Bhutan, Nepal, refugees, Philadelphia
A Bhutanese woman holding a prayer wheel and rosary beads. Credit: Getty Images

A cluster of perhaps 1,000 people, centered around Mifflin Square in South Philly and the Northeast, is probably the least-resourced refugee community in Philadelphia.

Most people in America don’t even know that Bhutan culture exists, much less that it has refugees. Most are actually ethnic Nepalis, who were humble peasants living in the lowlands, often for centuries and have been summarily stripped of citizenship by the ruling Bhotias of the Himalayan valleys. They had been living in misery in camps in neighboring Nepal and India, often for decades.

“In the early days of resettlement, 2008 and 2009, people did not have a choice, people were placed as per the intake capacity of the cities around the country, the same was true for Philadelphia.,” said Leela N. Kuikel, Executive Director and Program Manager of Bhutanese American Organization-Philadelphia.

Kuikel reflects on what it was like for his people to be ripped from their homeland.

 

“There’s nothing like ‘home’ wherever you are. But for Bhutanese folks, it is more emotional as the country they call home, Bhutan, never accepts them back in any shape or form. No Bhutanese are allowed to enter Bhutan forever, so this home versus here theory is kind of extremely emotional. This is home now.”

Before moving to Philadelphia, Kuikel said life was good as he was branch manager for a multinational corporation.

“It was hard to live day to day as a refugee even if you do not need that reference. I’m relieved a little here in Philadelphia as this paves the path for citizenship ultimately. But I’m also learning that this tag is not going to go off the rest of your life,” he said.

Since he was a co-founder of the Bhutanese American Organization and had prior management experience, he was chosen to lead the group. In February of 2013, the Bhutanese American Organization-Philadelphia was born.

“I’ve known Leela since 2013 when he was starting the Bhutanese American Organization of Philadelphia. Since then, Leela and BAOP have been great partners to SEAMAAC in our efforts to bring more services to the Bhutanese community in Philadelphia,” said Thoai Nguyen, CEO of SEAMAAC, Inc.

SEAMAAC was founded in 1984 to support Southeast Asian refugees in Philadelphia and since then have widened to serve all marginalized communities in Pennsylvania.

“A majority of Bhutanese adults do not speak English, most above the age of 40. Philly can help the community gather resources to conduct ESL classes, they learn better when taught by community bi-linguals versus English teachers as they not at all know anything in English and also their own native language Nepali, reading or writing,” said Kuikel.

SEAMAAC welcomes volunteers in all of their programs for free English classes.

“We are always in need of teaching assistants to help English Language Learners (ELL) with individualized support and practice,” said Nguyen.

Register to teach English at seamaac.org.