by Luke Harold
On a rainy Wednesday night in March 2010, Narayan and Kulschekhar Subedi were walking along Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, looking for a place to get an international calling card. But the two brothers had only been living in America for about a month and weren’t sure where they were going.
They ran into Carolyn Schodt, a member of the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting. Through broken English, they asked her if she knew where to get a calling card.
“I didn’t know,” Schodt said. “But I told them to come with me – we’ll figure it out.”
Narayan, Kul, their two younger brothers, Purushotam and Hari, and their parents are one of an increasing number of families immigrating to America from refugee camps in South Asia, particularly the countries of Bhutan and Nepal. The Subedis, originally from Bhutan, were placed in Chestnut Hill when they came to America in 2010, and they have found their niche with support from local citizens.
“We were all amazed that they were here in the middle of Chestnut Hill,” Schodt said. “We still don’t understand how it came to be.”
The Subedis arrived at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport in February of 2010. They couldn’t find a driver who was supposed to take them to Philadelphia. When they asked police officers at the airport for help, they experienced the language barrier for the first time.
“They are not understanding us and we are not understanding them,” said Narayan, 27.
He and Kul both worked at their refugee camp teaching English to other refugees, in a school building that had no roof. But the dialect they encountered in America was much different from the English they had learned.
The Subedis said their three-bedroom Germantown Avenue apartment is an improvement from the tent they occupied in the Bhutanese refugee camp, where they had lived since 1990 before coming to America. The roof was made of thatch, the walls were bamboo and the floor was mud. There was no electricity in any of the camps.
The family was six of about 105,000 refugees split among seven refugee camps.
“It was a very crowded area,” Narayan said. “Life was very difficult in that time.”
Their real-estate agent, Marie Pogue, who helped them get the apartment, also helped them get acclimated to their new lives by helping them to look for jobs, assisting with food shopping and picking out a computer and printer. It was the first time Pogue had ever worked with a refugee family.
“They were just a family in need,” Pogue said. “To me, it’s not a big deal to help someone who needs it. We are all called to help our neighbor and my neighbor is anyone in need.”
Narayan and Kul, 23, have been working in food services at Chestnut Hill College, where they do everything from cleaning floors to preparing food.
Another member of the Friends Meeting, Cyane Gresham, has helped the two younger siblings find work doing odd jobs around their neighborhood by serving as their contact person. Both juniors at Benjamin Franklin High School, Puru, 20, and Hari, 18, also shovel snow, rake leaves, mow lawns and complete other jobs for their neighbors to help support the family. One of their employers is Lynn Mathers, a member of the Friends Meeting.
“I was pleased with the work, found them all attentive to detail and hard-working, with a quality of sweetness and directness not characteristic of our American culture,” Mathers said,
Gresham recently helped Puru and Kul get interviews for jobs at a local retirement community.
“It’s a really unusual story,” she said. “A chance meeting on the street led to this larger, supportive relationship.”
Gresham said she has admired the family’s ability to persevere through every obstacle they have faced, from life in the refugee camp to getting accustomed to a very different life in America.
“You put that together: poverty, losing everything, coming to a new country, and I’ve never detected complaints, bitterness, or blame,” she said. “I’ve witnessed their ability to build relationships of trust, even when there are communication hurdles.
“Even when their life is really hard they smile. And people seem to respond to that.”
All four brothers hope to earn their college degrees one day.
Tricia Walmsley, a 30-year Chestnut Hill resident, helped Puru and Hari settle into high school in America, and get the necessary supplemental instruction, such as English lessons, so they could excel in school.
Elizabeth Walmsley, Tricia’s daughter, set up a trust fund to help pay for their college education. At a point in her life where she was looking for work, just like the Subedis, Walmsley decided to volunteer her time on their behalf.
“This is the first time an opportunity like this was literally right in front of me,” she said.
She said the Subedis are an example of how life in America can be much more difficult than many outsiders believe.
“America is viewed as the land of opportunity where you can have everything you want,” Walmsley said. “And then there’s this harsh reality when you move here and there’s no jobs to be had, and you don’t speak the language. This is not a refugee area.”
She said she hoped a college education could help them obtain jobs and make the family financially secure.
“I want to make good money,” Kul said. He wants a “professional job,” but isn’t sure what exactly he wants to do yet.
Walmsley also said that getting to know the family has been “transformative.”
“It’s an opportunity to step in their shoes a little,” she said. “You learn something new every time you talk to them.”
Anyone interested in contributing to the Kista Fund can contact Kista.firstname.lastname@example.org.