So this was America, cold and rainy and blanketed by a sea of unoccupied cars. People walked hurriedly, many with large coffee cups in hand, and dressed in a variety of formal and sloppy outfits.
The Mainali family was exhausted upon reaching Newark Liberty International Airport, but they eagerly absorbed the sights and sounds as they strolled through the New Jersey terminal.
Benu Mainali, 28, wearing a suit for this important day, led the way, accompanied by his wife, Leela, 20, in a sari. Following them were Benu's parents, Devi Charan Mainali, 67, in a long Nepali tunic, matching pants and an orange-colored cap, and Bishnu Maya Mainali, 62, with a red sari more vibrant than anything that could be found in the airport that dreary afternoon.
The Bhutanese refugees were more than 7,500 miles from their last home, a bamboo hut in a hot and humid United Nations refugee camp in southern Nepal, and 3,000 miles from the apartment that awaited them in East Oakland.
In the corner of the arrival gate, a young American couple was locked in passionate embrace. Bishnu Mainali took a long glance sideways as she walked, her curiosity partially concealed by the babushka-like scarf she wore around her head. Her son smiled and whispered that this would be the first of many cultural shocks.
"Will we find Nepali food here?" asked 22-year-old Rakesh Khadka, a friend of the Mainali family, shivering in his T-shirt and jeans. Not in the airport, he was told. Nor
There were 35 Bhutanese refugees traveling together. They had bonded in these last few days after leaving their camp May 14 but would soon split up as they took off for nine American cities. Khadka was heading to Newport News, Virginia. Other families were bound for Kentucky, Utah, Oregon and Tennessee. The Mainalis were moving to Oakland, joining two sons who had already moved there.
All of the families hailed from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan but had been forced out in an ethnic conflict almost 20 years ago. They lived for years in a cluster of refugee camps, stranded because they could go nowhere else until America opened its doors.
For most of the refugees, the turboprop flight from Bhadrapur in the plains of southeastern Nepal to the capital, Katmandu, was their first airplane trip. The rough flight made many of its passengers nauseated, but it also afforded them a glimpse of the snow-capped Himalayas. They waited for a weekend of processing at a Katmandu transit center, hanging around their bunk beds and a
There, in the hours before the flight, a grandmother bound for Salt Lake City offered each of the 35 travelers a sip of dark honey from the forests of Sikkim. She could not take the bottle of honey on an international flight, and, besides, it had medicinal properties that would help them all stay healthy. It was a last familiar taste of home before flying across the world.
They flew to India, then Brussels, before they landed in Newark on the rainy, unseasonably cold afternoon of May 18.
Benu Mainali glanced over at the parking lot across the street from the airport. So many cars, he remarked, but so few people in them.
A shuttle bus pulled up to the curb and took the families through a gray industrial area to a Howard Johnson hotel. The Mainalis stumbled with the card key, then entered the most plush room they had ever seen, a far cry from the four-room hut the family shared in the refugee camp. Bishnu Mainali sat on the bed and bounced cheerily. Devi Mainali stared at the television, a rainbow-colored scarf haphazardly wrapped around his head for warmth.
A narrator intoned from the screen as a sport utility vehicle drove through a rugged terrain. On another channel, the sarcastic jokes of a teen sitcom were lost to the Mainalis. It was all an exotic blur. This was not the English that Benu and Leela thought they knew, the British-inflected English they studied in the camps since they were
"Pani! Pani!" he blurted out the next morning, raising his hand in the air on the flight to Phoenix, the second-to-last leg of their journey. A flight attendant looked at him impatiently.
Bishnu Mainali tried to help.
"Wa-ter," she said. She had learned the word in Katmandu just a few days earlier -- that and "Mango juice, please" and "Cup of tea, please" -- phrases that might help on the plane.
Devi Mainali pretended to drink from an imaginary cup. The flight attendant understood.
'Everywhere there is light'
When they arrived to their boxy apartment in Oakland's Laurel district, they were pleased with its roominess. Modest by American standards, it was far more spacious than their tightly-built hut in Nepal, where the Mainalis had raised the youngest four of their nine children in cramped and difficult conditions.
Bishnu Mainali was overjoyed to finally see her youngest son, Yadhu, 22, who had lived alone in Oakland for more than a year; and her oldest, Kapil, 40, who had arrived earlier this year with his wife and three children. Kapil and his family lived in two rooms in an upstairs apartment. The five others would live in another two-bedroom apartment below. The other siblings and their spouses and children were now far away -- two moved to upstate New York, two to Australia, and two married daughters had never left Bhutan.
A local agency, the International Rescue Committee, had arranged for the apartment to be furnished and stocked with food before they arrived.
The Mainalis welcomed a host of amenities they did not have in the refugees camps: electricity, television, carpets and a microwave, though some of these would take time getting used to.
"I think the U.S. is a hundred years ahead of Nepal in terms of technology," Benu Mainali said.
"There in Nepal, we have no light," Bishnu Mainali said, speaking of the lack of electricity in the camps. "When it gets dark, it's time to go to sleep. But here, everywhere there is light."
Less unusual to them was the neighborhood boy, a Burmese refugee, who wandered into the apartment on their first evening there, making himself at home -- not unlike in Nepal, where such neighborly visits were normal and constant. America, it seemed, might not be as alienating a place as they had been warned.
The reunited Mainalis talked all night long, and Yadhu Mainali had some immediate advice for his older brother: Cut off the fingernail. A fashion statement in Nepal, Benu Mainali's inch-long pinkie nail could be misconstrued here as a sign he is a cocaine user. Yadhu Mainali had learned a lot in his first year in Oakland, sometimes the hard way, and he instructed his family members on how to be street smart and safe.
On their first morning in Oakland, the Mainalis took the public bus from their home in the foothills to the downtown office of the IRC, marveling at the sights -- the joggers at Lake Merritt; the long line waiting to buy treats from a gourmet cupcake truck; the high-rises.
Bishnu Mainali said it would be nice if they could live downtown. It was bustling. In Nepal, the well-off lived in the cities; the poor lived in the hills.
At the IRC office, they sat in a waiting room with refugees from Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world. They talked about what services they could access, what jobs the young couple might find. The office helped them put together resumes.
Because of their youth and their English language skills, Benu and Leela Mainali enrolled in a jobs training program where the goal was to get them employed and self-sufficient within four months.
The couple would get four months of financial support -- $535 in monthly cash assistance and $289 in food stamps for the two of them, plus health care coverage and help paying the apartment rent -- then would be on their own.
"What would you like to do as your first job in America?" asked Igor Radulovic, a job specialist at the IRC. "Even though the market is tough, it is hard to find jobs, there are jobs in restaurants, in retail, in security. We call them a survival job."
Benu Mainali had an impressive resume for a refugee -- an education in math and science, a good grasp of English, and job experience as a teacher and at a call center.
"You don't have to go to ESL class. Your English is better than mine," Radulovic told him.
Leela Mainali, a shy 20-year-old, had less experience, but wanted to work with people, maybe as a nursing assistant. As a teenager in the camps, she used to cook and care for her large family, she told Radulovic.
"That's a skill. People don't do that here. If you have a family that, at 15, you're taking care of, that's a skill," he said.
The meeting with Radulovic was their first job interview. He would start working connections the IRC has built with local employers for years in hopes of finding a match.
Yet no one expected that in less than a month, Benu Mainali would have a job that he found on his own. A friend he knew from the camps in Nepal worked at Farmer Joe's, a gourmet grocery store on MacArthur Boulevard, and told him to apply for an opening as a shelf stocker.
"It will be tough for him at the beginning," said Dhana Kharel, 26, the friend who helped him get the job. "If you don't go fast, they won't keep you."
This was not Benu Mainali's dream job at $8.50 an hour -- he wanted to be a teacher again, or find work as a refugee advocate, or maybe go back to school to study something new, such as radiology.
"Going for entry-level jobs, we will not rise up in our life," he said. "The money that I earn from my work is not sufficient."
His wife looked for nursing work, but was having a harder time. She enrolled in classes at The English Center in Jack London Square, a $100 investment for up to eight months of training in English and computer literacy.
One brother, Kapil, was still unemployed, while Yadhu had steady work at a thrift store in Hayward for more than a year, giving him enough money to buy a car and learn to drive. Benu Mainali hoped to do the same, enrolling in a driver's class. But when he tried practicing in the parking lot at home, he pulled Yadhu's car out of the parking spot and promptly crashed into a pole, leaving an expensive dent.
Their father, Devi Mainali, at 67, was old enough to be eligible for Social Security -- elderly refugees are among the few immigrants who can get such benefits without citizenship -- so his $845 per month helped them all get by.
Days of wonder
Early successes in adjusting to life in their new country allowed worry to give way to wonder for a time. It seemed as though all summer long, every day was a new adventure. There was their first supermarket, where Bishnu Mainali wandered the aisles and marveled at all the choices, everything looking so fresh and perfect. She looked incredulously at a bread-encrusted tilapia, finding it hard to believe that this was a fish.
Friends took them to the Oakland hills, where they gazed at the skyline and observed a wedding party outside the Mormon temple.
Bishnu Mainali, who suffers from high blood pressure, appreciated the cleanliness, temperate climate, beauty and modernity of Oakland, and everyone thought this new environment would be better for their health.
"The environment is so good for my parents," said Benu Mainali, who hoped it would give them a few more years of life. "Here, it's clean. She had not thought in her lifetime she'd be here in the U.S."
A volunteer took them to the Golden Gate Bridge after they reached a full month in California. At nearby Rodeo Beach, they dipped their feet into ocean waters for the first time in their lives, laughing and shouting as the unpredictable waves caught them by surprise. Benu Mainali was wearing a suit and almost fell in.
But the delight of new experiences faded as the reality of financial challenges grew.
"This is the last time IRC is paying for our rent," Benu Mainali said in mid-August. The check would last only through mid-September. He was nervous.
"Here, if we have no work, we will have nothing. No food. If we don't earn anything, we are on the street," he said.
To make a few extra dollars and pass the time, Devi Mainali began collecting cans and bottles in the Laurel neighborhood, piling them up in a bag in their apartment's small yard. He made $35 in three days -- cigarette money, the family joked. The 67-year-old missed the cheap and unfiltered Bijuli brand cigarettes he smoked at home. His new practice was to buy Marlboros, pull out the tobacco and roll it in dried leaves he collected from the yard.
They also worried about losing the community connections that had come so easily in the camps, where everyone lived so close together and spoke the same language.
A poet on the side, Benu Mainali used to meet with fellow writers a few times a month. The group would gather to talk about Bhutanese and Nepali literature.
He continued to write late at night in his Oakland apartment -- one lyrical poem recounted his long voyage from the hut to California, and the vast differences between Nepal and the United States. But none of Oakland's Bhutanese refugees seemed to share his literary interests.
"Here, I think I'm alone," he said.
A welcome link to home
Bishnu Mainali felt less isolated when another family of Bhutanese refugees, one of the first to arrive to Oakland in 2008, invited them over for a weekend puja, or prayer. There are now hundreds of Bhutanese refugees living across East Oakland and Alameda, and each weekend one family hosts visitors at their home for prayer.
The refugee families crowded into a second-story walk-up and sat down on the carpet, where a few women led them in Hindu songs. One beat a jhali, a tambourine-like instrument. The melodies were loud enough to be heard at the Vietnamese cafe beneath them and the small park across the street. Bishnu Mainali gripped a flower petal as she sang.
"Our families are not close to each other," said Bishnu Kharel, 23, a dental student whose family hosted the puja. "They live in Fruitvale, downtown, all different parts, and sometimes they feel scared of walking around."
This was a way to bring them together, especially the elders who are too old to find work, she said. The Mainalis were the newest arrivals and got a special welcome. Benu Mainali gave a short speech introducing his family. Some knew them. Some didn't, but they all had similar experiences -- frightening memories of fleeing Bhutan, but also fond recollections of good times in the camps and shared challenges in getting adjusted to Oakland.
"I am happy you have not forgotten your culture," Benu Mainali told them in Nepali.
His mother watched quietly from a couch.
"She almost cried of happiness," said Damanta Kharel, 27, who greeted Bishnu Mainali when she walked into the puja moments earlier. "When she came in here, she saw all these people speaking the same language. She can share her feelings."
This new city, it seemed to Bishnu Mainali, was going to be all right.
Bay Area News Group reporter Matt O'Brien and photojournalist Jane Tyska traveled to Bhutan and Nepal in the spring to report on the little-known plight of Bhutanese refugees who'd left their homes amid a political and ethnic conflict. These refugees, part of a Nepali-speaking minority called Lhotshampas, had lived for nearly two decades in camps run by the United Nations, but they are now being welcomed to the United States and other nations as political refugees. Hundreds are relocating to the East Bay. This is the second of a two-part series exploring the conflict and the experiences of the new immigrants. Read the entire series, funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association, at InsideBayArea.com/Bhutan.
HOW TO HELP
Bhutanese community associations: