By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 2, 2014
ATLANTA—For more than 20 years, Pasupati Regmi had no country to call home.
That changed Aug. 29 when the Bhutan native’s dream of becoming an American citizen was realized. He took his oath of allegiance, along with 162 others, at the Atlanta office of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Regmi, who works for Catholic Charities Atlanta as a case manager helping to resettle refugees, knows what it’s like for the clients he serves.
After his family members were labeled “anti-national” by the Bhutanese government in the 1990s, they lived for 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. Fearing for their lives, the family fled their native country, a tiny nation landlocked between India and China on the slopes of the Himalayan Mountains near Nepal.
The government’s persecution of one segment of the Bhutanese nation in the 1990s was based on their ethnic heritage, cultural practices and religion. There was no arrest warrant process, Regmi explained.
“Without that, they come in the middle of the night and harass people,” he said.
The government banned their schools, didn’t allow the open practice of Christianity and barely tolerated Hinduism, the faith practiced by Regmi and his parents.
“They didn’t like us. The Nepali language was banned,” he said of his native tongue.
Regmi’s father was imprisoned.
“He was a farmer. He was a priest also in the community,” said Regmi. “The government knew this could be an important person in the community.”
The military came and told the family in the middle of the night, “We are taking your dad because the officials in the district want to discuss something.”
He did not come home for 15 months and endured a terrible ordeal, including torture. He signed a “voluntary migration” form at gunpoint to be released, but had to leave the country within 15 days.
“They were completely shattered,” said Regmi, of his father and an older brother who was also persecuted and later died of a stroke in the refugee camp.
The United Nations, said Regmi, described the Bhutanese who have fled as “the most peaceful refugees.” At its height, over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan were living in refugee camps in Nepal.
While the family was able to live in a safe camp with a school, they still initially hoped to return home one day. “It was just survival,” said Regmi.
The camp was monitored by the U.N.’s refugee agency. In 2007, the idea of resettlement in either America or Canada was floated about as the U.N. began resettling some 83,000 Bhutanese refugees in eight other nations.
“I wanted to be American. … It was in my blood,” said Regmi. He and his parents, his wife, Bhakti, and their son, Batshal, came to the United States in 2008.
While living in the camp, Regmi completed high school, earned a college degree in biology and a master’s in zoology. “Do not think of anything else but an education,” said Regmi of his priorities at that time.
Another agency, RRISA, helped the family resettle in the United States, but Catholic Charities also played an important role.
“My first job was at Catholic Charities,” he said.
Regmi continues the work, including picking up current refugees assigned to Catholic Charities at the airport, setting up their apartments, assisting them with documents, helping them with budgets, and taking them to appointments.
“At the end of the day, it gives hope,” he said of the agency’s work.
“2014 is a great year,” said Regmi. His parents are happy, he purchased his first home in Lilburn, and he has a zeal to continue possible studies. Among his future interests are possibly traveling to visit Bhutanese friends resettled in other countries and working in a scientific laboratory.
For Regmi, the United States provides opportunities with many options open.
Regmi paused during a conversation, just hours before the citizenship ceremony, as emotion cracked in his voice.
“I’m just looking for a day to see that I have a nation that I can be proud of,” he recalled telling resettlement counselors. “That is today,” he said.
Catholic Charities resettles 253 refugees
The number of refugees coming to Atlanta has picked up since March, according to Frances McBrayer, program director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities Atlanta.
The majority of refugees—officially defined by the U.N. as those who have fled their country of origin due to social, political and ethnic oppression or persecution—have been living in protracted situations such as a refugee camp for longer than five consecutive years.
Refugees are screened extensively and when given clearance are assigned to a designated refugee resettlement agency, one of which is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“We don’t have any control over when clients arrive,” said McBrayer.
Between July 2013 and June 2104, Catholic Charities Atlanta served 253 clients. More than 90 were children under the age of 18.
“We primarily serve families, but about one-third of those we serve are individuals,” said McBrayer. “We have a large number of people who leave family members behind when arriving in the U.S.”
The top five countries of origin of these refugees in the past fiscal year are Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Somalia and Sudan.
“They’ve just been waiting a long time,” said McBrayer.
Obtaining refugee status, she added, is “the last and final” option.
Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement services program has three full-time case managers, two of whom were refugees themselves. Jesuit and Dominican volunteers assist.
“They’re the people that work with the family from day one,” said McBrayer.
“A lot of what we do is education on what life is like here in the United States,” said McBrayer. “The goal is self-sufficiency.”
Refugees not only have language barriers, but they oftentimes have never seen anything like an American city. They’ve never laid eyes on an elevator or a grocery store.
“They’ve never seen a child-proof medicine bottle,” said McBrayer, as an example.
Catholic Charities contracts with interpreters to assist in their work.
“We have access to languages most people have never heard of,” McBrayer said.
It’s important for the refugees to clearly understand the resettlement process in order for the agency to receive federal funds. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports 80 percent of the program’s costs through a partnership with federal funders.
To obtain the legal status of refugee, camp residents are interviewed and adjudicated before they even arrive on American soil. The process includes security and health screenings. It is also designed to resettle people who can make a success of relocation to a new world.
“They go through a very extensive screening process,” explained McBrayer.
In one year’s time after arrival, refugees may obtain a green card, and then in five years they are eligible for citizenship.
Catholic Charities looks for safe and affordable housing for refugees, typically apartments in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
“They need access to public transportation,” explained McBrayer.
Other considerations are if culturally familiar foods are available, as well as access to places of worship.
Catholic Charities serves clients of many faiths, including Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, “regardless of religious affiliation.”
Every country of origin has a different situation leading to the flight of refugees.
McBrayer explained that in Burma (Myanmar), for instance, there are 137 ethnic groups, ruled by a military junta since the mid-1960s.
“Our clients are from some of the more remote areas,” said McBrayer about the Burmese refugees.
“What’s wrong with Bhutan?” is a question she is asked often as many Bhutanese refugees come to Georgia.
The forced expulsion of part of Bhutan’s population was the taking away of a whole people’s culture, said McBrayer. “It’s total persecution.”
Refugees receive short-term help
Refugee resettlement programs typically last for three or six months initially. Clients can receive additional services within five years of arrival in case of job loss, illness or completion of high school.
Household items are needed to furnish basic elements in the rental apartments where refugee families will live, including dishes, pots and pans, furniture, bedding and cleaning supplies.
“We always kind of need twin sheets and comforters. We want them to have quality items from the beginning,” said McBrayer.
Clients learn home management, including financial literacy, making child care plans, and crisis planning.
“We have some school support services,” said McBrayer.
A summer camp program and after-school enrichment are available to some youth.
“We also have a refugee youth mentoring program,” McBrayer said.
Volunteer mentors are needed to help guide youth from ages 9 to 17 in making wise decisions and developing skills.
The agency’s Family Friend program provides volunteers to help clients walk through a grocery or read the mail. Employment assistance, including short-term internships to help acclimate refugees to the workforce, is offered.
Members of Catholic Charities Atlanta’s leadership class have conducted speed-interviewing sessions with refugees seeking work. McBrayer said this helped clients learn key words heard on a job interview and to become familiar with shaking hands and making eye contact.
Every time a client gets a job, an employee bangs a celebratory gong in the Catholic Charities office.
Kimberly Longshore, the staff community resource specialist, works alongside Regmi. The two make presentations to middle school children about refugees.
If someone wants the agency to provide a speaker, “then we’ll go,” said Longshore.
Sometimes they set up mock refugee camps for immersion experiences, an activity Regmi loves. Longshore said he always knows where to get the best bamboo for houses.
Her favorite memory of Regmi is when they went to speak to a group of young children and mentioned he would soon be an American citizen. The students started spontaneously clapping with no prompting from a teacher. They knew it was something special without being told.
“We are going to have a little party for him this afternoon,” said Longshore on the morning of Regmi’s citizenship ceremony.
19 years in refugee camp
The family of Evariste Kabahizi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived in Atlanta in late August. They were just beginning the journey that Regmi has completed.
Within days of arrival from a camp in Rwanda, they sat quietly in the Catholic Charities Northlake office in Atlanta, looking exhausted but hopeful.
With the help of translator Josephine Mpagamye, a native of Burundi, they shared their history of struggle.
Kabahizi, 74, has come to America with his wife, Colette Mukandori, 57, and daughters, Josephine Safi, 21, and Henriette Muhoza, 16. They speak no English. Kabahizi speaks French, and the women speak the dialects of Kinyarwanda or Kiswahili.
Speaking through Mpagamye, Kabahizi explained that they left the Congo in 1996 and lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda for 19 years.
“It was the war,” explained Mpagamye. “You are not Congolese,” they were told following disputes over land.
“They had no choice,” she said, of their flight to Rwanda. Another of Kabahizi’s children will be coming to America. He has already lost six children, two to illness and four who were killed. “They were killed by the Congolese,” said the translator.
“Before the war, he was a farmer,” said Mpagamye. His job was to provide, but now Kabahizi hopes to secure an education for his daughters. His wife’s health prevents her from working. He walks with the aid of a cane.
Language barriers and health are among the top concerns refugees face in the struggle for self-sufficiency.
After receiving immunizations, Henriette was to be enrolled in public school. English as a second language classes will help her adapt.
Josephine Safi, the eldest daughter, will need to explore educational opportunities beyond high school.
“The camps in Rwanda just go to grade 10,” explained the family’s case manager, Lizzie Schroeder.
The family is Christian and has already found a church. With the translator’s help, Kabahizi expressed gratitude for Catholic Charities and the new apartment, which he called a beautiful home.
“They served them really well. They were so happy,” said Mpagamye of the agency’s staff.
When asked about their case manager’s support, Kabahizi turned forward and gave the thumbs-up sign with a smile.
“There are lots of different obstacles that maybe someone who’s lived their entire life in the U.S. would not necessarily see as obstacles,” said Schroeder. “It’s a challenge. They are learning new things every day.”
As young people who lived most of their lives in a refugee camp, the girls haven’t had any chance to determine their own cultural ideas.
Mpagamye said the parents just want their children to get an education and have a good life.
Those are the girls’ goals as well. Education and work first, then they will learn “little by little” about the community, said Mpagamye.
“They suffer enough,” said the translator on the Congo natives’ behalf. “They want to stay here forever.”
To help: Catholic Charities Atlanta helps refugees in several ways. To volunteer, contact Margaret Prickett, manager of volunteer resources, at 404-920-7785 or email@example.com. To donate items for refugee apartments from linens to household supplies, contact Kimberly Longshore at 678-222-3964 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For suggested items for one person or a group to donate, visit here.