The arrival of the Majhi family It was getting late and the flight arrival time had been delayed to 11:55 pm. Hector International Airport was mostly empty save for a notable presence: around 10 to 12 Bhutanese family members who had only arrived in Fargo six months earlier. They wandered around the waiting area, ready to be reunited with the rest of their family, who were due to land in Fargo at any moment.
The relatives whose arrival they awaited were coming from a refugee camp in Nepal, where they had lived for around 26 years after fleeing Bhutan in 1991. There were three of them: Dhan and Malati Majhi, a husband and wife, and their adult son Sancha Bahadur Majhi.
An LSSND case manager, Shawan Al Selim, and an employment specialist also waited patiently for the new family to come. They had prepared an apartment for the Majhis to live in, furnished simply, and stocked with basic necessities - and had brought forms to the airport for them to sign.
Finally, the doors opened, and a stream of tired airplane passengers trickled out. First out was a young American woman, returning to her parents after a long trip. They greeted her with a hug and took her home. Shortly after, while more tired people trudged out of the gate, three travelers appeared who’d had an even longer trip, perhaps hoping to be in their own new homes soon: the three Majhis. Shawan and the employment specialist greeted them in Nepalese. A medical worker accompanied Malati, who was in a wheelchair and has a few health issues. After preliminary introductions and explanations of what LSSND would do for them, the relatives already in Fargo, who had been standing back awaiting permission to greet the new arrivals, came forward and welcomed their family.
From Bhutan to America Over the years, LSSND’s Refugee Resettlement program has seen many refugee families reunited with their relatives in North Dakota. At present, 12 to 16 million refugees live in the world, displaced from their homes because of war or persecution. Some are resettled in the U.S., and organizations such as LSSND help them get adjusted in their new homes and find jobs so that they can become self-sufficient.
Many, like the Majhis, spend a significant amount of time in refugee camps before immigrating to the U.S. Life in these camps is often difficult, as they can be overcrowded, lack sufficient supplies, offer only basic healthcare and education and hold high crime rates.
Currently a large portion of refugees resettled in Fargo come from Bhutan, like the Majhi family. In 2017, 43 percent refugees arriving in North Dakota came from Bhutan. In the early 1990s up to 15 percent of the Bhutanese population who were of ethnic Nepali heritage were expelled from the country as part of a kind of “ethnic cleansing,” an attempt to maintain a “pure” Bhutanese population. By 1992, the government had pushed out an estimated 80,000 Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry. Families such as the Majhis sought refuge in Nepal first in temporary shelters and then in refugee camps, where they would stay for many years until they could hopefully move somewhere else.
The resettlement process is extensive and by no means easy. To learn more about it, visit http://www.lssnd.org/resources/whattoknowrefugee.html.
Now in America, the Majhis were at the step of their journey where LSS would help them begin their new lives in this new country. After initial explanations and instructions at the airport, the Majhis, Shawan and the employment specialist parted ways for the night. The newly arrived family went to their apartment with their relatives, who would teach them basic things such as the rules for living in the apartment building and what keys unlocked what doors. The next day Shawan and the employment specialist would meet with them and help them to apply for social security numbers and sign the lease to their apartment, among other tasks. Later they would go over their budget and answer questions about education, health and employment experiences. Over time they would start thinking about learning to drive, enrolling in English courses—the Majhis spoke only Nepali—and then, in three to four months, finding jobs to pay for rent and other necessary expenses. Even so, challenges still lie ahead.
Looking Forward A week later, the Majhis sat in the living room of a sparely furnished apartment in Fargo. The building they were in housed quite a few LSSND-settled refugees, with a notable Nepalese and Bhutanese population. As Shawan and the employment specialist met with the Majhis, a neighbor stopped by to see how things were going, and a relative came by to sit in on the meeting. The new arrivals already had a community living around them in which they could speak their own language, but it was still hard.
“We feel happy to come to Fargo and join our family,” Malati said in Nepali. “But we’re also sad because now we have to work and pay expenses, and as you can see I am not healthy and my arm is broken. So we are happy but also sad.”
For resettled families, it is daunting to not only come to a new country, but to also find a job within a few months of arriving there. Everything is unfamiliar and it’s difficult to get around without a car and with the language barrier. The situation looks especially hard to the Majhis, who have various health issues. Although their health makes steady employment difficult, they are not exempt from working because they don’t yet have the official medical documentation to denote that they are unable to work.
With the aid of an interpreter, Dhan said: “Everything is different here, and it’s hard. The first thing that’s hard is the language, because I don’t know how to speak English. So I cannot walk freely outside.”
Communication indeed poses a difficult barrier. It creates a struggle to do basic things, such as read maps or communicate with doctors. Mentally, it also makes a person feel constrained, as going out requires great effort and may entail much confusion when trying to communicate. LSSND case managers and employment specialists, then, are responsible for matching refugees to jobs where they might not need much English at first, and as they learn the language in classes they take outside of their work hours, they can grow more comfortable here. For more information on this process, visit www.lssnd.org/resources/whattoknowrefugee.html.
Although refugees and New Americans are now an integral part of communities in North Dakota, fewer refugees have been arriving to Fargo than in previous years, which comes as no big surprise given current immigration policy. The Majhis were the employment specialist’s first family to pick up in the month of May, and it was already May 30. With harsher immigration and refugee resettlement policies come various attitudes towards refugees, which make their lives difficult as they transition to living in a new place. (Learn more about how Refugees benefit the community)
“Refugees leave their countries and their belongings behind and move to a new country, where they have nothing,” said one of the Majhi’s relatives, who has lived in the U.S. for about half a year. “We are not here to have fun, we’re here to start a new life.”
Learn more about LSSND’s Refugee Resettlement program at http://www.lssnd.org/what-we-do/humanitarian-work/new-americans/mentors.html.
Compiled by Michelle Foster, LSSND Communications