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New wave of refugees relies on help from those who came before

From the moment Harka Man Tamang set foot in Rochester, the native Bhutanese man has been adjusting to the new world around him.

What has struck him, Tamang said, is the "respectful conversation" he has had with Rochester people. It has been so unlike his native Bhutan, where a person's rank and treatment by others was determined by a rigid caste system.

"Wherever (I go), people give this kind of respect," Tamang said through an interpreter.

Tamang, a 40-year-old Bhutanese man, offered his observations of Rochester a week after arriving from a refugee camp in Nepal. He spoke in the Rochester office of Mary Alessio, director of refugee resettlement of Catholic Charities of Winona.

Over the next several months, Catholic Charities expects to help resettle in Rochester an estimated 130 refugees from around the world. The majority will come from Bhutan and Burma, also known as Myanmar.


Rochester is not new to diversity. Over the decades, the city has become home to a wide range of diverse peoples from around the globe. But this new wave of refugees will be new in the sense that Rochester has never resettled people from Burma or Bhutan, though a Burmese contingent does reside in the Twin Cities area.

New to Rochester

Tamang, his wife and three children so far are only the second Bhutanese family to settle in Rochester. They arrived two weeks ago. By coming to the United States, they will be giving their children an opportunity for a better life. But it's difficult to exaggerate the challenges they and other refugee families face as they adjust to their new home, officials say.

"The truth of the matter is, the first generation of refugees come here in survival mode," said Sam Ouk, director of Rochester Public Schools' English for Speakers of Other Language program. "The better you survive, the better opportunity for your kids to succeed later on. And some families don't survive. Some families really do fall through the cracks."

Yet Rochester offers advantages to new immigrant families that many cities don't, Ouk and other officials say. With several generations of refugees settled in Rochester, the city's diversity offers a resource that can help new families adjust.

Alessio started tapping that network even before families began arriving in Rochester. She quickly connected Tamang to a Somali family that resettled a year ago. Hindu students at Mayo High School have chipped in to put together backpacks and school supplies for all the incoming children.

Tamang speaks Nepali, a language spoken by a half dozen Nepal families in Olmsted County. They in turn were able to hook Alessio up with a University of Minnesota-Rochester professor, Bijaya Aral, who has offered translation services. Channel One Food Shelf, the Salvation Army and other nonprofits also offer a critical lifeline of support.

"We've got networkers all throughout the community," Alessio said.


Starting over

That network will be critical in helping sustain newcomers like Tamang, who, at age 40, is essentially starting over. Tamang arrived in Rochester with almost no ability to speak or understand spoken English. When he showed up for an interview last week, even the clothes he wore had only recently been provided to him.

Over time, the goal is to put Tamang on a footing of self-sufficiency and independence. But the process will likely take many months — if not years — during which the help of nonprofits and government assistance will be critical in sustaining the family. But his flight to the United States, paid for by an interest-free government loan, must be paid back by Tamang.

Alessio says she tries to get families learning the ropes of their new world as quickly as possible. Last week, she had Tamang go through an orientation to learn about the city's bus system. Next week, it will be an introduction to the Rochester library. Tamang is also enrolled at Hawthorne Education Center, so he can begin taking English classes.

"His job right now is just learning English," Alessio said. "The more English he learns, the better opportunities he has."

Modern life

Getting acquainted to modern life can hold surprises for a family that has lived in a refugee camp for two decades. His two oldest children have already started school at Riverside Central Elementary School, where they are getting homework help from tutors. They also are spending a lot of time in the bathroom, fascinated by the marvels of modern plumbing.

Tamang said that when he toured the school, he was struck by the casual dress of the children. In Bhutan, there is a national dress that is compulsory and school-age children wear uniforms.


"(I'm) surprised that people can wear any kind of casual dress," Tamang said.

Alessio said it will help Tamang and his family that other Bhutanese families will be settling in Rochester. Indeed, while being interviewed, Tamang got a cellphone call from the other Bhutanese family in Rochester. They are already getting to know each other.

"It's a scary thing for the first families that arrive," Alessio said. "As (more) families come and we have a determined effort to connect them, it'll be more of a family unit and they'll feel stronger."

Tamang appears aware of the challenges he faces. Through an interpreter, Tamang spoke of the frustration of speaking a language that almost no one else speaks.

"(I) cannot express what (I want) to," he said.

Tamang said he also realizes that there are limitations to the kind of future he can expect to have in a new country. But it will be a sacrifice worth making if his children have a better life, he said.

"At least (my) children will have a better future," Tamang said. "That is what motivates (me)."


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