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At Sullivan High School, Bhutanese Refugees Find a New Home

ROGERS PARK — Sullivan High School junior Pabrita Gautam was 2 months old when ethnic conflict forced her family to flee their native Bhutan for Nepal, where they spent 20 years in a refugee camp cooking with charcoal and living by candlelight.

She and her 16-year-old brother, Madhav, are among 82 Bhutanese students at Sullivan, which hosts one of the largest populations of the refugees within Chicago Public Schools.

They live in Rogers Park, along with hundreds of other Bhutanese families who were persecuted, then exiled, for speaking Nepalese and having traditions practiced in Nepal, the land of their forefathers.

More than 1,000 families were moved to Chicago, and many were placed in apartments in Rogers Park, said Hasta Bhattarai, the director of Devon Avenue's Bhutanese Community Association of Illinois, which helps refugees integrate into American society.

"In the beginning, it was really hard for us,” he said about his experience moving to the neighborhood after 20 years in a camp. “Now we are more comfortable."

But Bhutanese students at Sullivan, many of whom are speaking English as a second language, struggle to pass classes and go on to college, he said.

"I wasn’t trained well in Nepal,” said Pabrita Gautam, 19, who is older than most students in her grade.

She said school in Nepal's refugee camps was different. Teachers would use harsh punishments to keep students under control, while classes and textbooks didn't prepare them for life in America.

“In Nepal, you can fail easier," she said. “Here, everything is free. If we didn’t do our homework, they would punish us. But here, nothing.”

CPS has hired Nepalese-speaking tutors to help in the Rogers Park classrooms.

Renata Nessinger, 43, coordinates the English-as-a-second-language program at the school.

She said Nepalese is one of 27 languages in the program, but its speakers number nearly 100 and make up about a third of non-native English speakers.

"They’re becoming a big chunk of the ESL program," she said, and their "skills depend on their experience in the refugee camps."

The teacher, who has been working at Sullivan for 16 years, said the Bhutanese students remind her of the "little things" she takes for granted in the United States, like how to work a combination lock on a locker.

Tutor Tika Dhungel said he goes from classroom to classroom at Sullivan to help students. On Thursdays, he meets Pabrita Gautam in her science class.

"We can help the newcomers," said Dhungel, who said he tutors some students that he knew from in the camps.

Gautam's eldest brother, Narayan, tutors students at Kilmer Elementary.

The 26-year-old remembers well his time in the camp, where they were rationed two pounds of rice per person every 15 days.

Two years before moving to the United States, his camp, called Goldhap, burned to the ground in a fire that engulfed 1,283 homes and killed one.

For fun, he played soccer with a ball made of discarded plastic.

But now, in America, he said he and his family have started over, a shared experience with the other Bhutanese families.

"In this building, we have three Nepali families," he said of the three-flat near Pottawatomie Park.

Bhattarai, the Bhutanese association director, said many of the refugees struggle to find work outside of low-paying jobs as cashiers or dishwashers.

But some, like Pabrita Gautam, are seeking higher education.

"I don’t know where I’m going," she said, "but I’m planning to go."

Bhattarai said the differences between generations are vast, like when his 4-year-old son prefers pizza to Nepali food.

But he hopes the memories of his people's journey from Bhutan to Nepal to America would not be forgotten.

"It’s hard for us to forget. They left everything — walked out of their house at night for their life," he said. "For us and my parents, we cannot forget that."