By Kailey Sherrick
Nestled between a modern-day bistro and a jewelry shop, just inside of Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, sits a small inconspicuous building. The gray, weathered wooden siding is surrounded by even grayer bricks. “Family Groceries” reads the white-lettered, deep blue sign over the door. Below the name is a list of groups of people the store serves: African, Burmese/Thai, Hispanic, Indian/Nepali. The door never stays closed for long. Men, women, and children are constantly bustling in and out, their arms loaded down with bags.
Once inside, it becomes apparent that the grocery is rather condensed, but what it lacks in width, it makes up in length. The first room features aisles of daily living essentials, personal care items, religious and ceremonial necessities, and stacks of traditional music on cassettes. In the back right corner, a small hallway leads into a second room. Posters of Hindu religious figures line the walls. The blue skin of Krishna glistens under fluorescent lights. The faces of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma smile at passing customers.
The second room is brightly lit, causing the vibrant red, green, yellow, and brown hues of fresh produce to pop: mustard greens, bananas, tiny red hot peppers, small jackfruits covered in knobby skin, and giant jackfruits that smell undeniably like honey. Aisles that aren’t filled with produce feature candies, noodles, spices, cooking utensils, and other non-perishable goods. Stacks of 20-pound bags of rice mark the end of each aisle. The air is thick with the heady scent of curry, cumin, and other spices. Music from hidden speakers fills the room with airy flutes, thudding drums, and plucked strings, while the vocalist makes throaty runs in an unfamiliar tongue.
In this second room, amidst the flurry of shoppers, Naresh Subba busily stocks shelves. He smiles as he works. His short, dark hair is touched by gray only around his ears, and the only wrinkles on his face are small laugh lines, which gather by his deep brown eyes. His light button-down shirt is tucked neatly into khaki dress pants. Naresh, like his family and many in the community he serves, is a refugee from Bhutan.
“Come, let’s speak in the back,” he directs, weaving his way through the aisles and scattered customers.
The back room, also known as “the Chatpattey Room,” is tucked away in the rear of the store, with only a few signs indicating its existence. It’s a combination of communal dining area and storage room. A few white plastic picnic tables sit perpendicular to the wall. A man in an apron stands behind a small buffet table, mixing ingredients in a large pitcher, while employees bustle in and out, grabbing boxes and carts. One employee cleans large leafy greens, preparing them for sale.
Naresh settles himself at one of the picnic tables, resting his back against the wall. He speaks to the man in the apron, ordering himself a bowl of chatpattey in his native Nepali language. Chatpattey itself is, quite literally, a “quick snack” made of rice, potatoes, onions, chickpeas, bean paste, dried peas, and myriad spices. Each ingredient blends well, no one flavor overpowering the other, in consistencies ranging from crunchy to smooth. It is meant to satisfy, without creating a sense of fullness. This dish is common throughout India and Nepal, but each region has its own variation.
After the chatpattey is sufficiently mixed in the pitcher, the man in the apron doles out a heaping portion into a small Styrofoam bowl and delivers it to Naresh’s waiting fingers. Chatpattey in hand, Naresh stakes his claim to the mountain of rice by piercing the mound with a plastic spoon before he relaxes on the bench.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, of his native Bhutan. “There’s no need to add anything to it. The mountains, the curvy roads.” He zig-zags his index finger over the brown painted cinderblock walls. “The fields, everything. It’s beautiful just as it is.”
Nestled in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan truly is beautiful. It is a small country, about half the size of the state of Indiana, located just below what was formerly Tibet, and surrounded on the other three sides by India. Only a small sliver of India separates Bhutan’s western border from Nepal. The landscape includes breathtaking mountains, lush forests, fertile farmland, and tropical jungles. It’s ruled by a monarchy, and religion plays a huge role in both politics and everyday life. For Naresh, it was home for the first 22 years of his life, and it’s a home that he may well never see again.
* * *
In the late 19th century a group of people living in modern day Nepal migrated to the south of Bhutan. Hired by the Bhutanese government to clear the jungles in the southern Bhutan, they were called Lhotsampas (“people of the south”) and they retained their native Nepali language and predominantly Hindu religious practices. They made their homes there and flourished for almost 100 years without conflict.
In 1958, the Bhutanese government passed the Citizenship Act, which officially gave the Lhotsampas Bhutanese citizenship, and each Lhotsampa who owned land was given a land tax receipt. For the next 30 years incentive programs were passed to integrate the Lhotsampas into Bhutanese culture, encouraging marriages between them and other ethnic groups. These incentive programs caused discontent within the Buddhist Druk majority, which worried over the growing political power of the large Hindu Lhotsampa population.
In 1988 the government conducted a census in southern Bhutan in an effort to revoke Lhotsampa citizenship. It required the Lhotsampas to provide proof of the land tax receipt issued 30 years earlier. The results: all Lhotsampas, even those who had retained the 1958 receipts, were now considered illegal immigrants.
The following year, King Jigme Singey Wangchuk implemented the “One Bhutan, One People” policy. This law removed the Nepali language from schools, requiring that only the native language of Dzongkha be spoken and taught, and made it mandatory for Southerners to wear the official dress of the North. Unsurprisingly, the Lhotsampas resisted this new regime and held demonstrations; the government considered them terrorists and instituted military rule. Many abuses ensued over the next few years including unlawful arrests, detentions, beatings, rapes, torture, and the forced signing of “voluntary migration forms.” By 1991, a mass exodus of Lhotsampas began as they fled to Nepal via India, cramming themselves into trucks to be carried out of the country they once considered home.
In Nepal, the Lhotsampas were forced into begging door to door. The child mortality rate skyrocketed, while dysentery and disease tore through their communities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) finally intervened in 1992, when it built the first of seven refugee camps, which was designed to house 105,000 refugees. From 1992 until 2007, fifteen talks between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal took place, the aim of which was ultimately to resettle the refugees, restore their Bhutanese citizenship, and pay them restitution. None of this happened. The Lhotsampas were officially adrift, with neither country willing to allow them to settle permanently within their borders. Third-country resettlement finally became a viable option in 2007, with the United States agreeing to settle the majority of the refugees, along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands. There is currently no indication that there will ever be a resolution towards resettlement in Bhutan.
* * *
Naresh grew up in the Bhutanese province of Dagana. His family, like the many other families in southern Bhutan, were farmers. Traditionally, children in farming communities received little to no formal education, and were strictly taught how to help with the family farm so they could take over when they came of age. Naresh’s father, however, decided to send Naresh to school so he could learn to read and write.
“I remember my father telling me, ‘I have a tough time reading and understanding what these letters are, so you should help me with this.’ I think that was all they had in their mind when they took me to the school.”
To Naresh, it was “a fluke, or sheer luck” that his father sent him to school at all, but he excelled nonetheless. Education was free in Bhutan at the time, so after completing high school, the government sent him to Sherubtse College in the eastern part of the country, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in science. He was luckier than most, as his time in the college coincided with the government abuses committed against his people, so Naresh was safely out of the fray.
Naresh left Bhutan in 1992, shortly after completing his degree, during a mass exodus to join his family, who were already in the refugee camps. The camp he lived in for 10 years was Beldangi 1.
“You have a shelter, really just a shelter,” he says, rubbing his cheek as he stared at the ceiling, “Thatched roof, bamboo walls, muck floors, dark, dirt, and dust. No drinking water, no electricity, no health and hygiene, no sanitation. I mean, anything you can think of, just add ‘no’. That’s the life in refugee camps.”
The refugee camps were crowded. Each morning and evening, there was a small window of time where families could get fresh water. The only food they had was what was provided through the UNHCR and other aid groups. For years, all the refugees could do was talk about Bhutan, about going back, holding on to hope as governmental talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed over and over again. They gossiped, and they got angry.
“For a long time, we were angry,” he says. “We still are sometimes. Bhutan prides itself on being the ‘happiest country in the world.’ The government pays a lot for these studies, and base development on gross national happiness, not domestic product. The saying is ‘Everyone in Bhutan is happy, even the stray dogs,’ so what did that mean for us, for the refugees? That we were less than stray dogs?”
Naresh turned that energy into something productive. During his first few years living in the camp, Naresh took a job as a teacher, educating children in science and math in a makeshift schoolhouse. Through his teaching, Naresh earned a scholarship, provided by the UNHCR and funded by the German government. This scholarship, called the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI), allowed Naresh to go to a university in Kathmandu to get his master’s degree in physics, as well as another bachelor’s degree in Education. Once his studies were completed, he returned to the camp and stayed until 2002, when he came to Ohio to study at Kent State on a student visa. Naresh completed his education in 2010, when he earned his Ph.D. in nuclear physics.
“When I first came here,” he says, “there was still no talk of resettlement in other countries, only resettlement back in Bhutan.”
Third-country resettlement didn’t begin until 2007, and the International Institute of Akron didn’t begin taking Bhutanese refugees until 2008. Naresh’s own family didn’t begin arriving until 2009, when his two brothers finally landed in Akron. For six years, Naresh was separated from his culture, and from his family.
* * *
Only a short distance away from Family Groceries, a nondescript brick building sits close to the road. Like Naresh’s store, the doors do not stay closed for long. Throngs of people, many of them immigrants, rush in and out all day long. This is the headquarters of the IIA, the International Institute of Akron. Inside its walls, there is a steady hum of activity as refugees from Bhutan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere attend English classes, meet with case workers, or simply talk to each other.
The IIA started officially resettling immigrants from other countries into Akron as early as the 1970s. It began resettling Bhutanese refugees in 2008, and aims to resettle 500 more this coming year, many of whom already have family in the area. The IIA works to help immigrants and refugees integrate into society by helping them find jobs, giving them assistance, getting them access to healthcare, and helping them learn English.
The Bhutanese community has completely transformed Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where most new refugees have settled. North Hill High School now has a student demographic that is 50 percent Asian, including many from Bhutan. Their soccer team is flourishing. Small businesses owners like Naresh are starting restaurants, jewelry stores, and clothing stores to cater to their ethnic communities, as well as the occasional curious outsider. Elaine Woloshyn, Executive Director of the IIA has been working to market North Hill as an international district of sorts by promoting all of the ethnically diverse businesses in the area.
While refugees can choose where they would like to be relocated, many don’t have enough knowledge about the United States (or other countries) to be able to make an educated choice. Those that don’t know how to find family members already in the States have to go in blind. Families can end up scattered, sometimes across states or even across continents. The recent surge of Bhutanese refugees into Akron is caused both people in the camps coming to join their families, as well as those from other states relocating to reunite with their loved ones.
But while the IIA does its best to help refugees integrate into their new lives in America, according to a 2012 report from the CDC, suicide rates among Bhutanese refugees are double those of other U.S. refugee groups, with 24 in every 100,000 taking their own lives.
“I think the main cause could be the cultural shock,” says Naresh. “I mean, you never know, you can’t get into their minds, but looking into the way our people tell their stories, it could be culture shock. Totally different language, totally different environment. Since we come from a different culture, we have different norms and values that we take pride in – that have been passed down from generation to generation – and all of the sudden that’s quickly disappearing. Some people don’t know how to adapt to these changes. It’s not gradual, it’s sudden.”
It isn’t difficult to see why the loss of culture could drive people already expelled from one country due to differences in culture and their language to despair. As they resettle, they are pressured to integrate, to merge their customs with mainstream America. Those who resist are alienated over time, as the younger generation integrates more into society, and the sense of identity associated with that culture slips away.
* * *
“Bhutanese refugees,” he says, “the first question they ask is ‘Do we get the type of foods we eat in our homes?’ And we have to say yes, right? Or else they’ll get depressed. But initially we weren’t able to say yes.”
Because Naresh had established himself in the area early on, many people knew about him, and went to him and his brothers for help. For a while, Naresh was shuttling people to Cleveland for ingredients like goat meat and dried fermented greens. As the population increased, Naresh realized they couldn’t continue to travel so far. He and his brothers started Family Groceries as a way for to bring the ingredients for standard meals like dal-bhat-tarkari (lentil soup, rice or another grain, and vegetable curry), dhindo (boiled maize, buckwheat, and other grains), and momos (dumplings) to the community.
Besides running the grocery story, Naresh is an advisor for the Bhutanese Community of Akron Association (BCAA). He also serves on the advisory council for the Knight Foundation Grant, which gives grant money to entrepreneurs, artists, and other Akronites with plans to positively impact the city. Through the BCAA, Naresh helps answer questions that most people take for granted.
“I spend most of my time helping my people,” he says. “They have so many questions, basic questions, like ‘Where do you buy postage stamps?’ ‘Where is the mail box?’ and these are big questions for them. Whenever they get letters or notifications, most end up coming here. I think fifty percent of my time, I spend on that. Sometimes it’s ‘I’m buying a house now. What do I do?’ and I can’t tell them ‘I don’t know’, I just can’t say that. So I tell them how I bought my house, how other people bought their houses. I show them where to go, who to contact. I enjoy doing that.”
* * *
While Family Groceries has become a staple for his community, Naresh sacrificed much in order to open it. When he first came to the U.S. on his student visa, his main goal was to get his degree and go back to Bhutan to become a professor. As it became clear that going back wouldn’t be an option, his goals shifted. He wanted to use the knowledge he gained to teach others.
“There was some time before I completed my Ph.D. that I thought I should do research,” he says, “but then I thought research would take forever. And I would have no time for my family. I found out that teaching was really a challenge if you did not want to leave this area. Because all my family members were getting resettled in this area, I wanted to stay, but there were no teaching jobs around here.”
Family means everything for refugees from Bhutan. Most of them grew up as farmers, like Naresh. Multiple generations of the same family would live under the same roof. They worked together on the farms, ate together, and weathered hardships together. They saw each other every single day. After finally being reunited, relocating was not an option.
“I’ve given up teaching now. When my brothers suggested the idea of opening up a grocery to provide our community with their foods from home, I said ‘Great idea, let’s do it’ and we’ve been here ever since.”
Naresh entertains the idea of eventually being able to go back to Bhutan, in a hypothetical sense.
“This is something I’ve asked myself a great many times. I am almost 50 now. I think it is too late for me. I’d have to start over, from scratch. No, I don’t think I would go back. But the elders, the seniors, I hear them saying all the time ‘If only I could die in my own country.’ They have a greater sense of longing.”
* * *
In North Hill, Naresh and his brothers saw a desperate need for more than just food. Through Family Groceries, they offer the community comforts from a time when they could call Bhutan their country, their home. The Chatpattey Room, the smells, the music, it all coalesces to create an atmosphere of brotherhood and community. In the Chatpattey Room, Naresh makes an effort to greet everyone he sees by name, and slips easily in and out of conversations. As he eats his chatpattey, people who have come to get their own quick snack don’t hesitate to sit down beside him, and soon the white picnic tables are filled with people. In here, they are all family.
Kailey Sherrick is currently a graduate student at the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts), where she is studying to receive her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Wooster, Ohio, with her family, where she enjoys running a photography business with her husband. Apart from her professional and academic life, Kailey spends her time being involved in her community, reading, and being outdoors.
Support Independent Journalism by becoming a member of Belt.