It Takes a ‘Small Village’ to Resettle One Refugee
In the 1980s, the government of Bhutan ordered an ethnic cleansing in an attempt to control the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese community. The government cut Nepali language courses from school curriculum, required citizens to wear traditional Bhutanese attire, and enforced a strict etiquette code that interfered with the group's Hindu religion. Known as Lhotshampa, these ethnic Nepalese had their lands seized by the government and a few years later, more than 100,000 people were forced to flee. Because the majority were Bhutanese citizens, deportation left them stateless, and they were forced to seek safety in neighboring countries.
18 Years in Limbo
This was the case for Tara Nepal, a Lhotshampa man who grew up in Bhutan and now lives in Arizona, where he’s been a case manager at the International Rescue Committee’s Phoenix office for the over 10 years. In a phone interview, Tara tells me his father was warned by the government to convert to Buddhism or risk spending the rest of his life in prison, so his family made the decision to flee by foot to a refugee camp on the border of Nepal. “We saw bodies along the road and starving families in the tent camp, and I wondered if one day I would be in their place,” recalls Tara.
Tara and his family remained in the refugee camp for more than 18 years while applying for refugee status in other countries. For many years Tara and his family exclusively applied for citizenship in Bhutan, until a woman from the United Nations told them that would not be possible, and urged them to consider a Western country like Canada or the United States. “My dad had a feeling he’d be back. He told one of his neighbors, ‘Don’t worry we'll be back [for the] next festival. We'll be back here,’” says Tara. “It was a very tough situation.”
Reluctantly, Tara’s family began the lengthy application and rigorous screening process for refugee status in the United States, which included cultural orientation classes and learning about the American legal system. Working-age family members promised to find a job and learn the English language. After the U.S. government determined neither Tara, his family, or any of their acquaintances were a threat, they were accepted as refugees and their information was sent to the International Rescue Committee.
Settling into a Big Country with the Help of a Small Village
The IRC helps resettle over 9,000 refugees each year, providing them with housing, community orientation, temporary financial aid, language and computer classes, job placement, health care, and other services essential to their success in the new country. With limited government funds and donations, the IRC relies heavily on businesses, local communities, and individuals to carry out their mission.
“It takes a small village to resettle one refugee,” says Kristen Aster, IRC associate director of policy and advocacy.
The U.S. government provides newly settled refugees with a grant covering basic costs for the first three months. The cost of travel is covered under the stipulation that the refugee will pay back the government once they have the money. The repayment program is a step toward self-reliance for the refugees, and helps them establish credit in the States. Aside from that, it's largely up to programs like the IRC to help refugees once they’re here.
“It’s a huge misconception that refugees are supported by the government,” says Kristen Aster, IRC associate director of policy and advocacy. “They want to support their families, and they want to feel independent and empowered to thrive in their new home.”
When Tara and his family arrived in Arizona in 2008, their new home was waiting for them, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, if housing has not been secured yet, the IRC relies on corporate partners from the hospitality industry like Airbnb, which recently committed $4 million to the NGO with half of that being in-kind housing credits. Nick Papas, an Airbnb spokesman told me that they try to identify hosts that are nearby IRC offices to the refugees can stay connected to their case manager while they wait for their permanent residence.
Tara’s home was already furnished, with food in the fridge and clothes in the closet, most of which was donated by community members, local businesses, and larger companies like Threads 4 Thought, one of the IRC’s clothing partners. “Some community members will do welcome kits where they will set up a basket of kitchen items or various household goods,” says Aster. “We’ve had some instances where community members have taken it upon themselves to decorate a refugee’s entire apartment. … All of that helps.”
Though his family’s new home was significantly more comfortable than the tents at the refugee camp, Tara recalls the unease he felt arriving in the United States. “Assume you're born in America and all of a sudden you have to go to Nepal. … You don’t know where you are going, you don’t know if you have any friends there, you don’t know if the Nepalese people will be welcoming to you—all of those kinds of things become a question mark,” he tells me.
To help acclimate Tara and the thousands of other refugees who come under its care annually, the IRC and other companies provide services, courses, and other needed information. For example, startups located near areas with a large refugee population will hold classes about nailing a job interview, starting a business, or improving computer skills. According to the Migrant Policy Institute, “Programs that teach refugees to code are especially popular.”
Danielle Silber, IRC associate director of corporate partnerships, tells me that these services are crucial for refugees trying to make sense of an unfamiliar environment. “There’s a big challenge…of figuring out how to navigate the new culture while also harnessing the skills and the dignity they had in their past life,” she says, “and to harness that talent and that passion and that commitment into a job that makes sense for them here.”
Some businesses, like Chipotle and Starbucks, make it a point to hire refugees. Chipotle is the IRC’s first national employment partner, and along with hiring and training refugees, the company also does outreach to other businesses about what it’s like employing refugees. “We get really good and loyal employees,“ Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold says. “People coming out of very uncertain and dangerous circumstances to the United States who were [in our country] for such a short time you’d think they’d be shell-shocked. Quite the contrary. They were ready to dive in and realize their own piece of the American dream.”
Chipotle isn’t alone. Thirty percent of workers in Chobani’s factories are resettled refugees. Royal DSM facilitates English and cultural skills lessons for refugees whether they are on staff or not. At Figure 8 Investment Strategies, refugees make up half of the staff and are also supported in pursuing career-advancing certifications. Lynke is a certified B-corporation that hires Syrian refugees for remote technical contract jobs while also offering a six-month long course in app-building and professional skills.
Chipotle is also involved in the IRC’s urban farming and youth food justice program. The urban farm network, called New Roots, is run entirely by refugees. Not only does this initiative empower families to grow their own food, but they’re able to sell the surplus to the community. In one instance, the peppers from a farm in the Bronx are made into hot sauce and sold at Whole Foods. In addition to selling products made from IRC’s urban farm initiative, Whole Foods also hosts “5 percent days” where 5 percent of all purchases go directly to the IRC to help in whatever department needs it most.
Aside from corporate endeavors, companies are increasingly supporting workers’ independent projects to aid refugees. For instance, a group of Google employees worked alongside employees of the IRC and Mercy Corps to design and launch Refugee.info—a web platform that aggregates information like contact numbers for emergency services, border information, legal aid resources, and safety tips based on city. It also helps refugees learn their rights in whatever location they landed.
Since the site’s launch, Microsoft and TripAdvisor have also donated to Refugee.info and have allowed the developers who work on the site to access their proprietary software. TripAdvisor also committed $5 million dollars to help fund initiatives that use technology to empower refugees. Since then, they’ve donated $1 million dollars directly to the IRC. “It’s interesting to see how many tech companies are also coming together to make something blossom and be even more impactful,” says Silber.
Starting a New Life
Recently, Tara was promoted to employment coordinator, where he helps newly arrived refugee families find employment in the U.S. Asked about the proudest moments of his journey, he remembers when he became an American citizen. After he was nationalized, he asked the judge if he could share a poem. “For 18 years I had to be a refugee, and everyone called me a refugee,” Tara says. “So I decided to write a poem to express my passionate gratitude and thankfulness for the U.S. government and everybody who helped me on my journey to become a U.S. citizen.”
Before we hang up, I ask Tara if he has anything else he wants me to know. He says that after 18 years of living the camp, having the chance to be here is a “dream come true,” and it wouldn’t have been possible without the “small village” that helped along the way.
Photos via International Rescue Committee
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