Refugees in NH find American Dream elusive
Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009
The American Dream hasn't reached the living rooms of Pema Tamang and Bhakta Dhital. Job rejection letters and public-assistance checks have arrived instead.
"There are no jobs and nothing to do," said Tamang, a Bhutanese refugee who arrived in New Hampshire last December.
The Concord resident worked three months at Walmart before his temporary job ended, and he hasn't received one callback from any of the 150-plus businesses with whom he's left applications. Tamang recently had his electricity turned off briefly after he fell behind on his payments.
"It's not like I don't like to pay for the bill, but I have no money," said the father of two.
"I'm just trying to have a better time and a better life," said Tamang, 27, who attends English classes twice a week. "I hope that this bad time doesn't go like this forever."
Refugees arriving in the United States in the past year have run straight into strong financial headwinds.
In New Hampshire alone, more than 51,000 workers went jobless last month, nearly 23,000 more than a year earlier.
New Hampshire had 561 refugees from nine countries settle here during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, including 462 from the Asian nation of Bhutan, where thousands fled more than a decade ago and relocated in nearby Nepal resettlement camps. Since the early 1980s, more than 6,500 refugees have made New Hampshire their new home.
Refugees receive a variety of government assistance when they arrive here, including at least four months of rental help, as well as food stamps and medical care.
"Refugees historically would get jobs within three to six months after arrival," said Amy Marchildon, director of new American services for Lutheran Social Services of New England, which settles refugees in the Concord-Laconia area.
"Now, it's probably taking between eight and 12 months. Because there's a higher competition for jobs, the refugees might be at a disadvantage if they don't have the same level of skills," she said.
A half mile from Tamang's apartment, Bhakta Dhital and his wife, Asha, live in another Loudon Road complex. They now rely on city welfare to help pay the rent.
"I'll do any kind of job," said Bhakta Dhital, 28, who arrived here in June. "We want to be independent."
Carol Moore, a Concord psychotherapist who has been helping the Dhital and Tamang families, said she wishes the resettlement groups would do more.
"It drives me nuts," she said.
Marchildon said refugees need to learn to become self-sufficient.
"I think a challenge for resettlement agencies is managing refugees' expectations. Many, but not all, have higher expectations than what the service delivery is," she said. "It's a new system that they have to learn. Refugees have been in situations where other agencies are supporting them and keeping them alive and haven't had to make decisions for them.
"The feeling we should be doing everything for them can be a blow when we're trying to teach them to do things for themselves," Marchildon said.
"With the downturn in the economy, the hope of starting their lives sooner rather than later is exacerbating their feelings of frustration and anger," she said.
Barbara Seebart, the state's refugee coordinator, said the current economic downturn means it's "basically taking longer for refugees to get jobs."
The Dhitals sometimes rely on a Bhutanese friend who lived in their refugee camp. Devi Bhattarai of Concord has a car, a 2000 Nissan, that helps them when searching for work.
Bhattarai and Mr. Dhital believe they have a job lined up for January at a Loudon landscaping business.
"I have to sell my skills," said Dhital, who taught computer science in Nepal.
His wife said she doesn't like being jobless.
"It's makes our body so lazy," she said.
Pema Tamang (left) of Bhutan and his friend Ganga Chimariya have been seeking work to support their families. (THOMAS ROY)
The Dhitals spent 18 years in a refugee camp of 18,000 in Nepal after their families were driven from their Bhutan homeland. They were married in the camp last year.
Sure, their Concord apartment doesn't have cable and they rely on free wireless that fades in and out. But it's a far cry from their Nepal residence, which was made of bamboo and plastic.
Rainy season meant wetness inside and out, Mrs. Dhital said.
"When I was in Nepal, I thought if I get a chance to go to America, I'd make my future bright," Asha Dhital said. "In Nepal, it's very, very hard."
Nepal meant food rations and no driver's license. It also meant no future.
In the United States, they believe in a future, even if it might take longer to brighten. Already, they feel they are ahead in life.
"Compared to Nepal, it's very luxurious here," Mr. Dhital said.
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