Community Link offers Nepali refugees tools for success, but language barriers limit progress

Ohio’s population growth rate has slowed in recent years, but one area that has seen increased expansion is that of its foreign-born population. Roughly half of Cincinnati’s immigrant community goes on to become American citizens. However, one division of this group that faces continuing challenges to attaining citizenship, homeownership, and even general assimilation is the local refugee population.

For decades, large numbers of Nepali, Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants have come here seeking a new life — many times because they had nowhere else to turn. While obstacles are inherent in such a process, many national, regional, and local organizations seek to minimize difficulties — and see to it that these people’s paths are as easily navigable as possible.

Still, it’s often an uphill battle with English language skills, transportation issues, and general culture shock making for a difficult climb.

Brendan Bogosian works for Community Link, a contracted faction of Easter Seals serving Greater Cincinnati, which provides assistance to various low-income populations — including refugees.

“Community Link was created in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform bills. It came into being because of the work requirements that went in for TANF, or Temporary Aid for Needy Families. It’s cash assistance, also called OWF,” explains Bogosian. “You’ll see that term in Ohio — Ohio Works First.”

47-year-old Bogosian came to Community Link from Jewish Vocational Services. His work at JVS fostering job skills in people with disabilities built upon a fundamental need within Bogosian to assist people plotting not-so-straight-and-narrow paths toward success — often due to circumstances beyond their control.

He was hired on as a caseworker at Community Link in 2008.

“I knew it was a different population — working with low-income families as opposed to people with disabilities. And I did want to try something different,” recalls Bogosian.

Little did he know that his role at the organization would be even more different than he’d imagined. Bogosian’s particular knack for dealing with unique types of people was promptly noticed, and he was steered toward a specific niche.

“They were like ‘Hey, you like world cultures, you’ve traveled, and you get along with a diverse array of people. How would you like to be our point person?’ It was because we started getting people with limited English skills coming for benefits — specifically refugees and asylum seekers,” explains Bogosian, who has always had a love of foreign culture and language.

In his current role, Bogosian deals mainly with people from Nepal and Eritrea. He explains the typical phase-in process for the clientele he now serves.

“When they first get off the plane, they’re met by a representative from our regional refugee resettlement agency. For this area, that’s Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio. They try to get them into housing as quickly as possible,” says Bogosian. “Once they do their application for public assistance, they’re told, ‘Well, with cash assistance you have to do Community Link.’ … And that’s when they meet me.”

Because their special immigration status gives them access to the same public assistance that other low-income Americans have available, refugees are expected to not only be working (or consistently trying to find work), but also learning English and handling all the usual aspects of day-to-day life as well.

“They receive resources in the form of tools. They start doing their thing, but they’ve got to do it. It’s not a handout. They’ve got to do it,” stresses Bogosian, whose focus is assisting with employment and transportation.

He alludes to the commonly held belief in the general population that immigrants are being offered a free ride by coming to this country.

“There is lots of jumping through hoops. Only qualified, documented immigrants receive these benefits,” says Bogosian.

When he meets with his customers (as they are referred to by the organization), he greets them with a smile and a familiar welcome: “Namaste” for the Nepali, or “Jambo” for speakers of Swahili.

Beyond that point, he communicates with non-English speakers by means of translators.

Bogosian holds the translators who make communicating with his clients possible in very high esteem.

“The spoken language services that we use for this are more interpretation than translation. “You have to really deliver the gist of what the person is saying and not just the words,” he says.

Bogosian truly understands these nuances of communication. This is, in part, because his own listening and interpretive skills extend beyond his work. He initially developed these intuitive talents by composing and performing music in various, local groups.

First, the music

Over the course of many years, Bogosian has contributed his own unique style of intricate and melodic guitar lines (as well as vocals) to several bands. Currently, he performs at clubs in Northside and OTR as part of two heavy hitters on the indie music scene — Static Falls, and renowned Cincinnati stronghold the Tigerlilies.

While his side gig provides him with a creative outlet, Bogosian is not planning to quit his day job anytime soon. He has always enjoyed helping people just as much as laying down riffs on stage or in the studio. He often connects with his designated immigrant communities personally, and is on a familiar level with them. As such, he sometimes receives special invitations to their cultural events and celebrations.

He particularly likes the music involved.

“They’ve invited me to some of their holidays,” he says. “They’re Hindu. It’s a Nepali Hindu, and their music has almost got that Bollywood type of sound.”

Bogosian understands the conditions that his customers have endured prior to entering this country and speaks about their plight with true, heartfelt sympathy.

“With the main populations that I’ve worked with, the reasons they’re coming have been war, civil unrest, and also displacement,” says Bogosian.

“For example,” he continues, “decades ago, ethnic Nepali from the Himalayas went into neighboring Bhutan as guest workers. They were allowed to work and farm. They lived there for many years. Then, I believe sometime in the 80s, Bhutan pulled the carpet out from under them. There were multiples of tens of thousands of them, and Nepal didn’t want them back either. So they ended up in UN sponsored displaced peoples’ camps.”

“Every ethnic group is different, and handles things their own way,” he continues. “But the ethnic Nepali — they have a really strong community network,” says Bogosian, who has witnessed many success stories within this particular sect. “A lot of the Nepali refugees are homeowners now. In particular, there is a lot of Tri-County homeownership.”

He adds that much of Cincinnati’s Nepali community has settled in the Northwestern suburbs (with pockets in parts of town such as Colerain, Finneytown, and Springdale), further facilitating their sense of community and their collective ability to access resources.

But while community is a useful construct, it can also be a deterrent to assimilation, particularly in the realm of language. When surrounded by others who speak their native tongue, the desire to learn English as a second language can fall by the wayside for some.

Citizenship cannot be acquired without learning the language, which poses further challenges, especially for the aged (and those nearing retirement age) who may soon be in need of SSI benefits.

“There is a pretty rigorous citizenship exam for which you must read and write English,” says Bogosian.

“Employment is everything. That’s the way capitalism works. But some of us who’ve been on the ground and doing this a long time, we see some language skills plateauing a little bit,” continues Bogosian. “We know they need to work and take care of their business, but we’ve got to make sure they keep hammering away at this English. That’s been challenging.”

Differing levels of education and educational background compound language learning, employment, and quality of life even further.

Bogosian explains: “There are people coming with master’s degrees from Libya or Syria or Iraq, which were countries that had strong institutions of higher education before they were destroyed by civil wars. They might not speak English very well, but they’ve got that academic (level).”

“Compare that to someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo — from one of these camps they’ve lived in since they were 12. Maybe they never got to go to school or finish school. There, you have people that not only don’t speak English, but they don’t speak their own language that well. Or, they might have verbal literacy but not book literacy,”
laments Bogosian.

Regardless of prior educational achievement or the ease of acquiring new language skills, being able to communicate in English is still the biggest key to success in this country for any refugee. Those without that essential ability, even those with college degrees, often end up working in less than satisfying environments.

“Some will say … ‘I want a different job.’ Maybe there’s a lot of standing or lifting, or it’s in a cold warehouse,” says Bogosian.

Unfortunately, most of the jobs he is able to steer non-English-speaking refugees towards are in janitorial, food production, or warehouse positions.

“Transportation is another big one. Depending on where the job is, our bus system isn’t always the easiest,” says Bogosian, who is able to offer bus passes as part of his job, but realizes that many without English language skills have even fewer alternatives compared to the rest of the population. Tests for earning a driver’s license are administered in English, after all.

Still, he sees the people he assists making progress day by day. Following up and keeping tabs is another part of his job.

“There are responsibilities that come with being on public assistance. You have to sign a self-sufficiency plan when you start on cash (assistance), and one of the things we do at Community Link is make sure you follow that self-sufficiency plan,” says Bogosian. “It can be modified, but not scrapped.”

“Sometimes they fall off the radar,” admits Bogosian. But, he says, when he locates them and asks why they’ve missed their English as a Second Language classes, they often answer, “Because I got a job!”

“With some of our other customers, you track them down and say, ‘What were you doing?’ and they say, ‘Nothing.’ At least with the refugees, they’re probably doing something,” says Bogosian, optimistically. “I just have to track them down and find out what.”

Open to Interpretation: Krishna Dhamala offers cohorts a leg up, explains resistance to English language and assimilation

Krishna Dhamala is one of Bogosian’s favorite customers. He emigrated from Bhutan in 2008.

Upon arriving in America, Dhamala first lived in Syracuse, where he climbed the ranks of the hospitality staff at Courtyard by Marriott, eventually becoming a housekeeping supervisor.

He was proud of this accomplishment, and still keeps in contact with the original New York caseworker who helped him find success. He says she recently sent a letter checking on in him and his family. She was making sure they’d weathered the pandemic in good health and wishing them well. He cried upon reading it.

After moving to Cincinnati in 2015, he developed a strong relationship with Bogosian as well, and continued to strive toward his goals. 

“We worked on getting benefits. He gave me websites and phone numbers. I’m right now working for Hyatt Hotel as housekeeping supervisor,” says Dhamala, proudly.

Always grateful for those who have helped him get where he is today, 48-year-old Dhamala tries to “pay it forward” by assisting fellow refugees his own community who face similar obstacles. He hires Nepali staff as often as he can, and volunteers as an interpreter for those who cannot yet speak the language.

Still, he admits this can be a debilitating stopgap solution over time.

“Not translation,” says Dhamala, “language is needed.”

He understands how difficult it can be having a busy life and needing to learn a language on top of everything else.

“The challenge is, here you have no happiness in life. You’ve got to every day be busy, busy, busy,” says Dhamala. “You’ve got to make money to pay your bills. No relaxing.”

He explains that Nepali refugees come from a lifestyle that is organized in a far simpler fashion than that of a typical American family. The pace of American life is overwhelming for many who seek refuge here due to lack of alternatives.

In Dhamala’s homeland, extended families lived under one roof, combining incomes and sustaining themselves further by farming their own land.

“I saw my mom and dad relaxing, and I’m thinking, ‘Which one is the better life?’” contemplates Dhamala.

“My wife’s family has been here seven years and they have no citizenship. No one is trying to help. I can help them to get a job,” he says. “… But if you have a million dollars and no language, that million dollars is not going to work for you.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.