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Identity & Community

Pittsburgh Celebrates World Refugee Day

Bishnu Timsina and Puspa Nepal are from Bhutan, but they spent much of their lives in refugee camps in Nepal.

This is because the Bhutanese government found those with Nepali origin a threat to political order and decided to act on that “risk” in the late 1980s.

“(The) government started putting them into jail, raping the young girls and women, beating family members,” Bishnu said. “And they were also asked to sign volunteer migration forms by the government of Bhutan and they were told that you have to leave the country.”

And the government wouldn’t allow the two to return.

“The Bhutan government did not take us back despite … several meetings and government pressure, but the government denied to take the refugees back,” Bishnu said.

The two instead came to the United States and are now in the process of becoming citizens. They’re not alone. 

About 500 refugees arrive in Pittsburgh each year, primarily from Bhutan, Burma and Iraq.

That’s according to the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, which hosted Pittsburgh’s World Refugee Day Friday.

“Around the country, World Refugee Day is celebrated to showcase the contributions and the arts and culture of refugees coming to the United States,” said Leslie Aizenman director of refugee services.

Much of this art was on display in Market Square, ranging from jewelry and headpieces to food and ethnic dance performances.

World Refugee Day, created by the United Nations, sheds light on the approximately 42.5 million refugees in the world who have been displaced from their country due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion.

However, their issues are not over when they reach the United States. They must still overcome cultural differences such as language barriers.

“It’s hard making friends, like American friends,” Puspa Nepal said. “Like talking with them and like having trouble looking at schools and going to classes and going to other places, and bus and having a ride and stuff.”

Aizenman said resettlement agencies like hers help make the process easier.

“They’ve lived through war, they’ve lived through trauma, but they often don’t know the language, they may not have had formal education in their own countries, so they may not be literate in their own language,” Aizenman said. “And culturally, very different - in a good way - but they’re different, so part of what we do is try and speed up the process and teach them about our American style.”

Refugees are considered legal immigrants and are entitled to almost all benefits, privileges and rights that Americans have. However, they must wait five years to qualify for citizenship.

Bishnu, who is now a preschool teacher said she and Puspa Nepal, who attends Baldwin High School, miss their home and family in Bhutan, but they enjoy living in Pittsburgh.

“Our kids are in school, they are learning as other American kids,” Bishnu said. “So we feel safe, and we feel happy here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Bishnu Timsina was Puspa Nepal's mother, but this is not the case. Bishnu works with Puspa in an after-school program at Baldwin High School. This article has been updated.