Bhutan refugees start over in Philadelphia

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The alarm clock’s 3 a.m. ring awakened Rudra Kuikel and his eldest daughter, Thagi, in their lightly furnished south Philadelphia apartment.

An hour later, they were headed to a packaged-food plant where father and daughter chopped lettuce for eight hours, netting $50 each after taxes and paying $5 each for transportation.

The Kuikel family, ethnic Nepalese Hindus who once lived in Bhutan, includes wife Jasodha; son Indra, 19; daughter Tulasha, 13; Thagi, 22; and Rudra, 51.

The family fled Bhutan in 1992 after new citizenship laws made it impossible for them to stay in the nation of 691,000 citizens, which straddles India’s border with China. Rudra Kuikel was a subsistence farmer growing rice and corn.

“At first we thought we would be able to return,” he said. “But time kept going on, and it became clear we would not.”

The family arrived in Philadelphia in August through a resettlement program.

About 103,000 ethnic Nepalese fled or were forced out of Bhutan in the 1990s into seven U.N.-run refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Critics have called Bhutan’s policy ethnic cleansing. Bhutan’s prime minister has called it “regularization” of a long-standing illegal immigration problem.

Almost two decades after entering the camps, where they lived in thatched huts with no indoor plumbing, the Kuikels and about 20 other refugee families who once lived in Bhutan are in Philadelphia. Here, they learn how to use seat belts, that red lights mean stop and that burned-out light bulbs can be replaced without having to replace the entire fixture.

They are part of an international resettlement effort begun two years ago that sent more than 17,000 ethnic Nepalese to the United States, about 800 to Australia, nearly 700 to Canada, nearly 300 to New Zealand and about 600 to northern Europe.

As legally admitted refugees, the ethnic Nepalese in the United States get one-time federal grants of $450 per person to help with their first month’s rent and other necessities. In the beginning, they are eligible for food stamps, Medicare and cash assistance through welfare, and they receive additional assistance from their resettlement agencies.

Under the terms of their resettlement agreements, however, they are expected to become self-sufficient within eight months -- a tall order, especially in the current economy. After that time, their benefits dry up.

“American culture is rooted in ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ ” said Juliane Ramic, social services director of the Nationalities Services Center, the Philadelphia agency that coordinated the Kuikels’ resettlement. “The Bhutanese, as a group, are really doing it, finding jobs in a bad economy, moving forward and learning as quickly as they possibly can.”

It is only a matter of time, she said, before they “move up on the labor ladder” to better-paying jobs.

Ludy Soderman, director of multilingual family support for the Philadelphia School District, met the Kuikels at an orientation open house.

“Life here is not easy” for them, Soderman said. “But you can see these kids have the light of learning in their eyes.”

Indra is a math whiz, taking Advanced Placement calculus as a high school senior and aiming for college. Tulasha is a bright but quiet eighth-grader.

Rudra Kuikel says he hopes to have a house and a car someday, but for now he is happy to have secured his family’s future.

Indra has his eyes on a bigger prize. “I want to stay in the United States, get a good job and create a higher standard of living for my family,” he said. “I want to be someone.”

Matza writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.