him while he visits families in Clarkston. As we drive on Ponce de Leon Avenue toward our destination, Guru tells me a little bit about his own story and how it relates to other refugees’ experiences. Originally from Bhutan, Guru came to the United States in 2008, after having spent 17 years as a refugee, mostly in a refugee camp in Nepal. It is not uncommon for refugees from Bhutan to have spent as many as twenty years in a Nepalese refugee camp. In the early 1990s, the Lhotshampas, the Nepali-speaking ethnic group from the south of Bhutan, were expelled from the country. To grasp the reason for this expulsion, one must understand the relationships between Bhutan’s various ethnic groups.

The ethnic groups in Bhutan have different customs and languages. The Ngalops, from the west of Bhutan, are the dominant ethnic group in Bhutan, controlling the government and dictating the cultural norms. The Sharchops, from the east, are the other powerful ethnic group. Together these two groups account for 65% of the population. The Lhotshampas constitute the other 35% of the population. Originally from Nepal, the Lhotshampas were invited by the Bhutanese government in the late 19th century to farm the land in the country’s southern, uninhabited foothills. The Lhotshampas were different from the powerful Ngalops—they spoke a different language, wore different clothes, and practiced a different religion—and these differences caused tension between the groups. In the 1980s, the Ngalop-controlled government began to view the Lhotshampas as a threat to the uniformity of its culture and implemented a series of political measures designed to impose the Ngalop’s culture on the Bhutanese people. In 1989, for example, the government mandated that people wear traditional, northern dress in public or risk incurring a fine—a policy that forces the Lhotshampas in the south to change their customs of dress. Once the Lhotshampas protested this policy and others like it, the government went a step further and began to expel Lhotshampas from the country in the early 1990s. Because the Lhotshampas shared a language and other aspects of culture with Nepalese citizens, they settled in camps there.

Seven Bhutanese refugee camps were set up in eastern Nepal, and the refugee population in those camps grew from 80,000 in 1992 to 105,000 in 2007. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of January 31, 2012, only three of those seven original camps remain, in which 53,886 refugees live. The number of refugees and camps has declined because the inhabitants have been resettled permanently to other countries such as the United States, Australia, and Denmark. Finally moving from a refugee camp to a new country can be good news for someone who desires the security and comfort that were lacking in the camps. As Guru reminds me, though, many of these refugees have had to spend almost 20 years living in these camps, unable to find much work, reliant on the UNHCR for food, clothing, and shelter. For some, the relief at moving to a new country may be tempered by a sense of loss—of one’s home and of one’s time.

Websites consulted: http://www.unhcr.org; http://www.bhutaneserefugees.com

Check out the blog this following Thursday for the next section of A Day in the Life with Guru

Jeff Banks is the communications coordinator for LSG. If you have questions or comments, please contact him at jbanks@lsga.org.