Refugees look to the future, through the words of a child

  • Six-year-old daughter Isnya tries to get the attention of her big brother this week during their spring break. Isnya has helped incorporate the Rai family into American culture through strong language skills and a love for her new school. It has been a little more than a year since the Rai family landed in Concord and like most children, she has picked up her second language quickly. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Devi Rai talks to her sister while she cooks lunch in their aprartment on Loudon road. The family has made the transistion in the last year: they had a another child, Bom found a job at the Tilton Walmart and their children are doing well in school. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/30/2016 11:58:14 PM

She doesn’t know it yet, but Isniya Rai, 6, is an ambassador of sorts, slipping into her new culture like a fitted pair of pants.

Unlike her parents and grandparents, who are content to remain in their community on the Heights, Isniya and her brother, 12-year-old Manoj, Bhutanese refugees from Nepal, can blend the old with the new.

They speak two languages, gather with family and meet new friends, which they’ll continue to do as they move through the Concord school system. They’ll probably go to college and launch careers, as will Ayush, their 7-month-old brother.

Isniya calls her brothers “the big and small brothers.” And although she’s the lone female child, she says about herself, “I’m the big sister.”

The children will tell people about where they came from, that potential-zapping refugee camp, once they learn more about it from their parents.

And with the dynamic, outgoing personality we saw last week, Isniya seems destined to take the lead in bridging the gap between then and now.

“I speak Nepali at home, and at school, English,” Isniya told me. “Sometimes I speak with a friend in Nepali.”

The lines of communication were open with the Rai family, whom we’ve shadowed for 14 months, thanks to this little girl, matriarchal in one sense, puppy-cute in another.

She greeted us at the stairs leading to her apartment, rolling out the red carpet in her red dress connected to a white top that featured a belt showing three red roses.

She smiled and conversed, about music, TV shows, games she likes to play, school and friends. She was the star as the sun set on this project, more outgoing than Manoj, a 7th grader at Rundlett Middle School, and more comfortable with English than her parents Devi and Bom.

She said she likes to swing on the swings at a nearby park. She said the family shops at Market Basket, getting a ride from a Nepalese friend who lives in their community on the Heights.

She loves Mill Brook School, where she’s in first grade. She loves math and reading time and writing. She loves to play hide-and-seek with her cousin at her grandfather’s home, revealing her favorite hiding place, behind a chair.

“I like gym, too,” Isniya said. “I like to run. He likes gym, too.”

She pointed to Manoj, seated a few feet way. The kids were on school vacation, and Manoj walked into the living room at 10:15 a.m., wiping sleep from his eyes.

He’s lost some baby fat since we first met him last winter, after the family had made the trip from Katmandu to New Delhi to Brussels to Newark to the airport in Manchester.

They came here from a camp in Nepal, forced to live there because the Bhutanese government wanted to cleanse its country of people of Nepali descent.

Manoj is shy, making it unclear how well he speaks English. He said he likes video games and has friends in apartment 8, who he said are “African.”

He also likes music and played videos on the wide-screen TV showing Rihanna and Drake. He softly sang along and tapped his feet, fitting in to a new world, one with art and structured learning, one without water rationing and dusty, bamboo homes.

Meanwhile, Devi stood in the kitchen, cooking meat in boiling water and speaking Nepali on the phone. Once, she took classes to learn English, but she’s settled into homemaking and mothering roles.

Asked if she’d one day like to work, Devi said, “This is work. This is work full time.”

Bom sat on a chair, a proud father smiling as his daughter relished the spotlight, the living room her stage.

His command of English is limited. He works second shift at Walmart in Tilton, unloading trucks for $9.80 an hour. Without a translator, he nods his head a lot and smiles warmly, but substantive dialogue is never really a strong part of the formula.

And on this day, our final meeting for this series, 14 months after the Rai family touched down in Manchester and pushed through those glass doors, expressionless, scared and unsure, a little girl in a bright red dress had moved out front, replacing a translator who had always been a necessity, but was no longer needed for visitors to feel comfortable.

She’s the face of the family, the one anxious to greet people, answer questions, relay information from her parents and brother, act like a child who belongs.

I asked Manoj what he’d like to do when he grows up. He pointed to the TV, to the man jumping from the top rope and slamming his opponent to the ground.

He answered the way many 7th graders would.

“A wrestler,” he said, quietly.

Then I asked Isniya what she wants to do.

“I want to be a teacher,” she said.

She’s off to a good start.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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