When Hari Adhikari arrived in the United States from Nepal in 2008 with a small group of fellow Bhutanese refugees, his outlook was fairly bleak.
“We faced challenges in so many fields,” says Adhikari, 38. “But the main problem was the language barrier. Many Bhutanese, especially the elderly, speak no English at all.”
For two decades, Adhikari and tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees had languished in crowded U.N. camps in Nepal, driven out of their homes by the Buddhist regime in Bhutan. Conditions in the camps were “disgusting,” says Adhikari. So the relocation of more than 2,500 people to Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs was a blessing.
But as more refugees flowed into the Baltimore area, the challenges facing the community became more pronounced. The agency tasked with providing case management to Bhutanese refugees, the Baltimore Resettlement Center, only offered help for eight months. After that, families were expected to become self-sufficient.
“The eight-month deadline was very unrealistic. The language issue kept people from accessing very basic things,” says Adhikari, who now lives in Overlea. “Cell phones, a driver’s license, help from social workers—all of these things were out of reach. Very few of us could speak English and of course, [representatives in Baltimore agencies] could not speak Nepali.”
With help from the other English-speaking members of the community, Adhikari founded the Baltimore Bhutanese Committee (BBC) in 2008 with the goal of connecting newly arrived Bhutanese refugees to social services, providing interpretation and translation, facilitating youth development and helping Bhutanese people preserve traditional arts and culture in their new home.
Adhikari, now the vice chairman of the BBC, works directly with about 1,300 Bhutanese refugees to do everything from providing transportation to and from employment to promoting cultural festivals to organizing youth soccer leagues.
He says the OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship program will allow the BBC to extend its reach even further. He hopes to help connect elderly community members to a greater variety of health services; promote cultural programs throughout Baltimore; get Bhutanese youth more involved in sports and afterschool programs, and support job searches and training.
“The fellowship will help us greatly because so many issues [in the refugee community] are about money,” says Adhikari. “This will help me buy materials, provide better facilities for mental health workshops and actually pay people who have been volunteering.”
Bhutanese families are trapped in a cycle of low-wage jobs and modest education, says Adhikari, often because they don’t see higher education as an attainable goal. He wants to change that mindset.
“When Bhutanese kids finish high school, people will tell them they have to find a job right away,” he says. “But I really encourage them to connect with community college, find financial aid, get transfer credits—even if they struggle with English.”
Adhikari also hopes to preserve elements of Bhutanese culture among younger members of the community.
“Our senior citizens are learning English in community college classes, but we aren’t learning our own language,” he says. “Nepali needs to be preserved. It might be very small, just a few students, but we have to start somewhere.”
Long term, with the support of the OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Adhikari hopes he can permanently change the community’s outlook.
“These people are my family and friends,” he says. “They experienced trauma in Bhutan and then in refugee camps in Nepal. Now, they’re facing major challenges adjusting here in the U.S. I want to give my community a fair chance to succeed in Baltimore.”