Refugees from Bhutan settling into new lives

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As Kuber Phuyal entered the food-packing plant factory nestled on a small hill in North Charleroi, he grabbed a white hairnet. He walked a few steps, paused to put on a white coat, fixed it around his slender body, and put latex gloves on his hands, sleeves on his arms and covers on his feet.

It had been a month since he started working at Quality Driven Copack, a producer of breakfast sandwiches, chicken patties and other frozen foods, and he felt he was starting to fit in. When he first started, he recalled, just gearing up for work seemed foreign. He had to wear a beard net to cover his mustache, for example, making it harder to breathe. Now, the everyday routine seems normal.

Fellow Bhutanese refugees now working at the plant have had to make similar adjustments. Four sisters -- Mana Maya Odari, 25, Yani Maya Odari, 22, Durga Devi Odari, 24, and Meena Kumari Odari, 21 -- had to stop wearing the gold jewelry they have been sporting all their lives -- nose pins, earrings -- as well as wear shoes instead of their regular sandals.

But if that was an issue, it didn't show on a recent Thursday when Man Maya, the eldest of the Odari siblings, greeted a visitor by saying, "We want to work overtime."

The Phuyals and Odaris are the first batch of Bhutanese refugees to come to Pittsburgh as part of a United States pledge to resettle 60,000 of them in next five years, ending a nearly two decades long exile.

They were among the 120,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese -- mostly Hindu and Buddhist -- who were evicted from Bhutan in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Bhutanese rulers forced them to wear traditional dress, required that they speak the Dzongkha language and deprived many of citizenship. The refugees initially spilled into India but ultimately landed in southeastern Nepal, in seven United Nations refugee camps.

So far, 1,338 Bhutanese have been relocated in communities in 33 states, including 23 in Pittsburgh, where 44 more are scheduled to arrive in the next few months. Most, such as the Odaris and Phuyals, are settling in Whitehall area and Green Tree.

The Bhutanese tend to eat, shop, listen to music and watch Nepali movies together. The experienced ones even mingle with refugees from Iraq and Burma, sharing homemade foods and talking about cultural differences.

Those who came early, such as the Odaris and Phuyals, find themselves functioning as guides to the newcomers, helping them navigate through the American way of life, from air-conditioning and electric stoves to grocery stores and bus routes.

A reticent and soft-spoken man, Mr. Phuyal did not know what to expect in the United States. So, before leaving Nepal, he learned electric wiring, hoping that the skill would help him get a job here. He also carried a battered copy of Rapidex English Speaking Course, a how-to book that teaches English in Nepali language.

Mr. Phuyal's two-bedroom, third-floor apartment in Prospect Park in Whitehall is furnished with an old TV set, toys for the toddlers, a few chairs, a couch, a round dining table and, in the dining room, a framed picture of his family taken just outside of camp.

The smell of slightly spicy Nepali food wafts from the kitchen where his wife, Nara Maya, prepares lunch for him. He either helps his wife or attends to the children -- an 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son -- when she cooks.

The refugees are amazed by the abundance of food and vegetables in grocery stores here.

Their refrigerators are stocked with fruits such as apples, bananas and grapes, and green, fresh vegetables. They serve Nepali tea, which is boiled with a mix of water, milk, sugar, and tea powder, to the visitors, its aroma spreading all over the room.

The Nepali food -- a combination of boiled rice, cooked lentils, and vegetable or chicken curry -- is taken both as lunch and dinner.

This is quite a contrast to the lives the Phuyal family led in the refugee camps, where they shared a small hut with thatched roof and dirt floor that had no electricity, running water, toilet or kitchen. They also had to rely on sparse rations provided by the World Food Program, and were not allowed to work.

Finding work was a major concern for Mr. Phuyal, who earns $8 an hour at Quality Driven Copack.

"I was a little worried about the job but as I am working, it's over now," said Mr. Phuyal, the sole breadwinner for the family of four.

He hopes that once his children go to school, his wife will be able to work.

The Catholic Charities Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has assisted the refugees' relocation, also has helped them find jobs and prepared them in basics such as understanding paychecks and taxes.

"Bhutanese are enjoying their work and are happy that they have an opportunity to earn and support themselves," said John Miller, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities.

Even though it's the first time he's hired the refugees, Quality Driven Copack vice president David Barbe sounds like he'd be happy to have more.

"I have no trouble with them," he said. "I need workers."

The Bhutanese refugees work from at 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and are picked up and dropped off by a company van.

Last week, Mr. Barbe was working at an entree line along with Bhutanese and Indonesian workers at the plant, which employs 200. "They were talking (through broken English and hand gestures) and an Indonesian made a joke and they were all laughing," recalled Mr. Barbe.

He wondered if they were laughing at him.

"I don't think so," Mr. Barbe said. What struck him was "they were having a nice little communication."

Deepak Adhikari, a reporter for Nepal Weekly, is working at the Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow. He can be reached at or 412-263-3909.


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