In search of a new life

Story and photos by Leigh Walsh

The transition into old age is an inevitable life experience that can be a daunting thought for many. However, the transition into a new life and culture presents Utah’s aging refugees with the most challenges.

As the American flag is raised outside Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, three Bhutanese refugees have begun their day’s work inside. Padma Dhungle, Tara Gautam and Krishne Adhikari, each over the age of 65, arrived in the U.S. in 2008 with little more than hope packed in their hearts.

The American flag stands outside Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake.

They had spent the last 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, hopeful they would be offered a second chance at life. Their prayers were answered when they were relocated through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement program.

“We had the feeling of happiness when we heard we could come to the United States,” Dhungle said through an interpreter. “So far it has been good,” he added with a smile.

Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake brings in about 600 refugees each year. The organization does its utmost to make the transition as smooth as possible for each of the immigrants. Aden Batar, director of refugee resettlement and immigration at CCS, explained the main goal is to integrate refugees into the community and provide them with the tools necessary for them to become self-sufficient.

“We help them with case management, job placement, housing, health services and immigration,” Batar said.

Life can be tough for many of the refugees who are resettled in Utah. “Everything is foreign to them when they first arrive,” Batar said. “The weather, the people, the food. It is all different.”

Simple everyday tasks can present obstacles for the refugees. Refrigerators, toilets and ovens are basic concepts to many of us, but are unrecognizable to some immigrants.

These difficulties pose an even bigger challenge for older refugees. They have spent most of their lives surrounded by a culture they are both familiar and comfortable with.

“Country by country the religion and culture is different. It is important to adjust to the new life cultures and new traditions,” Dhungle said.

According to Batar, older refugees can feel isolated, particularly when family members go to work and school. “In the culture where they come from, every day they go to their neighborhood and everybody knows each other. They have people they can talk with,” he said. “I think they miss that socialization.”

Dhungle, Gautam and Adhikari have benefited from the fact they all embarked on this journey together. They have been united since they first entered the refugee camp in Nepal in the early 1990s.

Keshab Adhikari, a case manager at CCS, said it helped greatly that they arrived here with their families. This provided the refugees with some stability as the environment around them changed dramatically.

From left to right: Keshab Adhikari, Krishne Adhikari, Tara Gautam and Padma Dhungel.

The three older refugees are very appreciative of everything the CCS has done for them.

“Each day we learn new things,” Gautam said. “At first we were unsure where to go, who to talk to, how to travel. Day by day we are learning new things and adapting to life in the U.S.”

They each work with CCS and are responsible for various chores around the center. Keshab Adhikari explained they would be paid by the state because they are all part of Salt Lake County Aging Services.

Batar recognizes language as one of the biggest barriers to a successful transition into the community. Dhungle, Gautam and Adhikari speak Nepalese among themselves but they have not yet grasped English. “We take classes to learn English for one hour each night,” Adhikari said. The refugees are hoping to improve their English so everyday tasks, like going to the grocery store, become easier for them.

A smooth transition into a new community is integral to the success of CCS resettlement efforts. Batar said one of the keys to this is community acceptance. “The community here has been very receptive to the refugees,” he said. “We would not be able to bring as many refugees into the state otherwise.”

Many religious groups around Utah get involved with volunteer work and provide much-needed support to the older refugees when they first arrive. “The Salt Lake community has been excellent to us,” Dhungel said. “They are lovely people.”

Along with the voluntary effort from the community, CCS depends heavily on donations from local people.

“Donations are the main source of funding for our program,” Batar said. Monetary and in-kind donations are fundamental in giving the refugees the best help possible. “All the furniture, household items, clothing and children’s toys that are given to the refugees are donated by the community,” he added.

It is important for older refugees to have some stability around them as they adapt into a new culture. For many, their family is their rock, but others depend on their faith to get them through the hard times.

“We have a lot of diverse religious groups in the state of Utah so they easily find a place that they can worship freely,” Batar said. Many refugees have found comfort in practicing their beliefs without reprisal from other religious groups.

With the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the civil unrest in Somalia and the human rights issues in Burma, many older people continue to be stranded in refugee camps around these areas. The community support for refugees is extremely important if the resettlement efforts are to continue.

The majority of refugees the CCS works with are younger children. However, Batar said many of the refugees coming from Bhutan are older adults. They are immigrating with their families and all their children are over the age of 18.

The UNHCR, a branch of the U.N. established in 1951, has assisted millions of refugees over the years, including Dhungle, Gautam and Adhikari. Camps were set up in Nepal in 1991 after the Bhutanese government attempted to implement a “one nation, one people” program. This campaign attempted to integrate the minority groups into mainstream society and it was met with backlash. Many people in Southern Bhutan were forced to flee as a result.

According to the UNHCR Web site, refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. “If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death — or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.”

The foundations of American culture are built on freedom and opportunity for all and the Salt Lake community has been very helpful to CCS in their resettlement efforts. There are numerous opportunities to help refugees who are living in overcrowded camps around the world. As Batar said, they are not just relocating for a better quality of life, they are fleeing their circumstances.

Dhungle, Gautam and Adhikari have reached a stage in their lives where stability is vital. They are not focusing on returning to Bhutan. In fact, they want to bring more family here. “We are trying to make Salt Lake our home. We will be living here for the rest of our lives,” Dhungel said.