“Fifty yards from heaven:” Lhotshampa immigrants are slowly building a home community in Cincinnati

In 1994, a Pew Research Center poll found that 31% of Americans thought immigrants were beneficial to the country, whereas 63% of respondents deemed them a burden. When the question was asked again in 2019, the numbers had effectively flipped: 62% of those surveyed said immigrants bolstered communities, and only 29% found them a hindrance. In many urban cores, Cincinnati included, immigrants are reversing population declines, and they engage in entrepreneurship at a higher rate than the native-born population.

While immigrants coming to the U.S. undoubtedly face challenges, refugees face even more formidable hurdles. Because of economic, cultural, or political upheaval, refugees are forced to leave their homeland and, often, their loved ones. Being forced into a foreign country where one doesn’t have a job or understand the language or the culture would cause unfathomable chaos. Refugees encounter challenges in every facet of everyday life, from housing to healthcare, but their ambition, resilience, and compassion that embodies the apex of American ideals.

Globally, there are nearly 70 million refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands. The number of refugees annually admitted to the U.S. peaked around 200,000 in 1980, fell sharply thereafter, and then plateaued in the 70,000 to 110,000 range until the past few years. In 2020, it’s likely the number of accepted refugees won’t exceed 20,000.

I first met Yadav Sapkota last June, when I contacted Refugee Connect, an organization started by the Junior League of Cincinnati that is now independent, to bring a speaker to our church to commemorate International Refugee Day. They connected us, and Sapkota shared his story. It was compelling, and, put against the prism of American affluence, shocking that any human beings would be subjected to the childhood he had.

There are approximately 25,000 refugees now living in greater Cincinnati, and one of the largest of those populations is the Lhotshampa, ethnic Nepalese who lived in Bhutan but were forced to leave their homes because of Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing.

From the late ’80s through early ’90s, the Bhutanese government enacted a policy of “One Nation, One People,” and forced out more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, who were nearly a majority in the nation’s south. Sapkota, who is now 26, was born in a United Nations-sanctioned camp in Nepal. Although his family’s heritage was Nepali, the Lhotshampa were treated as refugees, and steady work was difficult to find.

The Sapkotas were subjected to a subsistence life in the camps. Food was rationed, and limited to a few basic staples. There was no TV and no electricity; cooking was done over a wood-burning stove. Water came from a communal tap, which camp residents could only access twice a day. Children’s education was left in the hands of unqualified camp residents; corporal punishment was the most common form of “instruction.” Dysentery and malaria were commonplace. Perhaps most unfathomable of all, Yadav didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was 16.

“Life in the camps was all we knew, and we thought we were reasonably happy,” Sapkota says. “It’s a world that’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t lived it.”

The process to be granted asylum in the U.S. as refugees was a complex, multi-layered process of interviews and paperwork that took more than a year. Eventually, the Sapkotas were accepted and settled in Roanoke, VA, when Yadav was 17. His idyllic expectations of the U.S. didn’t quite gibe with his reality.

“I thought the United States was 50 yards from heaven,” he says. “I’d heard it was a place where people just left phones and electronics on the street, and you could just take what you wanted. When we settled into an apartment that was old and dirty, it was an adjustment.”

A far bigger adjustment was learning English and getting acclimated to an American high school. Showing considerable initiative, he graduated, and then excelled in community college and gained a full scholarship to the University of Virginia. He earned a degree in biology. He moved with his family to Cincinnati in early 2018 after graduating, and worked as an EMT upon his arrival.

When a Bhutanese Community of Cincinnati (BCC) board member presented him with an opportunity to serve as its executive director, he eagerly accepted the opportunity to help the more than 10,000 Lhotshampa in the Cincinnati area.

The Queen City’s ethnic Nepali population is congregated largely in the Colerain, College Hill, and Forest Park areas, and is gradually migrating northward into the Fairfield and West Chester. Many of them work in packaging factories and at healthcare facilities, but small-business ownership is becoming increasingly common, such as retail shops, restaurants, and financial services. Despite their assimilation and progress, the Lhotshampa still face considerable challenges. Help with basic legal and healthcare issues are ongoing concerns, and mental health problems are commonplace among the community.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to fit in, to manage the responsibilities of job, family, learning a new language, and constantly having to prove that you belong in the community,” Sapkota says. “These stresses lead to a lot of despair and desperation, which can drive people to take their lives.”

The grant that initially funded Sapkota’s BCC work has lapsed, but he continues to help the local Lhotshampa community pro bono.


Local Lhotshampa businesses; connections to the community

A visit to the B & D Market Asian Plaza, a Nepali market on Galbraith Rd. in North College Hill, appears a mere convenience store from the street, that is, until you approach and see the brightly colored flags and saris through the window. The collection of Nepali-centric prepared foods, produce, and clothing adds a dash of fun to shopping for locals, and undoubtedly provides a comforting remnant of home for the Lhotshampa. Sujata Bhandari, a clerk at the store, migrated to the U.S. 11 years ago, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Cincinnati.

Bridges, a café that offers Nepali cuisine, operates two locations, one downtown and the other in Northside. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) oversees the initial resettlement of refugees in the U.S. They assist with finding housing, employment, and other means of support, but this assistance ends 90 days after their arrival. And, a refugee family is obligated to repay the government $1,500 for this assistance, a considerable sum for those coming from Third World nations. One agency, Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, has sole authority in administering this initial assistance in the Cincinnati area during the 90-day transitional period. After this period lapses, a patchwork of organizations such as Refugee Connect strive to help them stabilize and succeed.

Mirsada Kadiric, a market-research professional and board president of Refugee Connect, understands her clients’ experiences. Her family fled ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her father was taken to a concentration camp and killed; with her mother, she fled and lived temporarily in Slovenia and Switzerland before settling in Florence when she was a teenager in 1998. She recounted her story in a book she authored, I Am A Refugee: Finding Home Again in America.

In response to the inevitable trauma that children endure amidst such situations, Refugee Connect has partnered with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to provide mental health counseling for refugee children who have endured such harrowing situations.

“When I arrived here, there were no organizations that existed to help refugees beyond the first 90 days,” Kadiric says. “From legal issues to employment assistance to mental health, there are so many hurdles that refugees face. It takes a complex network of organizations and dedicated volunteers to meet their needs.”

Immigration has impacted virtually every nationwide community. For instance, when Kadiric was a student at Boone County High School, she says there were only seven English as a Second Language (ESL) students there. Now there are now more than 100 ESL students in the school.

She says, “Think about the way refugees enrich their communities. They provide a reliable, trainable labor pool, they’re eager to start their own businesses and progress, and their talents and culture enrich our communities. All we have to do is take the time to get to know them as people, not as statistics.”

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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.