Bhutanese community leaders work to prevent suicide among refugees in New Hampshire
The family of Suk Laxi Rai, center, look at her as she stares out in silence. Her daughters Mangali, left, and Bir Rai, 15, and her husband Sher Rai worry about her ever since they arrived in Manchester. She has had trouble sleeping and wanders around the apartment.
Suraj Budathoki, the marketplace cooridinator for the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire organization walks away after trying to reach out to a Bhutanese resident in Manchester on Thursday, April 24, 2014. He is carrying periodicals for agencies to help the newly-arrived immigrants.
Bhahla Gurung, center, looks up at his mother-in-law with concern as Suraj Budathoki talks with family members about their issues Thursday, April 24, 2014
Tara Gurung rubbed her fingers along the edges of two photographs of her father, Ramlal, bringing her back to a time when the family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal.
The small man stood in one, holding a certificate from the United Nations naming him one of the honored residents of the camp, someone who would resolve disputes and answer questions.
When Tara’s hands stilled, she started to cry. Ramlal Gurung died by suicide in November at age 72, just two months after the family arrived in Concord.
“He used to say in Nepal that if we would have gone a little earlier to the United States, by now we would have done something else, we would be in good shape, but now his brain was getting older. Here, he felt lonely, that nobody could understand him,” she said, through a translator.
“People used to come to him to ask about what is true, what is good, and here, nobody came to him and asked the questions. If there would have been more time, it wouldn’t have been bad. He would not have done what he did.”
No one can give Tara more time with her father, but a group of local Bhutanese leaders are working to prevent future suicides in their community, which has a suicide rate higher than the rest of America, and higher than other refugee groups.
The community leaders are frustrated with the agencies that receive funding from the State Department to help the refugees for their first three months here. The International Institute of New Hampshire primarily resettles refugees in Manchester. Lutheran Social Services is the primary resettlement agency in Concord and Laconia.
The agencies push people to get jobs as soon as possible after arriving, and don’t understand or help them overcome the trauma of culture shock, Bhutanese leaders said.
Since 2008, 55 of the roughly 85,000 Bhutanese refugees in America have died by suicide, including one last week in Ohio, said Suraj Budathoki, a member of the executive team of Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire, a refugee-founded nonprofit group that helps people learn English, find work and adapt to American life, while also retaining connections to their Bhutanese heritage.
“Our people were three times traumatized,” Budathoki said.
“In Bhutan, we were having our own land, our own house, we owned everything by ourselves. We did not have to wait on anyone for anything, and we did not have to know about rent. We were independent. Our people were able to go every morning to pray in their own language,” he said.
In the 1990s, the kingdom of Bhutan evicted more than 100,000 Lhotshampas, ethnic Nepalese people who had lived in the country’s southern tropical forests for generations.
For almost 20 years after the evictions, they stayed in refugee camps in Nepal, unable to travel, prohibited from working or going to school there, and scared to go home.
The buildings were made of bamboo and thatch, and there wasn’t always enough food and water.
Most refugees are quick to say America is wonderful compared to the camps, but leaping from the 17th century to the 21st presents its own challenges, Budathoki said.
Few in the community understood how rent and utility bills work, for example. People often assume they will be fired after making a mistake at work, taking on significant stress that they don’t talk about. Refugees who arrive in the winter face a colorless world of snow and ice as alien to them as another planet.
Nearly 2,000 Bhutanese refugees have resettled in New Hampshire since 2008. In Concord, more than 1,600 refugees have resettled since 1998, though not all of them are from Bhutan.
Working for change
Budathoki has helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan, calling for the government in Bhutan to acknowledge the evictions and accept any refugees who want to return. He still has hope that refugees now in America and other Western countries have access to media that can amplify their stories and create political pressure.
But at the same time they work for geopolitical change, they have to address individual needs, he said.
“This is just a starting point, helping our community,” he said. “They won’t forget Bhutan, the atrocities. We will always have that in our mind, in our heart, so that’s the motivation for helping each person.”
In December, BCNH organized a training session for more than 25 Bhutanese community members featuring staff of the International Institute, Lutheran Social Services, Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success and the coordinator of the state refugee programs, to learn the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Last fall, the group surveyed people in Concord, Manchester and Laconia to find common threads among people’s needs that the group could address to prevent suicide. The board made a multi-pronged plan and assigned volunteers to develop action plans to address different possible causes of isolation and depression.
One person is helping people find appropriate employment; another is taking people, especially older refugees, to a Hindu temple in Massachusetts as often as possible.
Meeting with families
Budathoki is in charge of meeting with new families and encouraging them to be positive despite the sudden changes and new challenges they’re facing. He’s also supposed to temper their expectations of their new lives.
Mangali Rai and her husband, Bhakta Gurung, arrived in January with her elderly parents.
The young couple is trying to find jobs and attend English classes, but at least one of them has to stay home with her parents, because Rai’s mother wanders and her father can’t walk very far without losing his breath or his way home.
Rai’s mother has not spoken since the family arrived in New Hampshire in January. In the camps, she was a prolific cook who would feed multiple families. But the stark expanse of snow she saw here shocked and depressed her, and she misses the greenery of their homeland, her daughter said.
Meeting with them for the first time last week, Budathoki told them his own story. Before coming to America, he attended college and was working on a master’s degree in Nepal, but his first job in America was working in a warehouse.
Now, he works 40 hours a week as a residential instructor with Easter Seals, and volunteers about 25 hours a week with BCNH. He’s saving up to buy a house for himself, his wife and 3-year-old daughter.
‘I got lost’
Chandra Gurung, another case worker with BCNH who went to visit the new family last week, said he also struggled after he arrived.
In Bhutan, he had been a civil engineer before the evictions. In the camps, he had taught school.
In America, “I got lost,” he said.
“For two months, I was lost. I did not know where to go or what to do. I said after that, let me do something,” he said.
He got certified as a licensed nursing assistant, and has been doing volunteer work with other refugees.
He’ll be working with Rai to access help for her mother.
“We have to bridge what is needed and what is being done,” he said. “There is much we need to do to help people.”
Tara Gurung, who stayed in Concord after her father’s suicide in November, gave birth to a baby girl, Monisha, in January.
Tara’s 18-year-old son, Moni, said he will tell his sister about their grandfather, about how he was the adviser in the camp, the man who read the news from all around the world and quizzed the camp children on geography, and history and politics.
“We will tell her, always he used to advise us, this is good, this is wrong. Think it properly, do not go in the wrong way,” Moni said. “We will tell everything about him, because he’s our grandfather.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Suraj Budathoki's title with Easter Seals. He is a residential instructor.