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Bhutanese refugees rebuild in Texas

Pooja Rai met her husband in 2007 at the refugee camp in Nepal where she lived most of her life. Three years later, they were married after reconnecting in Austin, Texas.

Their families were among the more than 100,000 people of Nepalese descent who fled Bhutan amid ethnic tensions in the early 1990s.

After a series of failed talks between the two South Asian countries, the United States agreed to resettle 60,000 of the refugees. Six other nations also stepped in to help.

Not long after they began arriving in 2008, photographer Mary Kang started following the Bhutanese community that was established near her home in Austin.

“Coming to America gives hope to many of these refugees, particularly those that have been marginalized and deprived of human rights,” she says.

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, wedged between China and India, is considered one of the world’s most isolated countries. The government strictly regulates foreign influences, including tourism, to preserve the nation’s dominant Buddhist culture.

Now Bhutan’s ethnic minorities are adjusting to life in America while struggling to hold onto their traditional values and customs.

“Losing their culture is one of the biggest fears among this community,” Kang says. “Especially because this ethnic group is scattered across the world without their own physical country to belong to.”

To build strong local ties and maintain their cultural identity, they often cook meals, practice religion and celebrate festivals together, she says.

They also keep in touch with friends and relatives in other cities by embracing social media and the Internet – technologies that were largely inaccessible in the refugee camps.

While they are grateful for the opportunities and improved living conditions, Kang says their transition hasn’t been without economic and emotional hardships.

“They feel that their hopes of accomplishing their dreams and obtaining a higher education seem difficult and far away,” she says.

The Refugee Resettlement Program in Texas provides financial and medical support to refugees for eight months after their arrival. By then they are expected to have found work.

While a Business Journals report released this week ranked Austin the second best metropolitan area in the country when it comes to economic health, refugees often start out in low-wage, menial jobs due to language barriers and a lack of experience.

“This kind of story is not new among immigrants,” Kang says. “It felt very personal to me … because I know how difficult that must be. I saw it in my own home.”

Her family moved to the United States from South Korea more than a decade ago. She remembers the long process of adjusting to a foreign culture and how much it affected her identity, she says.

Even though the circumstances were different, she relates to what many of the refugees are going through. When she first approached them, they opened up to her almost immediately.

“They definitely saw the importance of getting their stories told,” Kang says. “They do not want to be forgotten.”

- Brett Roegiers, CNN