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Bhutanese family reaches a piece of the American dream: a home of their own

Shyam Rai is proud of the yard his young nieces play in, swatting at a hockey puck with tree-branch sticks on a summery sidewalk rink out front or splashing in an inflatable backyard swimming pool.

Nanda Rai, father of Shyam and Sudarshan, shares a story with his granddaughters
Nanda Rai, father of Shyam and Sudarshan, shares a story with his granddaughters Mimika (left) and Anushka in the family's backyard recently. The younger generation speaks both English and Nepali, but Nanda shares his stories in his native language.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

Shyam Rai is proud of the yard his young nieces play in, swatting at a hockey puck with tree-branch sticks on a summery sidewalk rink out front or splashing in an inflatable backyard swimming pool.

He is proud of the large garden he tends with his extended family, and he is proud of the dining room where he and his wife, his mother and father, his brother and sister-in-law and their four daughters gather to savor the bounty of that garden.

He is one proud homeowner.

"To our family, this is very important," he says, surveying the south Grand Forks property that became his family's about eight months ago. "We were without a home for so long."

Since 2012, six international refugee families brought to Grand Forks by Lutheran Social Services' New Americans program have bought homes here. With mastery of English, gainful employment and steps toward citizenship, home ownership ranks as a major milestone.


"We talk a lot about the importance of being financially sound, of having stability in their lives and a future," said Katy Dachtler, LSS resettlement coordinator in Grand Forks. "For a lot of people, that's a home. It's their American dream."

Forced to flee

Shyam, 35, and most of the Rai family came to Grand Forks in 2008 after 17 years in a bleak refugee camp in Nepal, where they fled when they and tens of thousands of other Bhutanese were forced from their country.

In 1985, the Asian mountain kingdom of Bhutan stripped citizenship from Bhutanese who were of Nepali extraction, causing many to flee across the border to Nepal. There, they crowded into camps where the United Nations and international relief agencies provided food and basic shelter as the world grappled with what to do about the growing humanitarian crisis.

The world grappled a long time, until the camps' combined population passed 115,000. In recent years, most of the refugees have been resettled in other countries, including about 68,000 in the United States.

Hundreds have come to Grand Forks -- 129 last year alone -- making the Bhutanese the largest segment of a growing international refugee population that includes people from Somalia, Iraq and several other troubled lands.

The refugee camps in Nepal are places where you'd think hope would die after so much subsistence living, so much waiting.

"We were in the camps since I was small, 13 years old," Shyam Rai said. "We had nothing."


His brother, Sudarshan, said it was a dispiriting existence.

"Every day was like the day before," he said. "It was like a prison."

But through 17 years, they kept the family together, brought in a new generation, and hoped for something better.

A role model

Jack Wadhawan, a Grand Forks real estate agent, has helped several of the New American families find homes here, and he is working now with four more couples.

"I estimate in the very near future selling maybe another 25 homes" to people resettled from the refugee camps, he said.

An immigrant himself, from India -- which borders Bhutan and Nepal -- Wadhawan and his family have lived in Grand Forks for about 20 years.

"I see my own reflection in most of these people," he said. "They are very hard-working people, honest and disciplined. Most are working two jobs. They are qualified, have sufficient savings for the down payment, and they will make a big contribution to the city. They are buying appliances, they are buying furniture, and that has a direct impact on our small town."


Wadhawan, a U.S. citizen, said he sees himself as "a role model" for the New Americans.

"I put my heart into their situation, and I can assure the society they will be contributing their share," he said. "Immigrants are an asset to this beautiful country."

Three jobs

Since arriving here, all the Rai family adults have worked after the initial start-up assistance they received from LSS and through the Global Friends Coalition, a church-based group of volunteers who help with language tutoring, transportation and other needs.

Until recently, Shyam worked long hours seven days a week at three jobs: custodian at a middle school and at a hotel and as a case manager for LSS, where he tries to ease the resettlement of new refugees. Friends persuaded him to drop one of the custodial jobs.

"I needed a rest," he said, smiling.

In 2010, the brothers persuaded their parents to join them.

"We told them it's a good place to live, a good place to be a family," Shyam said. "They trusted us because we are their children, and they came."


The decision may have saved the life of his mother, Moti Rai, who had developed heart problems after the long years in camps. She was seriously ill when she and her husband, Nanda, arrived in North Dakota. But she rebounded after treatment here, including an operation.

"It was the happiest day in our lives," Shyam said.

How do his parents feel about their new surroundings? Shyam put the question to them in Nepali and translated his father's response.

"Our family has a home again," Nanda Rai said. "All my family -- my sons, my daughters-in-law and the children -- are all together."

And his mother, Moti? "I feel this is my home," she said in Nepali.

Grandpa's stories

The youngest member of the family, 7-year-old Anushka, climbs into her grandfather's lap and listens as he talks in Nepali of a distant land and tells stories of strange animals and great mountains.

But she needs no translator, switching effortlessly from Nepali to English to explain why she loves this new place on a pleasant tree-lined street in Grand Forks.


"I get to climb, and I get to play with my doggie," she said, turning to race up stairs to retrieve the toy pooch, which barks and wags its tail as it's pulled across the living room floor, irritating the family's live Siamese cat, Snoop.

Sudarshan and his wife, Dil, have four daughters: Arpana, 16, Ismarika, 12, Mimika, 10, and Anushka. All have adjusted well to life in America, their uncle said, including learning the new language.

"The kids teach us," he said, echoing words spoken by immigrant parents of earlier times.

And at home, parents and grandparents, uncle and aunt keep the first language and other customs alive. "For this generation," Shyam said, his hand resting on Anushka's head, "we are sure the (Nepali) language will continue. But after that, it is a question mark."

Tough winters, helpful neighbors

There have been adjustments here.

"The first winter was tough," said Sudarshan, who described the climate in his homeland as more moderate.

"And the second winter was tough," he said.


They had no shovels, let alone a snow blower. But a neighbor came to the rescue.

"After that, we got used to it," Sudarshan said. "We are strong; we can bear pain. We can bear hot and cold."

Older members of the family admit they miss much from the country they were forced to leave so long ago.

"We had a large farm, with cows and chickens," Shyam said. "I miss a lot of natural things: the mountains, the forest, the birds -- so many birds."

But people here have been friendly, helpful and welcoming, he said, and Sudarshan agreed.

"They treat us like Americans," he said.

Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

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