The BHUTANESE were one of the largest refugee groups ever resettled in Northeast Ohio. They became a major immigrant group in the early 2000s, forming a steady and unexpected migration stream to Cleveland and Akron. Several thousand Bhutanese men, women, and children arrived between 2008 and 2018, bringing Himalayan culture and traditions to a region that had never seen the like.
As they established successful enclaves in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood and on Cleveland’s west side, Bhutanese refugees from other parts of the country followed, swelling the community with a secondary migration stream.
Resettlement officials estimated the community numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 people in 2020. It featured fledgling shops and restaurants with names like Everest Grocery and Himalayan Restaurant, home-based temples, lending circles, cultural festivals and a music school. Meanwhile, organizations like the Bhutanese Community of Greater Cleveland emerged to preserve and enhance Bhutanese language and culture and to aid with assimilation.
The Bhutanese knew a more bewildering immigrant experience than most and paid a high price. Most arrived from refugee camps in Nepal, where they had languished for years, even decades. They had been driven from their villages and farms in nearby Bhutan in pogroms and lost a way of life.
In Northeast Ohio, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese faced unusually high rates of suicide and mental health issues, especially among the elderly. Non-profit groups like ASIAN SERVICES IN ACTION helped the refugees to address the crisis, and an improbable community ascended toward stability and success, not unlike immigrant groups of old.
In 2017, WKSU-FM, the national public radio station serving Akron and Kent, reported a startling fact: “Akron owes its only population growth since the turn of the century to a kingdom on the other side of the earth.”
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small landlocked country in the eastern Himalayas of South Asia, separated from Nepal by a thin slice of India. It is a largely Buddhist nation, save for the Lhotshampas, or lowlanders, who are descendants of farmers and laborers who came from Nepal centuries ago.
In the 1990s, the Bhutanese government and military began targeting the Lhotshampas, a Nepali-speaking, largely Hindu minority group. More than 100,000 Bhutanese were driven from their farms and villages under a "One Nation, One People" policy. Many ended up homeless and stateless in United Nations supervised refugee camps in Nepal.
In 2006, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would accept as many as 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees. In 2008, Greater Cleveland resettlement agencies began welcoming families and individuals and helping them to start new lives. The resettlement work fell primarily to the International Institute of Akron and, in Cleveland, Migration and Refugee Services of Catholic Charities and US Together, an affiliate of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Amber Subba, one of the first arrivals, came to Akron in 2008 with his parents and siblings after more than 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He became an interpreter for the International Institute of Akron and later a caseworker. In 2017, Subba was interviewed for a series of stories on the Bhutanese community by WKSU and the Huffington Post. He described the anxieties and challenges faced by the early arrivals.
Most had grown up in thatched huts in refugee camps. They had never seen snow or lived with running water and electricity. Some were illiterate in their own language and had experience only as farmers and weavers. Quiet and modest by nature, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were reluctant to ask for help. Meanwhile, they had no money, family, or cultural kin in the region. The transition was especially hard on the elderly, who faced a loss of status as well as the language barrier and culture shock.
In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that America’s Bhutanese refugees were twice as likely to die by suicide as the general population. A study by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services found abnormally high rates of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Locally, a dozen people in the refugee community died by suicide between 2012 and 2015 and there were many stories of others who tried, WKSU reported.
Subba started a “Stop Suicide” campaign in Akron in 2014 that highlighted the problem. Help came from the established Asian American community. Asian Services in Action launched “Lucky Seniors” and other programs that pulled elderly refugees into communal gatherings for kinship and assimilation instruction. Faith-based groups like SEWA International and Shiva Vishnu Temple in Parma, the region’s largest Hindu congregation, sponsored clothing and food drives and invited the new arrivals to services.
It was considered a watershed moment in 2016 when Summit County reported only two suicides in its Bhutanese community. Meanwhile, the adults were finding jobs with Akron employers like GOJO. Ethnic shops and groceries were opening in long vacant storefronts on North Hill, Akron’s historic immigrant neighborhood that once resounded with Italian.
Much the same was occurring 35 miles north, where the early success of a single family helped boost an entire community.
Nar Pradhan arrived in Cleveland in 2008 under the auspices of Catholic Charities after 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He was 27. His father had died in the camp. Within weeks, Nar Pradhan found a job in an Indian restaurant. Other siblings soon followed and found work. In 2011, the Pradhan children bought Flavors of India, the North Olmsted restaurant that had hired Nar as a dishwasher, establishing Cleveland’s first Bhutanese-owned business. Soon, the family added a grocery store and a computer repair shop to the business mix. They hired other refugees and bought homes in the city.
"Basically, we are business minded. That's our caste," Nar Pradhan told the PLAIN DEALER in 2013. "Cleveland is perfect for us. All of our family is here. All of us are employed."
A 2013 economic study funded by the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION found that the Pradhans were not the only refugee success story. The study by Chmura Economics & Analytics concluded that recent refugees to Cuyahoga County —including the Bhutanese—were assimilating relatively quickly, finding jobs and adding to the tax base. They found low rates of public assistance and high rates of self-sufficiency. More 75% of the county's refugees over age 16 were employed, compared to 57 percent of the general population.
City schools were seeing a positive impact as well. By 2014, about 150 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were attending Lincoln West High School on Cleveland’s near West Side. Many were refugees newly arrived from Nepal. What the refugee camps lacked in modern amenities, they seemed to make up for with education.
"They're the brightest kids we have," school principal Irene Javier told the Plain Dealer. She said the Bhutanese children took school seriously and tended to score near the top of math and sciences classes. They had even launched a bilingual newspaper, in English and Nepali, to serve their community.
In what many observers saw as a sign of immigrant success, the community by the late 2010s was moving beyond basic survival efforts and into cultural preservation and celebrations.
In 2017, the Bhutanese Community of Greater Cleveland was formed to help preserve Bhutanese language and culture and to coordinate community events. It partnered with Building Hope in the City, a Cleveland faith-based group that helps refugees, to offer Nepali language classes for children. The classes echoed the language schools launched by earlier-arriving ethnic communities in Cleveland, as parents sought to ensure their children retained some of the old world culture.
Similar classes were being organized by the Bhutanese Community Association of Akron, not far from where children could also learn traditional Nepali music-making. In 2016, Bhutanese refugee Puspa Gajmer founded the Himalayan Music Academy in Akron’s North Hill. His school was offering instruction in Nepali music, language and dance to more than 40 students in the fall of 2018.
“The main mission and purpose is arts, culture and language,” Gajmer told the Plain Dealer. “It is important to give to our next generation.”
Robert L. Smith