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Story Publication logo September 19, 2018

Central Massachusetts: Home to a Diverse Population

This street in Shrewsbury, MA, houses many of the refugees who first arrive to the United States. Image by Ani Gururaj. Massachusetts 2018.

Over 2,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees have settled in Central Massachusetts since 2008...


Shrewsbury and its suburban neighbor Worcester, MA, boast a population of over 2,000 refugees from over 24 countries. One group, hailing from Bhutan, composes a significant proportion of this population. However, 40 miles northeast sits Boston, a city looming with jobs and quality public transportation. For the refugee—how does this access to economic opportunity compare to the personal security and large open spaces found in Shrewsbury?

Many of today's refugees who are originally from Nepal first settled in southern Bhutan "where they wanted to preserve their Nepali culture," says Dr. Ramraj Gautam, a professor of Social Gerontology at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. "For two or three generations, they were doing fine. But then Bhutan came up with one people, one nation policy. [The government] wanted to be a little bit integrated, but these Nepalese communities mostly wanted to preserve their Nepali language."

This difference set up a conflict: "They were asked to wear Bhutanese clothing and follow all their culture. They were not allowed to mention their language and tortured," says Sanjita Pradhan, a former director of the resettlement program at Catholic Charities. "A large number of them went to back to Nepal, but the Nepalese government did not have resources to bring them back into the community, provide them jobs and education, so they lived in refugee camps in the southern part of Nepal for about 17 years." Eventually, "the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in and the United States government resettled the most number of refugees, around 60 or 70,000." Other refugees from Bhutan in the U.S. today have settled in Ohio and Pennsylvania among other states.

Reintegration in the U.S., as it did in Bhutan, brings its own sets of unique circumstances. Lalit Mishra, a Bhutanese refugee residing in Shrewsbury and resettled in 2009, explains: As new refugees obtain cash assistance for only eight months, "that eight-months-time are to learn the language, find an apartment and be stable in the community, start working, and be self-sufficient." Purna Neupane, co-founder and current Vice President of Advocacy for Refugee & Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE), a non-profit organization providing language, healthcare, and housing support for refugees in the greater Massachusetts area, was himself a refugee who landed in Worcester around October of 2008. Neupane explained that when it comes to job access, the means of transportation can make a significant difference: "If you are in Worcester, you do not have enough companies which can provide certain jobs for refugees, so now from Worcester, people are going to have to drive to another district" while "if one was resettled in Boston, they could use a bicycle" or even "walk because Boston is a big city with many entry-level jobs."

Neupane also brought up how the intimacy of the core familial structure varies between Shrewsbury and Boston: "The families are closely related. In the country, my family means the whole extended family—the father, mother, grandparents, brother, sister, all. But now, after coming to America, that is breaking." Neupane claimed, "it is breaking in places like cities such as Boston or New York, but here in other places like Worcester, all together 15 people were living in the same house." Ultimately, the changing dynamic of family life in urban areas leads to an "increasing distance between family members."

When looking at the traditional family structure, Mishra says, "it is easier to maintain in small cities like Worcester because [refugees] want to see greenery, they want to see the villages, they are used to small houses and not tall buildings." Additionally, "it really helps to have a joint family because we do not feel comfortable sending our parents to daycare, but if there are grandparents, they can take care of the children and both parents are able to work." Mishra also says he felt more secure Shrewsbury than he would in Boston: "Houses are far apart, so when there are no interactions with people, I feel safer."

In 2018, the Trump administration decided to cut the flow of refugees from 50,000 to 45,000 people. The challenging realities on the ground for refugees in the United States have fueled anti-immigrant sentiments, but it is worth examining how refugees work within society. For example, Neupane and Mishra are two of many who pursued employment within the social sector: Neupane first taught elementary math at a local school while Mishra worked at a Walmart when he arrived. Other analyses, such as one done by Cleveland Metro News, reported in 2016 that refugees made an estimated $88.2 million dollar contribution to the local economy.

While many factors are at play, Neupane himself says that back in Bhutan, he "didn't even have a primary school" but that "in Worcester, even in Massachusetts, in America, you have schools. If I compare back in the country of birth and here, there are more resources, services that people receive."

*Editor's note: The title of this story was changed to reflect that Shrewsbury is in Central Massachusetts, not Western Massachusetts.


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Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

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