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Bhutanese-Nepali Refugees Encounter Stereotypes, Economic Challenges In Columbus

Sam Hendren
Bhutanese refugee Kashi Adhikari, center, stands with students and teachers in Columbus.

Binaya Subedi was born in Nepal but came to the United States when he was 17. Now, as an Ohio State associate professor of education, he studies the Bhutanese-Nepali community in Central Ohio and the issues they face around identity, poverty and prejudice.

Subedi says the community originally lived in Bhutan, but was forced to settle into refugee camps in Nepal for about 20 years. Beginning in 2008, those refugees began to come to Columbus, which is now home 20,000 Bhutanese-Nepali immigrants, the largest population of any U.S. city.

As with other immigrant groups - such as the Somali refugee population here - the draws of the area are numerous.

"I think their first reason is the housing is cheaper compared to Chicago and Seattle areas," Subedi says. "The second one is the community part. I think there's a lot of members who have settled here and that's very appealing."

Though the area offers a number of jobs that provide a livable wage, Subedi says not all issues are solved upon moving to the city.

"You're talking about a particular community that was in a refugee camp for 20 years, and you think about the issues of mental health and sort of the trauma that's attached to it," Subedi says. "So it's very complicated."

Bhutanese-Nepali students also face particular challenges in school, particularly when confronted with the "model minority" myth.

"The model minority is essentially a sort of false argument in terms of, all Asians are this way, they are very smart and they do very well in the United States," Subedi explains. "But if you look at these Nepali experiences, it's this community that has not had good schooling for a very long time, does not have access to English, and also has struggles with economic opportunities."

Helping students adjust to school requires understanding that experiences of Asian immigrants and their children differ greatly between groups. Not to mention, Subedi says, the United States is seeing a radically different atmosphere than it had even 20 years ago.

"The sort of rhetoric, the anti-immigrant, has been larger and very difficult for immigrant communities, especially if you think about issues of the travel ban," Subedi says. "That really sort of plays out in everyday contexts in terms of discrimination, racialization."

Debbie Holmes began her career in broadcasting in Columbus after graduating from The Ohio State University. She left the Buckeye state to pursue a career in television news and worked as a reporter and anchor in Moline, Illinois and Memphis, Tennessee.