Som Subedi is stuck in traffic. He’s running late to check on one of his flock: a 37-year-old woman who’s among scores of newly arrived Bhutanese immigrants he watches over like a worried parent.
Ran Gurung is on Subedi’s watch list. A refugee advocate, he fears Gurung is not adjusting well since arriving in June from a camp in Nepal, where her husband mysteriously vanished. She came to the U.S. alone, with only a few relatives already here for support.
A pedestrian accident near Gurung’s apartment has created the gridlock. Subedi nervously consults his watch twice within a minute. Finally, the traffic eases and he finds a parking spot. He races into the Rose Manor apartments, rushing past a woman speaking Spanish to her infant. He knocks at Gurung’s unit, but there’s no answer.
His cellphone rings: Gurung was the one hit by the car; she was walking to buy milk to serve him tea.
Subedi’s eyes grow large. Since he joined Lutheran Community Services in 2010, the 33-year-old has attended to Portland’s Bhutanese immigrants. He meets them at the airport, giving them a $100 bill, telling them: “Here, this is to get you started. But remember, money doesn’t grow on trees.” He helps them find shelter and introduces them to other Bhutanese to alleviate the shock of a new homeland.
Subedi and other members of the Hindu minority in Bhutan were banished by the king of their Himalayan mountain kingdom in an ethnic cleansing that began a quarter-century ago. Since then, tens of thousands of Bhutanese have moved to refugee camps across neighboring Nepal. Subedi spent two decades there. His father harvested rice for 30 cents a day, and the family lived in a thatched-roof bamboo hut with mud beds, before the U.S. agreed in 2008 to accept 60,000 Bhutanese immigrants.
Six years after his arrival, Subedi has fashioned a life here. He married another Bhutanese immigrant, and they’re expecting a baby. He and his parents bought a house. Subedi drives a fire-red Mustang sports car and last year became a U.S. citizen.
But his own success is not enough; clad in his dark suit and pointy-toed dress shoes, with a briefcase full of paperwork, Subedi visits other Bhutanese to help them make it too. He serves as a one-man switchboard, counseling his countrymen enduring isolation and financial hardship — not just in Portland, but in cities like Phoenix and Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y.
That’s how Subedi discovered a disturbing trend: Bhutanese immigrants in the U.S. are killing themselves at an alarming rate. Many deaths take place during the 15-day Dashain holiday that starts in late September. The festival celebrates family and community.
He calls it the Suicide Season.
In six years, up to 55 Bhutanese immigrants have hanged themselves, using ropes or traditional scarves, and Subedi suspects the rate might be even higher. He has hounded federal agencies such as the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to investigate the trend. He sent emails, made telephone calls, even traveled to Washington to address officials.
“I was bothering them,” he said. “I was a pest. It was what I had to do.”
Due in part to Subedi’s pressure, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study that found the problem to be endemic: The suicide rate among Bhutanese here is 20.3 per 100,000 people, nearly double the rate of 12.4 per 100,000 for U.S. residents overall and higher than the global suicide rate of 16 per 100,000.
No suicides have taken place in Portland, home to 2,000 resettled Bhutanese, and many credit Subedi’s diligence. “He has a conviction,” said Salah Ansary, a regional director at Lutheran Community Services. “He wants to make sure these people have a voice.”
Subedi arrived here in 2008 with $10 in his pocket.
He was mesmerized by the sheer size of Americans and their stores full of exotic foods. The transition to life in America, though, hurt his brain.
“I had my eyes closed for 18 years, with no people, no land, no identity, no country,” he said. “Then I arrive here. I opened my eyes, and boom! It was like looking straight into the brightest sun. Every second brought a new discovery.”
Steve Sieg, an English as a second language volunteer, took an interest in Subedi and his family and became their benefactor. For five years, he has visited their home at least once a week to check on their progress.
Subedi learned enough English to land a job at a knife factory. He was a fast learner, curious about terms like “Black Friday,” and asking “What is an American?” and “What is the American dream?” Sieg recalled.
Refugee advocates met Subedi at a Bhutanese community meeting he’d organized and hired him as a case worker.
Since then, Subedi has made allies such as Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz to channel more funding and programs into the Bhutanese community. One day, he walked into a high school ESL class attended by his younger sister. Teacher Anne Downing remembers the day:
“He handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘I have five demands,’ all in his very charming way. He wanted after-school programs for his people, along with job and cultural fairs. We did every one of them.”
Elsewhere, Bhutanese weren’t doing so well. In July 2010, Subedi learned that a Bhutanese woman had taken her life in upstate New York — the seventh such suicide in two years. Others followed. All by hanging, because Bhutanese often don’t have access to guns or prescription medicine.
Why were people killing themselves when they were finally free of the hopelessness of the camps, able to start a new life?
Then it struck Subedi: For many Bhutanese, the American experience was just plain lonely.
He wrote a column for the Oregonian newspaper, questioning the American dream. “I am a refugee from Bhutan,” he began, describing how he once encouraged friends in the camps in Nepal to hurry to the U.S., a place he called “close to heaven.”
He wrote: “Now I see those newly arrived struggling; they question me about my ‘heaven.’ Some say they would return, if possible, to their dark refugee camps rather than face their desperate situations in Oregon. I have come to feel that ‘the American dream’ is dangerous, because people come here with great expectations. I have stopped calling the camps in Nepal.”
Benefits for Bhutanese stop after a few months, often before the recipients have assimilated. Subedi disagrees with the CDC conclusion that a Bhutanese predisposition to suicide was brought to the U.S. from the refugee camps.
“It’s like saying, ‘It isn’t our problem,’” he said. “America is all about immigrants. The U.S. has resources other nations don’t. But there isn’t the will to help refugees here.”
Subedi sprints to the scene of Gurung’s accident, only to find the ambulance already gone. Speaking in quick bursts of Nepali, he consults with a handful of Bhutanese witnesses. He asks a police officer the name of the hospital where the victim was taken.
He knows he needs to translate for doctors, so moments later he’s back in the car — with Gurung’s brother, niece and a neighbor. He calls to tell Gurung’s ESL teacher she won’t be in school; he doesn’t want anyone to think she would blow off a class funded by taxpayer dollars.
Soon, he stands by Gurung’s side in a hectic emergency room, her gurney stationed near two elevators. She has already endured a battery of tests. Her face is bloodied; she moans.
“Can you ask her where it hurts?” a nurse asks. “She’s not talking to us.”
Subedi leans in close.
“So cold,” he relays. “Need water.”
A doctor says Gurung has suffered a concussion but will recover. She opens her eyes and cries as her niece strokes her forehead.
A hospital aide asks where Gurung was born.
“Bhutan,” Subedi says.
“Where?” Her face is blank. “Can you spell it?”
Subedi jokes that the stress of looking out for so many countrymen has caused his hair to recede.
He recently went to the White House for a forum on refugee services. His compatriots continue to take their own lives, the last one in Ohio in April.
He counseled a Bhutanese wife whose husband said he wanted to die and encouraged the man’s sons to support their father. He calls every few days just to check in.
Bhutanese immigrant Ash Monger, Subedi’s first client as a refugee case manager, says the man he now calls his friend saved his life. “He showed me how to dress, taught me how to be on time for job interviews,” Monger said. “He’s my American dad.”
Subedi took a picture of Monger when he first arrived, looking fresh off the boat, then gave it to him months later to show the progress he’d made.
Like Monger, some Bhutanese are adjusting well here. Bhagi Magar tells Subedi during a visit that she now has a job as a housekeeper. She and her husband, Harka, love Portland.
Subedi posed for a picture with the couple and their three daughters. The camera flashed as they all said: “America.”