Bhutanese refugees: The latest wave of newcomers to Philly

Posted: February 07, 2014

ONE OF THE newest waves of refugees living in Philadelphia are Bhutanese of Nepali descent.

The 2010 U.S. Census found 51 people from Bhutan living in the city.

Now, an estimated 2,700 to 3,000 refugees from Bhutan are living in Philly, said Leela Kuikel, executive director of the Bhutanese American Organization-Philadelphia.

Kuikel, 36, who is of Nepali origin, was born in Bhutan. In 1992, he and his family fled Bhutan, a landlocked, remote country in South Asia surrounded by China and India.

From 1990 to 1992, many others of Nepali origin also fled, he said, because of human-rights violations by the Bhutanese government. People were not allowed to practice their religion, rapes were occurring and people were wrongly put in jail, he said.

Then, for 20 years, they lived in refugee camps in Nepal. Meanwhile, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan had bilateral talks to try to solve the problem, but the talks broke down, Kuikel said.

So, in 2008, the first refugees of Nepali origin who had fled Bhutan arrived in the United States.

Kuikel said most of the Bhutanese of Nepali origin in Philadelphia live in South Philly. A smaller number live in Northeast Philly, he said.

His organization, on 7th Street near Porter in South Philly, was formed last year.

Because many Bhutanese refugees have limited English proficiency, his volunteer group helps the refugees communicate with the school district, make appointments at health centers and hospitals, and connect with legal services.

Regarding yesterday's report on Asian-American ethnic groups, Kuikel said that "everybody" in the Bhutanese community is poor. "This is a refugee population who lived in the refugee camps for 20 years," he said. They have "low-level skills. There are not many in good jobs."

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