Different Backgrounds, One Home


International refugees have discovered a new home in Iowa

By: Sarah Ball

Since about 1975, Iowa has been an asylum for refugees from around the world. From the fall of Saigon to the more recent Syrian refugee crisis, Des Moines has been a welcoming community to refugees. Displaced people from Syria, Bhutan, Laos and many others now call Iowa home. Many organizations have been established for refugee assistance throughout the state.

Programs such as citizenship classes and assisting refugees to connect with their new communities help make the assimilation process smoother. With the help of the Des Moines community, refugees have found a new home in Iowa.

The Bhutanese community is one of the most prevalent refugee communities in Des Moines. In Iowa, there are roughly 5,000 Bhutanese refugees. Amnesty International called the Bhutanese Refugee Crisis “one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.” In a single year (1992-1993), 100,000 ethnic Nepalis were expelled for their religious beliefs. From 1990 until 1993, Christianity was completely banned from Bhutan, and Hinduism was heavily frowned upon. The Vedas, the Hindu holy book, was burned in public spaces. Homes in Bhutan were raided and stripped of any religious affiliations. Traditional religious wear was banned and their religious freedom was stripped.

Tanka Dhital, a leader in the Des Moines Bhutanese community, was expelled from his home in Bhutan in 1993. He was then taken to a refugee camp in Nepal where he lived for 15 years. As the crisis progressed, western nations such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia decided to take in more refugees. Dhital was among the first waves of Bhutanese refugees to arrive in the United States. In September 2008, he moved to Seattle, Washington. A year later he received his green card, and five years after that he became a U.S. citizen.

“When we came to the U.S., we came with one bag, and no money at all,” Dhital said. “We had to learn the market, we had to learn the language, we had to learn the system, then we had to start a job, then we had to earn money. It’s not easy.”

But as Dhital explained, many in the Des Moines Bhutanese community have come a long way in a short time. “By now, it’s been like four or five years–most of the people, they’re homeowners now,” he said. “They have a car. They own property. And that means, within like five years, people did a lot. They established.”

When asked if he would go back to Bhutan, Dhital said, “There is no chance to go back to Bhutan, and Nepal is not my country… In a perfect world, I would go back to my homeland, but it’s not possible.” The United States has been an asylum for Dhital, and slowly it has turned into his home. But with a new established home comes new problems. Dhital said the biggest challenge was that there is no place to meet with the community. “(In Iowa), everyone is spread apart. Back home, we grew up very close together.” He also said the lack of culture and community was the biggest hardship in assimilating to his new home. “The suicide rate in the Bhutanese community rose due to the lack of culture.”

This pained Dhital. So he decided to take matters into his own hands. He formed the Hindu Cultural and Educational Center in Des Moines. Here, Hindus from all backgrounds can meet and celebrate their culture together. They host ESL classes, Nepali classes and citizenship classes to help keep their culture a part of their lives while still assimilating to American culture. Dhital has turned a situation that negatively affects too many refugees during the assimilation process into something that positively impacts the surrounding community and the lives of individuals.

But refugee communities in Iowa aren’t left without support. Sanjita Pradhan has worked with refugees for 9 years. For the past 7 months, she has worked with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a community organization, to help high skilled refugees and immigrants find jobs in their new home. She has worked with a dozen Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi immigrants to help find jobs that were similar to the ones back in their countries of origin. “Global DSM [the program at The Greater Des Moines Partnership] is not temporary. It’s here to stay,” said Pradhan. Global DSM has helped build the skill gap between employers and help facilitate refugees’ and immigrants’ skills to jobs that best fit their skills and the skills that are needed. Pradhan also noted that she had noticed an influx in refugee support organizations in Iowa the past couple of years. She explained that Global DSM “wouldn’t be successful without community support.” With this work increase, Iowa has become home to many different cultures from around the world. More recently, Iowa has recognized World Refugee Day and the Iowa State Legislature has started to fund these organizations to keep the refugee community supported. With this kind of progress, the assimilation process will become easier for these new communities.

Refugee communities in Iowa and the organizations that support them go far beyond these two examples. Because of them, Des Moines has become enriched with different people and stories. With the help of the Iowan community, refugees are able to find a home in a new nation. In Dhital’s own words, “Iowa is a very close community.” Because of Iowa’s open arms, we mutually benefit from experiencing differences in cultures and using that to constantly learn about the community surrounding us.


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