When 19-year-old Yadhavi Pokhrel speaks, her voice is sure and strong. A bright woman in a bright red shirt, she switches deftly between Nepali and English as she talks over her family members in their Carrick apartment.
Ms. Pokhrel's language skills, like her voice, are confident. She passed the English as a Second Language (ESL) program in Pittsburgh Public Schools when she graduated from Brashear High School in 2012. Among the 710 students in the district's ESL program, Nepali is the most common primary language.
But her parents, Ganesh and Menuka Pokhrel, only speak Nepali. They need a translator to understand their oldest daughter's eager words when she chatters in English, and interpreter Suraj Nepal mediates this conversation for the couple. Mr. Pokhrel's smile is full and proud as his oldest daughter talks about her three siblings, the Nepali refugee camp where the family lived for 18 years and her education in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Pokhrel and his wife want this for their children -- this American life, this English education, this new home -- and, for non-English speakers like these parents, the ESL program in Pittsburgh Public Schools has been their children's gateway to life in the United States.
They also want to become citizens of the United States and learn English, but as adults, they don't have the ESL program at Pittsburgh Public Schools to help them. For now, their children's futures are the most important.
"They were stateless, countryless, for over two decades now," Mr. Nepal said. "[Mr. Pokhrel] wishes for the children to have better education with their life than [their parents] had."
The Pokhrels moved to the United States in 2009 -- "June 16," 16-year-old son Raj added automatically with pride. They first settled in Atlanta, but they migrated again to Pittsburgh in 2010 because they had family nearby. Raj and his siblings had learned some English at their school in the refugee camp where they grew up, but their accents and the local dialect did not assimilate well with language spoken at their schools in Atlanta and Pittsburgh.
Raj is still waiting for his test scores to know if he has also officially passed Brashear High School's ESL program, but he said he is confident he won't have to take the supplementary language classes during his upcoming junior year.
"When I was in Atlanta, I wasn't a good speaker. ??? They imitated me, but I ignored them," Raj said. "[They said,] 'Didn't you go to school in Nepal? You come here and you don't know anything?' So that was kind of embarrassing.
"Now, no one even messes with me."
The family is ethnic Nepali but originates from Bhutan, Raj explained. In 1989, the Bhutanese government began a cultural purge that targeted Nepalis living in the southern region of the country. By the early 1990s, more than 100,000 Nepalis had fled Bhutan for refugee camps in Nepal. The United States has absorbed more of those refugees than any other nation, and a pocket of Nepalis has sprung up in Pittsburgh in the past few years.
Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services for Jewish Family and Children's Service, said approximately 4,000 Nepali refugees like the Pokhrel family now live in this area. Her office helps to resettle refugees who come to Pittsburgh in need of jobs and housing.
Yadhavi Pokhrel has worked as a Nepali translator for Jewish Family and Children's Service, but she said she has tried to make friends with mostly non-Nepali speakers.
"I'm not friendly with the Nepalis because if I talk with the Nepali people, I can't speak English," she said. "It doesn't matter if you speak Nepali at home, but when you go somewhere else, you have to speak English."
That's why Ms. Pokhrel and her family want her youngest brother Hari, 11, to change schools. He just completed fifth grade at Beechwood Elementary in Beechview, which has Nepali students. He already speaks Nepali at home with his siblings and parents, Ms. Pokhrel said, and he needs to speak more English in the classroom.
The Pokhrel family is working with Jonathan Covel, the ESL director for the district, to send Hari to a magnet school for math and science next year. During the summer months, Mr. Covel oversees the 125 ESL students -- including Hari -- in the Summer Dreamers Academy, the district's summer school program.
Mr. Covel encourages parents to send ESL students to Summer Dreamers so their English skills don't fall off when they speak another language at home over the summer, he said.
Kristine Brennan has taught ESL students in the district for more than 10 years, and she currently works with kindergarten to second-grade students at Beechwood. She's also an ESL instructor for the Summer Dreamers Academy.
For young students like Hari, she agreed practicing language in the summer is necessary.
"I've had first-graders that didn't attend summer school that could write three- or four-sentence paragraphs in June by the end of the year, but don't remember how to write a sentence in September," Ms. Brennan said.
"They're gonna forget because they go back to their first language [over the summer]."
Like the Pokhrel family, Ms. Brennan tells her ESL students to integrate at their desks and tables with kids who don't speak their language, rather than friends from their native countries.
"When they come into the classroom, the Nepali students want to sit with the Nepali students, the Spanish students want to sit with the Spanish students," Ms. Brennan said. "But you know, by the end of the year, I'll have a Nepali and a Spanish student, best friends, walking down the hallway with their arms around each other."
Someday, Hari wants a classroom of his own. He's quiet but sports a mischievous grin, and he wants to be a math teacher when he's older.
"[Math] is easy for me," he said with a shrug, flashing that little smile before falling silent again.
And someday, he and his family could be American citizens -- refugees can take a citizenship test when they have lived in the United States for five years. But Ganesh and Menuka Pokhrel work full time as skycaps at the airport and don't have much time to study English or prepare for the test.
Until they do, the parents are just working toward their children's dreams, encouraging Hari to do his homework, making a home between two languages in their apartment above a Pittsburgh tanning salon.
"They could have a better life in the future," Mr. Nepal said.
This version corrects the name of the translator and the school attended by Hari Pokhrel. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Megan Doyle: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1953.