Five years after a few pioneering families began trickling into East Oakland and Alameda, a burgeoning Bhutanese exile community is happy to have left refugee camps but still struggling to adjust to Bay Area life, according to the first report to survey their well-being.
"The community is still trying to survive," said Jiwan Subba, president of the Alameda-based Bhutanese Community in California, a year-old organization helping link the refugees with jobs, health services and fellowship.
Fellowship, at least, was in good supply Saturday afternoon during the community's first public celebration of the Dasain festival, a 15-day Nepali Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil.
Still, Subba's group used the occasion to reveal some of the economic and social problems felt by the community of several hundred refugees, nearly all of whom have arrived in the past five years.
In a survey of 91 Bhutanese immigrants in Oakland and Alameda, about 68 percent had incomes below the federal poverty line, more than half reported stress-related ailments, 42 percent are unemployed and many say they struggle with the English language, which makes it harder for them to find good jobs.
"They're a resilient community but they came at a really bad time," said pediatrician and survey author Joan Jeung of Asian Health Services. "With the economy being the way it is, and services being cut, it's particularly hard."
It is a religiously diverse community, according to the survey: 47 percent Hindu, 34 percent Buddhist and 15 percent Protestant Christian. The youngest members were born in United Nations refugee camps in eastern Nepal. The oldest fled their homeland, the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, to escape ethnic tensions and persecution of Bhutanese people of Nepali descent in the early 1990s, and lived in the camps for nearly two decades. Bhutan refuses to take them back.
The U.S. State Department began welcoming them to Oakland and cities across the country in late 2007, offering short-term cash assistance that expires after several months. Since then, more than 50,000 have left the Nepali camps for the United States and several other countries, according to a report this year by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The migration to Oakland has slowed as many refugees look for better opportunities and join extended family members in other American cities.
"They are far better here than in Nepal," said Subba. "The students have opportunities for schools, education, and some of the parents have jobs."
At the same time, the survey shows that the East Bay refugees lack many needed services that could help them achieve self-sufficiency.
Many refugees said they desire more adult English-language classes, most of which have been eliminated in budget cuts, and more help preparing for long-term employment that suits their skills.
They also would like better access to medical care, since the wait times at county clinics can be 3 to 4 hours for those who need Nepali interpreters.