The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, December 31, 2012

Bhutanese refugees pool funds to open midtown grocery store

By Christopher Burbach


Lacking English, short on capital and missing such home-country staples as dried radishes, members of one of the newest refugee groups in the United States pooled their money to open a small grocery store in Omaha that caters to their needs.

More than 60 refugee families from the Asian kingdom of Bhutan invested money to start Druk Groceries, 822 N. 40th St. in midtown Omaha. They formed a limited cooperative association, an unusual type of business arrangement in Nebraska, but one that also is being considered by a handful of small towns who are losing their grocery stores.

At the Bhutanese grocery store, in a former office building one block from St. Cecilia Cathedral, managers aim primarily to serve the 900 to 1,000 people in the local Bhutanese refugee community with foodstuffs they're used to from back home. The shelves are stacked with bulk rice; hard, dried, canned and pickled chili peppers; dal (lentils and other legumes); curry powder and dried tamarind; free spinach and big boxes of Cheerios. The store also carries such traditional American staples as milk, eggs and baking soda, and hopes to attract a broader clientele from within the store's midtown Omaha neighborhood.

It's unclear to what degree that will happen. The store may seem as foreign to the majority population as Omaha must feel to people from Bhutan.

But neighbors who have noticed the store say they're glad it's in the area, where there had been a corner grocery store for decades until the last one closed 10 years ago.

For the refugees who started it, the new enterprise is about comfort and convenience right now, and, more important, long-term self-sufficiency and economic growth, according to Kumar Gurung, chairman of the association.

On a recent morning, Gurung slid folding chairs into a corner of the store — between a rack of English-language greeting cards and a homemade walk-in vegetable cooler chilled by an air conditioner — to talk about his people and their business.

They hail from Bhutan, a small constitutional monarchy high in the Himalayas between China and India. Bhutan promotes itself as being focused on personal fulfillment by measuring its “Gross National Happiness.” But the smiles do not extend to all.

In the late 1980s, with Bhutan's elite worried about a growing ethnic Nepali population, the Bhutanese government began harrassing, displacing and then forcibly expelling ethnic Nepalis.

“They claimed that we went to Bhutan from Nepal,” Gurung said.

Many of the evicted people, he said, came from families who had lived in Bhutan for generations.

Eventually, more than 100,000 people, about one-sixth of Bhutan's population, were forced to leave their homes. They landed in seven refugee camps in nearby Nepal.

For 15 to 20 years, they lived in bamboo huts with thatched roofs and see-through walls, Gurung said. They had education through 10th grade. A very few, such as Gurung, were allowed to seek higher education in India, where he obtained a law degree and was able to return to Nepal and teach in college. In Nepal, many Bhutanese have able to work as laborers on the sly, Gurung said. But the Nepalese government doesn't accept them.

Evicted by Bhutan, unwanted in Nepal, they are a stateless people.

“We had many hardships,” Gurung said.

Among those: a subsistence diet of boiled rice and salt, sometimes sugar, rarely meat or fresh fruits, and sometimes vegetables, though they were often rotten by the time they reached the camps.

The United States began resettling the refugees to America in 2006. The first arrived in Omaha in 2008. More have been coming each year. Hundreds more are expected in the next couple of years.

Though employment has been harder to come by for refugees in Omaha in recent years, the Bhutanese have been finding jobs in such places as Tyson and ConAgra meatpacking plants, First Data Resources and hotels.

Many live in midtown, Benson and Dundee. Bhutanese people, especially women, are noticeable in their brightly colored traditional clothing from their home country.

In 2009, they formed the Bhutanese Community Association to help the people adapt to American life and retain their identity and culture. It offers English, driving and other education.

Asked about their culture, Gurung said Bhutanese refugees have in common their native language, culture and food (with a strong affinity for chili peppers).

“The only thing we don't have in common is religion,” he said.

There are four basic groups: Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Kirat. The last is the religion of the indigenous Himilayan Kirati people.

“But we have a kind of religious tolerance,” Gurung said. “We love each other. We worship with each other. Whichever religious group is celebrating something, we all celebrate it.”

That community spirit also is behind the grocery store, Gurung said. Leaders launched the idea last year as they pondered ways for the growing Bhutanese population to not only survive in America, but to own businesses and generate their own employment, Gurung said.

Without English, people were having a hard time shopping at supermarkets or the other several ethnic groceries that have popped up in the city.

“We were in need of a business in our community,” Gurung said. “But nobody had money. We weren't qualified for loans. We had no credit.”

They consulted lawyers and others and decided to create a limited cooperative association, in which members are investors. They vote democratically on major business decisions, and share in any profits based on how much they buy at the store.

Families invested savings from their jobs, from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand each.

Gurung navigated state and city regulations. They acquired a business adviser (and a fan) in businessman Nicholas Bonham-Carter when they found a home for the store, in a building he owns.

“The building was divided up into offices, and I was disinclined to renovate it into a grocery store,” Bonham-Carter said. “But they were very persuasive. I could see really how important this was and so I agreed, and we split the cost of removing the partitions.”

The group bought shelving and inventory from a store that was closing (thus the English-language greeting cards). Community members did much of the remodeling work.

The store opened about two months ago. It hit the ground walking. At one time, Druk was down to its last $200. But it's doing better now, after leaders stressed to members how important it is to shop there, and as the supply of most-desired products has become more reliable.

That they have come this far, and are working together, impresses Lacey Studnicka, who works with refugees for Lutheran Family Services, the major local resettler of the Bhutanese. But it doesn't surprise her.

“They're so entreprenuerial,” she said. “They really have a strong sense of community. They're very loyal to each other, very eager for ESL (English) classes, and really taking a very active role in becoming self-sufficient.”

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