Northland’s Bhutanese Community Has Faced Difficult Year

Taijuan Moorman Taijuan Moorman Northland’s Bhutanese Community Has Faced Difficult YearBhutanese Community of Central Ohio Executive Director Sudarshan Pyakurel (standing), with a case manager and a client. Photo by Taijuan Moorman.
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Last month, on the night of Diwali, a fire broke out at an apartment building on the northeast side of Columbus, which housed many refugee and immigrant families. The fire displaced six Bhutanese families whose apartments were completely destroyed, causing a loss of essential items, including government documents, clothing and supplies.

Thanks to a GoFundMe ran by the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio (BCCO), most of those families have since gotten new apartments, have had two months of their rent paid, and have been supplied with furniture and groceries. Thankfully these families are getting back on their feet or close to it, but the tragedy still comes in a year of unfortunate incidents troubling the Northland Bhutanese community.

In February, after a 58-year-old recently resettled Bhutanese refugee woman was reportedly sexually assaulted in her home, BCCO released a press release calling on the City of Columbus to take swift action against the rise in violent crimes and poor housing conditions found in Northland area apartment complexes and neighborhoods.

And in the months thereafter, more traumatic incidents have left community members in fear.

Sudarshan Pyakurel, executive director of BCCO, said what is being seen is violence toward vulnerable community members—including older populations, single parents and people who live alone.

He recalled a 2020 incident in which a man in his 40s came home from a late work shift and was beaten and robbed, with the men taking his green card. But he refused to call the police for fear of retaliation.

In another incident, a Nepali woman and her daughter, who did not want to speak on the record for fear of retaliation, spoke of a fight between a Spanish-speaking man with a knife and two Nepali children. They claim after speaking with the man who claimed they were involved in gang activity, police raided their home and pointed weapons at them. And later, they said, the man showed up to their new apartment after they moved specifically because of the incident, and brought a group of men with him. There is no record of either incident with authorities.

All of this is to say that amid the COVID-19 pandemic and rising crime, the Northland Bhutanese community is especially vulnerable, not to mention the housing conditions some refugees are enduring.

Housing Conditions in the Bhutanese Community

Many of Columbus’ resettled refugee communities are concentrated on the northeast side of town, with the first Bhutanese refugee family arriving in June of 2008. The first families formed the Bhutanese-Nepali Community of Columbus in 2009, and the organization received 501(c)3 status a few years later.

The organization, now called the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio, assists these families after they are resettled by organizations like Community Refugee & Immigration Services, and is now being asked to take on major challenges such as crime and inadequate housing.

At Village Court Apartments, an apartment complex on Tamarack Boulevard just off Morse Road, Sudarshan Pyakurel heard complaints from residents that he’s witnessed himself—no locks on doors, broken hallway and street lights, people who are homeless living in the stairwells, drugs, and some other disturbing conditions.

In February, Columbus Underground received photos taken by Sudarshan Pyakurel of these conditions. Some depicted bottles of urine, fecal waste, and other horrid images.

At the time, BCCO reached out to the then-owner, Cordoba Real Estate, to no avail.

But earlier this year, the previous owners of Village Court Apartments sold the property, “washing their hands” of all that happened, Sudarshan Pyakurel said. The building is now owned by an LLC of the same name but is listed as a property of Soundview Equities LLC on said property’s website. The property owner has been contacted for comment.

Sudarshan Pyakurel said the company has made some improvements like installing security cameras and improvements to the outside of the property, making more strides than the previous owners. But they have not addressed all of the concerns, such as the door lock issue. Considering the new owners have raised the rent, Sudarshan Pyakurel feels there are ulterior motives to the improvements that have been made.

“They were not so friendly to the community members. They wanted to improve the property but also it looks like they wanted to—it’s more of a gentrification issue,” he said. “They’re investing, but they want to attract high-paying clients.”

“Technically, they’re only there to make money, this I understand,” he said. “But also they didn’t have consideration towards the community issues or community concerns.”

In one incident, Sudarshan Pyakurel claimed, BCCO brought COVID-19 care packages door-to-door that included flyers on how to contact the city’s 311 Customer Service Center, which drew the ire of the building’s manager and owner.

“We work with the city, we want to educate community members, this is their right to get the information,” he said.

Despite some progress, Sudarshan Pyakurel feels the lingering issues could be cast aside or forgotten.

“The property looks decent now, compared to what it used to be,” he said, but the bouts of violent crime still have a lingering impact on the community.

Sudarshan Pyakurel said that the poor housing conditions are a good environment for “bad actors” to play a role.

“This is frustrating, tiring. I cannot put my energy just [into] this thing. I have other things to do,” he said. “I run a nonprofit organization that serves new families. How much time can I just keep committing on one thing that really does not get fixed?”

How We Got Here

In the decade-plus since the first Bhutanese families arrived in Central Ohio, many have left Columbus, moving to suburban cities like Gahanna and Reynoldsburg to buy a home in a better market, be around family and a growing number of Bhutanese businesses, or to put their children in what is seen as better school districts, said Bhuwan Pryakurel, who in 2019 became the first Bhutanese American to ever hold office when he won a seat on Reynoldsburg City Council.

However, Bhuwan Pryakurel was a chairman of BCCO a few years ago and remembers seeing the “not even livable” conditions of these apartments firsthand.

“I think this apartment management, they have, for lack of a better word, they know how to deal with the bureaucracy,” he said.

Many Bhutanese-Americans, including both Pryakurel families, have moved. Sudarshan Pryakurel said the more “well-to-do” members of his community have gone on, leaving more vulnerable members of the community to bear the burden.

And there’s a reason many immigrants still living in these apartments don’t just move.

When New Americans are resettled in Central Ohio, many are directed toward lower-income housing because that’s what they can afford, and support from resettlement agencies is limited.

“Support refugee resettlement agencies [are] great but they have limited resources. I know how much we can do when a family comes and how long we can support, but right after that term of our support dies, what happens to families when they are out of that program timeline?” said Jhuma Acharya, a resettlement case manager for Community Refugee and Immigration Services. “Then that is the real challenge.”

Acharya said between income, identification and citizenship requirements, other apartment complexes haven’t been as open to renting to resettled families. The apartments situated in the Northland area are what they can afford, plus the area is convenient for those who don’t have cars and rely on public transportation to get to a grocery store or government agencies like the Department of Job and Family Services.

“Not all apartment complexes are very comfortable working with refugees, immigrants, who do not have these documents or income information at the beginning when they come to the country,” he said.

CRIS and other resettlement agencies work with these landlords, giving them a background and assurances about the people that will be renting from them.

In the past, those landlords have typically been on the north side of town, Acharya said, which is why many refugees have settled there.

But unfortunately, affordability and access are coupled with high crime rates on the North Side.

The Northland area has one of Columbus’ highest concentrations of crime, though calls to this part of town decreased every year from 2016 to 2020, according to data provided by the Columbus Divison of Police. Sudarshan Pyakurel attributes that to refugees moving in and not contributing to the crime. But overcoming crime in these neighborhoods is not always possible.

Especially when, in the last several years, the young people in these neighborhoods have grown up around this criminal activity, he said.

“Sadly, what I have seen in the last five years is the kids who are growing up in this poor socioeconomic neighborhood, they grew up with people dealing drugs,” Sudarshan Pyakurel said. “Teenagers are picking up that character from what they see around them. And that’s really vastly impacting life of these newly arriving families.”

What’s Being Done

During a time in which the larger Columbus community was grappling with public safety and how it could be “reimagined,” the conversation looked very different for many folks in the local Bhutanese community.

In Columbus City Council’s Reimagining Public Safety public engagement report, advocates for Columbus’ refugee and immigrant communities cited housing as a significant concern when it comes to public safety, pointing out that landlords will take advantage of safety loopholes and avoid accountability. They noted additional minimum requirements for apartment safety, better enforcement of current regulations and more affordable housing overall as possible solutions.

Many of the immigrants intimidated into leaving their homes cannot advocate for themselves. They do not speak English and cannot explain to officers what is happening to them. The language barrier makes it harder to report the crimes happening to them, or report unsafe living conditions.

Knowing that, BCCO recommended the Columbus Division of Police hire a civilian liaison for New American populations and set up a call line for language barrier interactions with police.

The city already has a Nepali translator for 911 and 311 calls, which BCCO and other community organizations helped create. But to navigate through the city’s system for requesting 311 or non-emergency services, in particular, callers must get through two English prompts.

Assisting an elderly Bhutanese man with a 311 call, Sudarshan Pyakurel tested out the system and found it took 28 minutes to get ahold of someone who spoke Nepali.

“At the end of the call, I said, ‘Do you want to call this number next time?’ He said, ‘No.'”

And these issues arise if calls are made at all. Many people in the Bhutanese community generally are fearful because of their own trauma related to the violence exhibited by law enforcement when forced out of their home country.

In an emailed statement from Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, his office acknowledged the underreporting of crimes in these neighborhoods, adding that his office has increased its outreach to Bhutanese, Nepali and New American communities in Columbus.

“In general, crime and code violations seem to be underreported in the Northland area, but the numbers we’re seeing at this location are still very worrisome,” Klein said. “By building relationships, increasing awareness about how to report code violations and creating inroads with advocates, we are creating a stronger line of communication for issues moving forward.”

BCCO has held multiple community forums with city leaders and code enforcement officers as well as several beautification projects with community members, from which some of the issues from the past few years were resolved or worked on, said Sudarshan Pyakurel.

Code enforcement has spoken with many of these property owners and put pressure on them, but they are somewhat limited in what they can do.

Cynthia Rickman, assistant director of communications for the City of Columbus, said the city receives very few 311 calls about these properties, despite complaints from community leaders and even online reviews of these apartments.

The City Attorney’s office said earlier this year that they are actively investigating the Commons at Victoria Village, another apartment complex in the Northland area owned by Cordoba Real Estate, in particular for a possible nuisance abatement case. But there still does not appear to be any pending litigation at this time.

The Immigrant Experience

In conversation with some Bhutanese community members, many do not like to dwell on the negative issues the community faces. They point to the positive statistics coming out of immigrant communities, including the number of immigrants starting businesses or contributing to the region’s growth.

According to a 2015 study by Community Research Partners, Central Ohio refugees are more likely to start a business: 13.6% of employed refugees in Franklin County are business owners, compared to 6.5% general rate of entrepreneurship in Franklin County.

And Central Ohio’s Bhutanese refugee population has soared nearly 500% over the past decade, with nearly 30,000 individuals, resulting in the largest Bhutanese population outside of Bhutan. According to a 2021 report from the national bipartisan research organization New American Economy, the 184,800 immigrants in Central Ohio in 2019 contributed $15.4 billion to the area’s GDP and $2.1 billion to area tax revenues.

“What does the immigrant get in return?” said Sudarshan Pyakurel of the city’s support for immigrant communities and the organizations that support them. “If you are getting money from this community, you need to reinvest.”

He said the city has been supportive of refugee communities policy-wise—earlier this year the city openly welcomed the eventual arrival of hundreds of Afghan evacuees and committed to supporting local resettlement agencies in their work as part of its annual Welcoming Week— but he feels a lack of support economically.

“[Refugees] contribute around 2.1 billion annual only, but none of our organizations get even a 0.1% of that money to serve the needy families,” he said, adding that it’s not just funding that’s needed, but logistical support and more action taken against harmful landlords as well. “We are taking care of the people, we’re taking care of the vulnerable. When we don’t have funding…if we decided not to do it, where these people will go?”

Sudarshan Pyakurel doesn’t shy away from the issues facing Central Ohio’s Bhutanese community and its refugees. He thinks they should be brought into the light, less these issues are swept under the rug.

“The refugee story continues even after they are resettled into ‘foster country,'” he said. “The success of the refugee settlement story is amazing, but sometimes we don’t see the darker side. That’s never brought into the light.”

“This needs to change if we really want to make Columbus a welcoming city,” Sudarshan Pyakurel said.

For more information, visit bccoh.org.

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