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Nepali refugees struggle with life in city

By Mark Ferenchik,The Columbus Dispatch : When Narayan Sharma returned to his North Side apartment on June 6, he was stunned to discover that someone had broken in.

He said he was shocked that the thieves apparently had no fear of being caught when they hauled out his 42-inch television, a laptop computer, a checkbook and cash during the daytime burglary.

Crime, Sharma said, was not a big problem during his 16 years in a refugee camp in the Himalayan country of Nepal. But it’s something he and other Bhutanese Nepali refugees have had to deal with since they began to arrive in the Columbus area four years ago.

One of the reasons is where many of them live — concentrated in several apartment complexes near Morse Road in the Northland area.

“Our expectation is to have safety and security,” said Bhim Basnet, who lives in the Breckenridge Apartments with his wife and four children, the oldest a 16-year-old girl, the youngest a 9-month-old son.

Basnet, 40, who arrived in Columbus about a year ago, is a bilingual assistant for Columbus City Schools. He said he would like to see police patrolling the area. Community leaders and groups who work with the refugees estimate that their number has grown to more than 2,000 in little more than a year.

Sharma said that a number of refugees’ apartments have been burglarized and that people walk up to the refugees and ask for money. Some refugees hand over cash just so they’ll be left alone, said Damaru Adhikari, who works at the US Together refugee-resettlement agency.

Sharma, an English instructor for his community at Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services on Morse Road, said: “They find easy targets, and people don’t complain.”

On Feb. 29, a 35-year-old Bhutanese Nepali refugee was arrested for littering outside a North Side convenience store. He said he dropped a receipt.

The charge, a third-degree misdemeanor, ultimately was dismissed, but the man had to pay $92 in court costs.

The incident “really scared” him, said his attorney, Edward Forman. “I can’t imagine in a million years he would be arrested for that.”

The arrest also disturbed Angie Plummer, executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services. She said the man, who didn’t speak English, was worried that he had disgraced his family, and he felt traumatized going to court.

The refugees’ roots are in Nepal. Their ancestors began moving in the late-19th century to the neighboring kingdom of Bhutan. There, their numbers grew, and they were expelled two decades ago because they were considered a threat.

They spent years in refugee camps in Nepal and are coming to the United States in larger numbers: 14,735 in 2011, with the most — 760 — going to Erie, Pa., according to the United Nations refugee agency. Many refugees live near one another to feel safer, said Joyce Bourgault, executive director of the Helping Hands Free Clinic.

“They’re a gentle people,” she said.

Many are unemployed. Others work for social-service agencies and in warehouses.

The refugees still are adjusting to living in a city. Some take classes teaching basics such as cleaning with bleach and vinegar and plunging a toilet.

“It’s the same as any other community,” said Kate Shaner, minister of missions for Faith Community Church, which works with refugees. “Assimilation is difficult.”

Published Date: Tuesday, June 19th, 2012 | 02:28 AM

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