Thursday, April 7, 2011

Growing Number of Bhutanese Refugees Quietly Settling Into Life in Pittsburgh With Help From Local Churches

In the dining hall of Bellevue United Presbyterian Church in the North Boroughs of Pittsburgh one recent Saturday afternoon, a potluck meal is taking place. Waiting in line for lunch are parents with small children, several seniors and a gaggle of teenagers laughing playfully among themselves. They take their paper plates to tables around the room and talk with each other as they eat, or stop to chat with a friend along the way.

Nothing unusual for a church gathering, except that many in this group exhibit the colorful garb, distinctive facial features and rhythmic language of southern Asia. They are among the hundreds of refugees from Bhutan – a small country wedged between Nepal, China and India – who have resettled in Pittsburgh over the past several years after spending years in camps in Nepal.

Several of the families belong to the Bhutanese Nepali-speaking minority known as Lhotshampas. In the 1990s, Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing campaign led to harassment, arrests and the burning of ethnic Nepali homes. Many fled, while others were expelled by government troops after being forced to sign papers renouncing any claims to their homes and homeland, according to the group Human Rights Watch.

The families were brought to the Pittsburgh area starting in 2008 through Catholic Charities, and congregations like Bellevue United Presbyterian have helped them settle in to the community. They are among the more than 40,000 Bhutanese refugees who have resettled in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and other countries since that time, according to Human Rights Watch. Many have found jobs, while others are working to improve their language skills.

Bellevue United Presbyterian Church is one of several churches in the North Hills helping the refugees. Down the street at Bellevue Christian Church, a single family walked in looking for help one day two years ago. Now there's a list of 20 refugee families.

That growth led several other churches in the area to join together to make sure that the refugee families get the help they needed, and also that services aren’t being duplicated unnecessarily, according to Matt Harding, who is the unofficial coordinator of the collective church efforts.

The other churches and organizations involved include Sacred Heart, Community Presbyterian of Ben Avon, Allegheny Center Alliance Church, St. John Neumann Catholic Church and Jewish Family & Children's Services, Harding said.

“It's kind of a cause for the whole community rather than just one church,” said Harding, a Bellevue native and Penn State graduate who recently returned to the area after working out of state for five years. “The needs of these families are pretty great, so it helps that we're working together. It's kind of a blessing.”

The churches and other community supporters have devised ways to spread out the responsibilities.

“We generally focus on a few families at a time,” said Linda Carroll, a member of Bellevue United Presbyterian Church. “We visit them regularly when they first arrive and help with basics such as learning to shop, to use laundry machines, etc.”

Other activities include trips to the thrift shop and Asian markets in the Strip District since few of the refugees have cars or driver’s licenses. The churches help with hospital emergencies, with understanding mail, and apartment problems, Carroll said.

“This year a church member helped them with their taxes,” she added. “We maintain shelves of household items and clothing that any family in the area can use when they first arrive. This supplements the basic necessities provided by the sponsoring agencies.”

The church members also keep an eye out for furniture that can be used by the refugee families.

Other churches in the area are considering adding their own English as a Second Language programs. At Reformed Presbyterian Church of the North Hills, located on Thompson Run Road, members are putting together an evening program that is scheduled to start in September. It will be taught by volunteers from the congregation, and will offer three levels of English-speaking proficiency, according to Director John Russell. Those seeking information about that program may contact Russell by calling 412-366-1804 or emailing

After the potluck lunch and the singing of several songs in English and Nepali, Bellevue United Presbyterian Pastor Cathy Purves welcomes the group and asks about their biggest challenges in coming to the United States. Many in the room call out that they want to learn better English. Some say they are looking for jobs available on a bus line or within walking distance. The refugees who have found work have been commended for their hard work and dependability. Others say they like the laws and rules in United States.

Several members of the congregation attending the lunch offer to help find programs in the area teaching English as a Second Language. Others have ideas for jobs. It seems that everyone goes home happy.

Anyone interested in working with the North Boroughs churches or other groups assisting the Bhutanese refugees may contact Matt Harding at 412-860-2584 or, or Linda Carroll at 412-761-2143 or

- Thomas Buell, Jr.

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