OAKLAND -- The rumors circulated for months: Pennsylvania is a better place to live than Oakland for newly arrived Bhutanese refugees.
"All the Bhutanese are migrating to Pennsylvania," Benu Mainali said. "They say it's better. It's easier to find a job."
The 29-year-old refugee wasn't sure whether he should believe the stories of greener Pennsylvanian pastures. He also knew they would soon be covered in snow. But after 19 months in California, he and his family packed their bags 10 days ago, moved across the country and took a gamble on the unknown.
A family that fled rural Bhutan and spent 18 years in a cramped U.N. refugee camp had grown comfortable in Oakland. Now, restless hopes and family ties have uprooted them again.
As he vacuumed his emptied East Oakland apartment and his wife scrubbed the kitchen on their last night in the Bay Area, the couple knew they risked everything they had gained in their short time in the United States.
"I am leaving this place, my apartment, my work," Benu Mainali said. "I have to go start from the beginning. I might regret this later, leaving California, but all my family members are there (in the Northeast). I have to go."
The Mainalis are following a pattern some call "secondary migration," a state-to-state movement as old as the nation itself.
It's how Scandinavian homesteaders populated the upper Midwest and Portuguese came to farm the Central Valley, how Long Beach became a Cambodian hub and Pittsburgh, Pa., is turning into a Bhutanese one.
Since early 2008, the State Department and community organizations around the country have welcomed nearly 50,000 Bhutanese exiles. The Nepali-speaking refugees spent decades in crowded camps in eastern Nepal after fleeing ethnic conflict in southern Bhutan. International organizations sought to disperse them across the developed world, from Alaska to Australia's Tasmania, trying not to burden any one place with too many people at once.
Now, the newcomers are sorting out where they really want to live.
Oakland remains one of the top 20 cities for Bhutanese refugees in the United States, but among the hundreds who have moved to the city and neighboring Alameda in the past four years, some are already trying their luck elsewhere.
The national Office of Refugee Resettlement does not track secondary migration, but every Bhutanese family knows another that took off for another state this year or is making plans for 2012.
Several families moved from Oakland to upstate New York in recent months, including Benu Mainali's brother and parents. Another migrated to the eastern North Dakota cities of Fargo and Grand Forks. Economic factors drive some of the movement -- North Dakota's cities have the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.
Family reunification may be the biggest tug. One extended family disperses around the country, then relatives share stories about which location offers the best opportunities. For the Mainalis, the spot was the Great Lakes corridor.
They were not alone: In recent months, Pennsylvania surpassed Texas as the top destination for Bhutanese refugees, and upstate New York is not far behind, according to data from the International Organization for Migration, the group tasked to resettle them.
The Mainalis' journey
This newspaper began following the Mainalis in spring 2010, meeting them at the tiny bamboo hut in southeastern Nepal where they had been living since 1992.
Weeks before they set off for America, Benu Mainali, his newlywed wife, Leela, and his 60-something parents informed workers at the United Nations-run camp that they wanted to migrate to Oakland because two relatives had moved there several months earlier.
They had seen photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge but knew almost nothing about California. A former teacher at the camp where he grew up, Benu Mainali was eager to learn and quickly found in Oakland what he desired: A steady job, new and old friends, good weather, freedom and a better quality of life.
He started at $8 an hour stocking goods at Farmer Joe's, a gourmet grocery in the Oakland foothills, and rose to assistant manager at $10 an hour. Supervisors were impressed by his diligence, confidence and his English skills.
Leela Mainali, 21, found work at a pizza shop before giving birth to the couple's first child this summer. Benu's parents, Bishnu and Devi, -- were one-time farmers who spoke no English but were the glue that kept the family together and helped care for their grandchildren.
The apartment the family shared in Oakland's Laurel district became a social space for visitors. Up until his last week there, Benu Mainali used it for meetings of BCA Productions, or Bhutanese California Artist Productions, a filmmaking club for fellow exiles.
Despite the language barriers, 63-year-old Bishnu Mainali, with her warm and expressive personality, also made fast friends. Her neighbor Paw Boh, a Karen refugee from Myanmar, would visit daily and sometimes take her elder friend to the farmer's market. They communicated in a universal language of gestures and smiles.
Thoughts of moving
Leela Mainali was the first to broach the idea of leaving Oakland, whispering the names of eastern cities in nighttime conversations with her husband. She heard the stories of roomier, less expensive apartments, more plentiful work and less crime. She missed her relatives who were moving to the East Coast. Her older sister's family landed in northern Florida but could not find work there, so they moved to Pittsburgh this fall and found employment immediately despite their limited English.
"In Pennsylvania, it makes no difference," Benu Mainali said. "Even the people who don't speak a word, they're getting a job and making good money."
Benu Mainali's youngest brother, Yadhu, was the first to arrive in Oakland and the first to leave. He took off to join the brothers' oldest siblings in Buffalo, N.Y., where he quickly found a job, started a vocational program and convinced the rest of the family to join him. He wanted their support and company.
Benu Mainali was reluctant. He wanted to quit his job eventually and learn radiology, but he could do that in California, where he already had a network of support.
"I tried to convince them to stay with me here and call Yadhu also to come back," he said. His mother, however, thought her youngest son needed her help. She spent two weeks trying to convince her husband they should leave, and he finally agreed.
"I want to go to New York, just to help him a little bit, so he can go to school," she said, speaking in Nepali through an interpreter. "California is much better to live in, but then I heard the words my son had spoken. The decision is maybe the wrong decision, but because of love for my son, I am leaving."
Dozens of people came to bid the older couple farewell as they packed for New York, and Bishnu Mainali was visibly saddened.
"I am nervous right now, not because of the trip, but because I will be leaving my granddaughter," she said.
The Nov. 30 flight was stressful. Clad in winter clothes, Bishnu and Devi Mainali landed in Denver and were supposed to pick up a connecting flight but thought they were already in Buffalo so walked out of the airport. They wondered why the family wasn't there to pick them up. Bishnu Mainali used hand signals to ask a man with a cellphone for help. They returned to the terminal in time to catch their next flight.
By the time his parents had left, Benu Mainali had changed his mind and was ready to leave. Being in the same region as his parents made the move more palatable. At first, the couple and their child would live with his wife's family in a Pittsburgh suburb, about a four-hour drive from Buffalo.
Still, friends persuaded him not to go. Neighbor and family friend Anil Verma, a Myanmar refugee, told the Mainalis it was a bad idea.
"They hear that everything's better. But in reality, it's not," Verma said. "Don't go based on what other people are saying. Wherever you want to try your luck, you go. But don't rely on anyone. Sometimes, things do not come true."
Jobs may be more available in the Rust Belt and Midwest than in the Bay Area, but they pay lower wages, Verma told them. Rents are lower, but fresh vegetables and utility bills can cost more. Oakland is diverse and welcoming, but other cities may be less so and have fewer social services. And moving costs money.
The younger Mainalis stuffed their belongings -- clothes, a pressure cooker and some other kitchen equipment -- in the trunk of their Toyota and had the car towed to Pittsburgh for $850. They spent hundreds more on airfare and have about $5,000 left in savings.
They have car payments and are paying back the International Organization for Migration in monthly installments for the flight that brought them to the United States.
If jobs are hard to find, they could be in financial trouble. But the frugal, plucky family has been through much worse and remains optimistic.
Pittsburgh "may be better than here," Leela Mainali said hours before she left Oakland on Dec. 15.
"After five or six years, after completing school, it may be a better life than now. I will start work, and Benu can study. Or maybe after five years, we will be back in California."
Five years ago, most U.S. cities had just a handful of people who identified as Bhutanese or none at all. Beginning in 2008, a mass resettlement of nearly 50,000 Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan has dispersed them across dozens of American cities. The list below charts the 20 metro areas with the largest Bhutanese population as of April 2010, when the U.S. Census was taken. Thousands more have migrated to the United States since the census, while others have moved from one U.S. city to another looking for better opportunities.
Dallas-Fort Worth: 993
Tucson, Ariz.: 571
Syracuse, N.Y.: 523
New York City: 498
Nashville, Tenn.: 462
Rochester, N.Y.: 411
Salt Lake City: 399
Erie, Pa.: 395
Akron, Ohio: 388
Buffalo, N.Y.: 370
Manchester, N.H.: 320
St. Louis: 307
Concord, N.H.: 291
Source: U.S. Census 2010