After Initially Settling in Texas, Buhtanese Refugees Increasingly Leaving the State
By Madi Donham
Parshu Chamlagai remembers sleeping in forests and subsisting on dry noodles while his family made the dangerous journey from Bhutan to a United Nations Refugee Agency camp in Nepal during monsoon season in June 1992.
Chamlagai was 8 years old when his family joined the tens of thousands of refugees who left their country because of widespread violence, arrests and torture of ethnic Nepalis. He said spending the next 17 years in refugee camps made him feel like he lost his identity.
Chamlagai and his family resettled in Houston through the U.S. refugee resettlement program in 2009. Ten years later, because of lack of access to affordable health care in Texas, they moved to Pittsburgh, Pa. Now 37, he says he misses Texas and has dreams of his favorite Iranian kebabs and Houston’s food scene, but he has started to put together the broken pieces of his identity in Pittsburgh, where he found a vibrant Bhutanese community and a geography that reminds him of the Himalayas.
And, importantly, his family has access to affordable healthcare, he said.
“Most of these people like my parents were tortured and victimized and now have mental health and wellness issues,” Chamlagai said.
Chamlagai is not alone. About 85% of the more than 100,000 displaced Bhutanese refugees came to the U.S. since 2006, with Pennsylvania and Texas receiving the largest shares, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Bhutanese refugees and their advocates say many of them are leaving Texas due to lack of access to affordable health care, affordable housing and limited job advancement opportunities.
Yehuda Sharim, a scholar at Rice University’s Kinder Institute and media and performance studies professor at UCLA Merced, said Bhutanese refugees are leaving Texas to live in larger immigrant communities in cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.
It’s estimated that up to 30,000 Bhutanese-Nepali refugees have settled in Columbus through primary and secondary migration since 2008 — which is the largest concentration of Bhutanese outside of Bhutan — according to the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio.
As a son of Iranian refugees who sought asylum in Israel in the early 1950s, Sharim has dedicated his life to studying refugees and what he calls the tribe of the displaced, particularly in Houston.
In 2018, Sharim co-authored a report that examined life for refugee families in Houston based on 700 hours of refugee interview footage and analysis of refugee programs and legislation since the Refugee Act of 1980, which codified a permanent system of resettlement in the U.S. Most of the refugees arrived in Houston after living in refugee camps for decades.
Sharim found that Houston offers less long-term health, education and economic assistance to arriving refugees after initial resettlement than any other U.S. city.
Bhutanese refugees who have been in Houston for several years struggle because they don’t have benefits such as housing assistance and affordable childcare and healthcare, Sharim said. Refugee assistance organizations in Texas help for a time, but not long enough.
With many refugees working low-wage jobs, life is difficult, he added.
Although the services available to refugees are fairly standardized for each state through the Office of Refugee Resettlement — including funding for English classes and cash assistance — refugees move to Pennsylvania and Ohio because of the growing Bhutanese population and their strong community ties.
“Houston is a miraculous space — it’s extremely diverse and celebrates diversity, but Houston is located within a state with a governor and some politicians who are not,” Sharim said. “Plus, immigrants depend on one another and create organic structures of support, so they move where others go.”
Refugees are immediately eligible for Medicaid in Texas, but are limited to seven years of eligibility. After seven years, they follow the same eligibility guidelines as anyone else to receive Medicaid and other government benefits.
Texas has the highest percentage of people without health insurance of all the states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Medicaid costs are high for hospitals and taxpayers because the state has not expanded Medicaid coverage to low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act.
Since Texas rejected Medicaid expansion, the state did not receive an estimated $100 billion in federal cash assistance, and hospitals are left to cover around $5.5 billion in annual costs for treating individuals without health insurance, according to NPR’s Morning Edition.
Ohio expanded Medicaid in 2014 to additional low-income adults, with Pennsylvania following suit in 2015.
Geeta Sharma is a 35-year-old Bhutanese refugee who moved to Houston in 2012. Sharma started a family and moved to Cleveland after four years in Houston, where she worked at a Walmart. She was studying law before her family immigrated to the U.S.
Sharma now works as a legal assistant at Cleveland’s Building Hope in the City. Sharma misses Houston and her former Walmart coworkers, but Cleveland’s larger Bhutanese community and more access to resources — like specialized job opportunities for immigrants and healthcare — made the move worth it.
“We were looking for community and we didn’t want to be left behind — everyone started moving. Eventually we thought that we should, too,” Sharma said.
Many refugees spent decades in displaced person camps and heard stories about the best cities for refugees in the U.S. Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh were often mentioned, Sharma said.
Patrick Kearns, executive director of Refugee Response, said Cleveland has always been a welcoming city for immigrants.
“We see families come here after three to four years, and they’re able to buy a house — which is a big motivating factor,” Kearns said.
“I think people do know that states like Texas or its governors have tried to opt out of the refugee resettlement program,” he added.
The United Nations and U.S. embassies refer refugees for resettlement under the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Next, the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration coordinates with local resettlement agencies to determine refugee placements.
Gov. Greg Abbott withdrew from the refugee resettlement program in 2016 because of security concerns about refugee screening and to keep refugees from war-torn Syria from entering the state in large numbers. Refugees have continued to be resettled in Texas by the federal government, but the state has stopped helping to channel federal funds to refugee programs, shifting that work to nonprofits.
Abbott confirmed his opposition to welcoming more refugees to Texas in 2020, when the Trump administration imposed a new executive order that required written consent from all states before refugees were resettled within their jurisdiction. Abbot declined to consent to additional refugees arriving in Texas.
Ohio has always remained in the resettlement program, and Gov. Mike DeWine consented to additional placement of refugees within the state under Trump’s executive order. It’s known for easier access to Medicaid and Medicare than neighboring states like Indiana and Kentucky, Kearns said.
Angie Plumber, executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, said the city has been welcoming to refugees for decades. More than 155,000 refugees have settled in the Columbus area through primary and secondary migration, 30,000 of whom are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese.
Columbus was the home to the first Bhutanese refugee elected into office in the U.S. as a city council member.
“We’ve been resettling refugees long enough now that, you know, the schools have become accustomed to limited English proficiency students and the hospitals have interpreters,” Plumber said. “But I truly think the magnet is, first and foremost, family and community, then affordable housing and then jobs,” she added.
Kishor Dhaurali immigrated from a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal to Houston in 2009. Two years later he moved with his wife, two children and parents to Columbus, seeking a strong Bhutanese community.
“It’s about our younger generation preserving our culture and language,” Dhaurali said. “I like Houston, but my parents are happier here. Houston is a bigger city with traffic and it’s overwhelming.”