Rochester’s Bhutanese refugees are building new lives, strengthening the union and re-making the city.

In Rochester, NY, America’s immigration story is unfolding among a community of refugees from Asia’s mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

Aided by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, Strong Hospital, 1199SEIU and a handful of non-government organizations, Bhutanese immigrants are making new lives in Upstate New York and in turn, re-making the city of Rochester.

“A lot of people got kicked out of Bhutan for their religion,” says environmental worker Ishora Archaya, 24, who came to the U.S. in 2009.

“We had to live in Bhutanese camps in Nepal. I was in a camp for 16 years.” In the early 1990’s Bhutan purged hundreds of thousands of Hindus of mixed ancestry. Nepal accepted the refugees into squalid camps.

“I was six when I went to the camp in Nepal and spent 20 years there,” says Prem Biswa, a Strong Hospital environmental service worker. “I spent a lot of terrible life there. We struggled. We had nothing. We made a house from bamboo that somebody donated.”

In spite of international pressure and condemnation by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the exiles had no rights. Many were ethnic Nepalis, but were still denied citizenship in Nepal and prevented from leaving the camps. They could not work or attend school. Access to health care and other basic necessities was limited.

In 2007, the UNHCR and a core group of countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, came together for an unprecedented resettlement effort for the refugees. More than 60,000 people accepted resettlement assistance to a handful of western nations.

Catholic Family Services (CFS) has been instrumental in Rochester-area relocation efforts. The organization provides economic assistance and help with housing and employment – like finding good-paying jobs at Strong Memorial Hospital. The work has rooted an organic community in the city and at the hospital.

Strong’s Bhutanese workers are employed in a broad spectrum of roles, from environmental services to professional and technical positions. And outside of work, they are buying homes, building families, setting and achieving educational goals and strengthening the union by volunteering for leadership positions. Building solidarity was a slow process, points out 1199SEIU Organizer Tracey Harrison.

“There was some initial division,” he says. “Some people saw it as ‘they’re taking our jobs’, so we put together these ‘meet and greets’ at the monthly delegate meeting that turned into a breaking of bread because people brought food. We all saw each other going through the same struggles and real trust was established.”

1199 Magazine | July / August 2017