Refugee studies computer engineering, works at International Institute of Akron —
Sagar Timsina doesn’t remember Bhutan. The 22-year-old was only a couple months old when his parents were forced to leave their country and their home.
Sitting in his family’s home in Akron, he explains how his family came to live in the United States. He seems comfortable in the space, where brightly colored floral arrangements adorn the walls and decorative streamers hang in entryways from room to room. He points out the makeshift shrine to the Hindu deities his family worships, a bookcase bordered by strands of multi-colored lights.
His whole family is there, including his grandmother and his young nephews, clearly illustrating how important it is in his culture for families to remain together across generations.
Timsina explains how, over two decades ago, his parents left their home unsure of what the future held. There was no time or system to make arrangements for travel, so his family sat in the back of a truck and let it lead them out of the country.
“They had to start their journey without knowing where they would end up,” he says.
A day in the life of a Nepali refugee
Timsina and his family ended up in a refugee camp in Nepal. From an outsider’s perspective, his upbringing doesn’t seem much different from the typical American household. He would wake up in the morning, have breakfast, go to school, come home and do homework, and then head to bed.
But as he recalls his first childhood memory, it becomes clear that the similarities end there.
“The first thing I can remember is going to the water tap,” he recalls. “We didn’t have running water in our home, so we had a public water tap where we had to go and stand in line and get a watering jar or bucket.”
Running water wasn’t the only thing their camp home lacked. Timsina grew up without any indoor plumbing, electricity, insulation or water-proofed roofs.
“We didn’t have any lights, you know, electric lights,” he explains. “So we had to do our homework before the sun [went] down.”
Their home, like other houses in the camp, was very small and constructed from bamboo and plastic. There was no system to heat and no circulation or air conditioning during the summer.
“We had to deal with it,” Timsina says. “But that’s all we had.”
His school also was constructed in the same fashion as the houses: bamboo and plastic.
There were no chairs or tables, so each class consisted of approximately 50 students sitting on the floor, with teachers rotating in and out of rooms to teach their various subjects.
North Hill via London, Vermont
“I never thought I would be here in the United States,” Timsina shares. “The rest of the world dreams about America, to want to be here.”
In 2010, Timsina —along with his father, mother, grandmother and sister —boarded a plane to their new home in the United States.
“We never traveled on a plane before, so I was really excited to fly,” he recalls. “I think we flew 22 hours, and then unfortunately, we got lost in London. With no experience, it was really hard to find the gate…but we made it through, and we came here.”
By “here,” he was referring to Vermont, where the family originally settled. At 18, Timsina spoke the most English of anyone in his family, which meant it was up to him to learn the systems and culture of the United States.
“I was the youngest one in my family, but with the biggest responsibility,” he says.
Timsina helped his family find jobs, get medical appointments scheduled and connect with case managers and social workers. Perhaps the biggest challenge he faced was learning the bus routes and transportation system, with which his family had no familiarity.
“I also didn’t know how to do it, [but] I learned it and then taught my parents to do it,” he explains. “That was the hardest thing, but what helped me to gain the strength.”
The other system he had to learn to navigate was his school. Different from the camp in Nepal, Timsina, who entered a U.S. high school as a junior, had to learn how to move from classroom to classroom.
“At my high school, we had like six buildings,” he describes. “It was really complex, but after day by day…I started getting used to it. And then, I figured it out.”
The biggest struggle for Timsina was overcoming the language barrier.
“We had some Nepali friends, Nepali speaking fluent guys, which was helpful for me,” he says. “[In the classroom], I didn’t really understand, but there was no options for me other than to try to learn. I did my best and started learning at home, started listening to English music. That was the main thing — music helps.”
Journey to Ohio
A key component to the Nepali culture is closeness with one’s relatives. It was this wish that caused Timsina and his family to relocate a second time, this time moving from Vermont to Akron.
“The main reason to move was to have more relatives and to be able to go to the different places where our relatives are living,” Timsina explains.
His extended family on his mother’s side lives in Pennsylvania, while his sister-in-law’s family is in Georgia. Akron is much closer to both, compared to Vermont.
Moving to Akron has also provided Timsina with more opportunities than he anticipated. He currently is studying computer engineering at Stark State, and he has worked for the International Institute of Akron, helping clients who have moved to the area enroll in services to aid in finding employment and learning English.
“The best part of being in this position is being able to help people,” Timsina says. “That’s still one of the best feelings, because I have already been through it, and I know how it feels — like those moments when you feel like you don’t have [a] voice because of the language barrier, and all those confusing times when you don’t know where to go.
“So it really feels like self-satisfaction when you are able to help the people who are in need. I enjoy what I’m doing, and it’s really great.”
Timsina, who can appreciate the services offered by the International Institute from a personal level, says the organization is an important part of Akron’s community.
“It makes a huge difference with the people who are trying to get settled here in the United States,” he says. “And it’s making a huge impact on the people here.”
Making the transition: cultural differences and adjustments
In addition to having to learn a new city, as well as an entirely new transportation system, Timsina recalls how navigating the landscape was a challenge in and of itself.
“Everything looked the same,” he says, “Like the streets, the sidewalk, then the people you see. You can’t find any differences, and you think everyone is the same.”
But if it was difficult for him, it was even harder for his parents to adjust.
“It’s kind of hard for them who are elderly, than teenagers,” Timsina explains. “We can speak English…and go out and do fun stuff. But parents, they can’t really do that because of the language barrier. So it’s kind of difficult, hard on them.
“But as being a child, me and my brother do our best to make this place home. We take them to our relative’s house, and then invite our relatives sometimes in our home so they can have interaction with them, so they don’t feel lonely.”
The loneliness Timsina describes is only further exasperated by the other cultural difference prevalent in Nepal and lacking in America — cohabitation. Here in the United States, it’s common for 18-year-olds, or recent high school graduates, to leave their parents and try to make it on their own.
“[In Nepal], even though people get married, they try to live with their parents and take care of them,” Timsina shares. “We don’t really get separated from each other. So Nepali people have a big house, a lot of people in the same house.”
Even the residential structure in Nepal, where Timsina recalls the houses being very close together, spoke to this sense of a close-knit community of family and friends.
“During the evening time, we used to get together at one place and play the guitar and then sing, sometimes,” he describes. “So that’s the thing I miss the most.”
Hopes for the future
While there are things he misses about Nepal, Timsina still is “100 percent” happy he and his family came to the United States.
“If we are willing to do something, or if we are really interested to do something, we have the opportunity, which was totally different in Nepal,” he explains. “For example, I don’t have money, but I’m still going to college because I can get a loan from the government.”
His education is Timsina’s key focus right now, but he has hopes to put that education to good use in the future. He foresees expanding on his work with the International Institute, being involved in his community and helping to organize cultural festivals and events.
“I would like to get my bachelor’s degree and finish college and find a better job,” he says, “and also find something to do where I can help my community.”
His other big hope is not for himself, but for his family.
“Especially my mom, my grandma, and my dad,” he says. “That they feel this place is like a home.”
For more information about the International Institute’s work, or to get involved, visit their Web site or follow them on Facebook or Twitter. For more information on refugee work, specifically in South Asia, where Timsina’s family is from, please visit the United Nations’ Refugee Agency Web site.
Chris Miller and Maria Mancinelli contributed to this story. Photos by Dale Dong.