Kathy Antoniotti

Language was not a barrier for a group of Nepalese immigrants in Akron on Monday as they talked of the horrors unfolding in their homeland after this weekend’s devastating earthquake in Nepal.

For the students in an English language class at the International Institute of Akron, the news coming out of the country was positive — their relatives were unharmed, but many have lost their homes.

Many in the group were originally refugees from Bhutan who poured into refugee camps some 20 years ago, said 25-year-old Naryan Katel, an employment specialist for the institute in the North Hill neighborhood.

Katel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and statistics in India, settled in the Akron area with his sister in 2012 — leaving his parents and two siblings behind in a refugee camp.

Thankfully, he said, they are in a camp about 300 miles away from the quake’s center.

He spoke with his parents on Sunday “for about two minutes before the phone” died.

“They were frightened. They didn’t know how bad it was,” he said.

News of the devastation is slowly filtering into the camp — mostly from radio reports.

Katel, who began learning English in grade school, acted as an interpreter for those in the class who are just now learning English.

Tara Thebe, who is originally from Nepal, said she was able to reach her sister after the quake, but unable to find her mother.

Although her sister assured her that their mother was also safe, she said they were afraid to return to their homes because they were damaged in the quake and had no running water.

“My sister said my mother’s OK, but she’s felt nauseous and dizzy since the earthquake,” said Thebe, who has been in Akron for just two months.

Panchi Rai, who has lived in Akron for about a year, said her 100-year-old father and 99-year-old mother can still remember other earthquakes to hit the region, including the 1934 quake that killed more than 19,000.

They live in a refugee camp.

“They were not afraid. They had felt an earthquake before,” she said.

Birkha Rai (no relation to Panchi Rai) said he was able to reach his brothers who said they felt the earthquake, but were not hurt.

“They were at the refugee camp, waiting to be processed and felt only a little shake,” he said.

Birkha Rai, who has been in Akron about 16 months, said his brothers have applied for resettlement in the Akron area and are waiting for their applications to be processed and approved.

The first Bhutanese family arrived in Akron in 2008 — the year after the U.S. agreed to accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali descent. Today, there are an estimated 4,000 Bhutanese refugees living in the Akron area.

Katel, who has applied to attend graduate school at the University of Akron in September, said his parents, who are both 52, have only recently agreed to apply for resettlement along with his 17-year-old brother and 20-year-old sister.

“At first, my parents did not want to resettle, but we told them ‘we’ll help you,’?” he said. “They were afraid to come here because of [the] language.”

The conditions there before the earthquake were not good to begin with due to no running water.

“They live in a small bamboo hut with no privacy for five or six people,” he said.

Katel said he was also able to make contact after the quake with his 25-year-old Nepalese best friend.

“He was in a safe place,” he said.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter at: @KathyAntoniotti and on facebook: www.facebook.com/KathyAntoniotti