Refugee Family Building Life In Utica
At a time when the value of admitting refugees to the United States has come under question, Utica remains widely known for its role taking in refugees. Nate Bridge from the New York Reporting Project at Utica College, has the story of one family who has made the city its home.
It’s an average night for the Regmi family; Kumari’s doing the cooking and her husband, Bikash, is playing with their one year-old baby daughter, Arohi.
Their apartment is a nice, open space for Arohi to play in. The lights are dimmed and the smell of seasoned vegetables is rising from a pan.
The Regmis have lived in Utica for five years. They lead successful, middle-class lives. He’s a nurse practitioner. She’s finishing up her master’s, about to become a nurse practitioner, too.
But their story is not like most. Both of their families are of of Nepali heritage, but lived in from the Himalayan country of Bhutan. When the King of Bhutan started expelling anyone who practiced different cultures and traditions, Bikash and Kumari’s families were forced out. They became refugees. For the next 17 years, each grew up living in refugee camps on opposite ends of Nepal.
“Bhutan, it is a beautiful country when you look, it is a Himalayan country, but it was not beautiful for us,” Bikash said. “Life in the refugee camp was very difficult, and there was no proper food the people were very malnourished.”
“Our houses were made of bamboo and plastic and if there was a strong wind, we’d need to secure the plastic, otherwise it would be blown away,” Kumari said. “We did not have electricity and we did not have running water.”
Bikash recalls the poor conditions of the camp being his original inspiration for going becoming a nurse.
“When I was in the refugee camp, seeing all those desperate needs, poor health, poor conditions, I always thought I wish I could go to medical school and help these people, but being a refugee I never had an opportunity to do so,” said Bikash.
Kumari also wanted to become a nurse, but lacked the resources growing up. After the U.S. started taking in Bhutanese refugees in 2008, Kumari and Bikash’s families both resettled in Syracuse in 2009.
“The Catholic Charity used to help us with where to go, and to find jobs and stuff, and they told me I could do volunteering there because I could speak a little English,” she said. “So I volunteered for like five months and then Bikash came. He started volunteering there and that’s where we met.”
The two began bonding over there interest in nursing and higher education and they started exploring those options together. They married in 2012 and moved to Utica.
For Bikash and Kumari, it’s important that their daughter retains their Nepali heritage.
“We always encourage her to know a variety of languages,” Kumari said. “At home we always speak Nepali, and maybe in daycare they speak English so maybe she does not understand, and she used to cry every time I would drop her off, but now she’s getting used to it and she’s liking it.”
Bikash and Kumari have immersed themselves in the Utica community, and as nurse practitioners, educating Central New Yorkers on the importance of blood donations. They organize a blood drive every year. They also work to educate people in the Utica community on measures they can take against preventative diseases.
“When I go and talk to the people of our community, I always talk about primary prevention,” Bikash said. “It is good to be treated and prevent disease before you get the disease. So I’m not only helping the people, families, and community, I am helping the whole country and I am saving the budget in the Medicare and insurance too.”
While the Regmis have come from a long road of hardship, they say mutual support has allowed them to build a life together and to use their experiences to help other refugees and the wider community. And while their stories will always be a part of them, but they don’t call themselves refugees anymore, they go by something else… Americans.
Nate Bridge is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.