It’s been more than four years since Rohit Biswa’s seen his aunt, uncle and cousins. Like many of Akron’s between 500 and 600 newly resettled refugees each year, Biswa’s family has taken this journey in staggered groups over the past decade. The trip itself is an arduous one, 30 hours of flights stretched out over three days.
On a recent evening, Biswa and International Institute of Akron colleague and caseworker Eilis McCulloh hopped into a car with an Akronist photographer to pick up these remaining relatives and open up a brand new chapter of their lives.
The reunion began at Akron-Canton Regional Airport and continued into the evening, and Biswa’s family now can take comfort that they’re in Akron together as a complete unit for the first time, with much more freedom and space than that found within the all-too-familiar confines of a refugee camp.
Biswa, who came to Akron in 2010, has made this drive dozens of times as part of his job for the International Institute, picking up arriving refugees, along with helping clients with interpretation and applying for benefits, among other tasks. He also is heavily involved in the community, serving as a youth pastor at Akron Bhutanese Assembly in the North Hill neighborhood.
The International Institute makes around three pickups a week to this airport, 150 a year, to help begin the resettlement period for refugees, which usually lasts 90 days. Once these new residents become acclimated, the agency offers employment placement services for up to five years, says McCullough.
Twenty years in a refugee camp
Before his resettlement, all Biswa knew was life in a refugee camp, where he spent more than 20 years — including his childhood, and even into high school and early adulthood. He and his wife married in the refugee camp while teenagers. He never thought he’d make it the U.S., a fabled land of golden opportunity and bustling and crammed big cities.
“We never thought we’d get a chance to go,” he says.
There are more than 40,000 Nepali refugees and asylum seekers, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which adds that poverty, malnutrition and overcrowding plague the camps throughout Southeast Asia.
As Biswa pulls into the airport parking lot, he admits that he asked his other family members in Akron to meet the arriving relatives later in the evening, but they came to the airport in a sizable group because they were too anxious to wait. They want to greet the family members as soon as they step off the plane.
“Today we have many people that are going to see them at the airport,” Biswa says. So the family reunion starts earlier than planned. And that’s why his brother is bringing a van.
Like many Bhutanese-Nepali families, Biswa’s shares resources among extended families, with many generations living together and caring for one another. This helps provide a safety net for newly resettled family members, many with houses already waiting for them.
There are 4,000 Bhutanese-Nepalis in Akron, and this sharing nature has translated into neighborhood transformation, like local gardens, new businesses and more community minded activities, along with food, art and culture.
Another common thread among Akron’s Bhutanese-Nepali population is their thankfulness for the guidance and resources provided by the International Institute of Akron, which is a critical link to the city for these and many other refugees and immigrants.
While some populations are new in North Hill, immigration in this neighborhood is not. McCulloh, a case manager at the International Institute, points out that a local landlord, whose parents were Italian immigrants, recently said, “It’s like returning to the roots of the neighborhood with that sense of family and community all over again, but with a different population.”
A three-day endeavor
The journey from Nepal to Akron usually requires 30 hours of travel over three days, passing through multiple countries and continents. After stepping off the plane, Biswa’s uncle says that he was scared traveling for 26 hours, it being his first time riding an airplane.
Biswa remembers when he came to Akron in 2010. “After six months, I had a hard time understanding doctors and other different types of people,” he says. He took English as Second Language (ESL) classes, and sought the help of the International Institute.
Biswa says there are some things he misses from Nepal, like cultural festivals and friends who were left behind.
And although he’s thankful for the new life and opportunity living in Akron provides, Biswa plans to eventually visit Nepal with his children — his daughter, 5, and his son, 2 — so they can see a piece of his history. “I’d like to take them back to visit,” he says. “They can learn something from there.”