The Bhutanese children at Akron's Jennings Community Learning Center told Wendy Hogan that it’s not in their nature to discuss feelings. Their culture doesn’t have counselors.

Hogan, a mental health therapist, chuckled at the comment, which came after six weeks of counseling the adolescents in an after-school program geared toward refugee children struggling to assimilate in America with the horrors of their past.

The 12-week preventative program is one of 31 this year sharing $43,750 in grants from the Millennium Fund for Children, an endowment managed by the Akron Community Foundation and launched in 1999 when the Akron Beacon Journal asked readers to give the last hour of their pay in the 20th century to help kids. The program has been awarded a $1,000 grant from the fund.

The effort to help North Hill’s newest residents can be traced to Radha Adhikari, a Bhutanese refugee who imported the program from Boston Children's Hospital last year while working at the International Institute of Akron.

Now in the program's second year, Child Guidance & Family Solutions — with additional support from Huntington National Bank, Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board, Harvard University and Locust Pediatrics & Summit Education Initiative — continues the work with the help of Puspa Gajmer.

As a former teacher and resident in one of six destitute camps, Gajmer came to America 12 years ago when a wave of South Asians resettled in Akron.

Gajmer is a “culture broker” and interpreter who personally understands the language and customs of the Bhutanese: their stoicism, honoring elders, acceptance of corporal punishment and subtleties like how eye contact can be off-putting, especially older immigrants.

Still, there’s no easy way to diagnose trauma in the Bhutanese. The word doesn’t exist in the language spoken by the more than 100,000 people who escaped ethnic cleansing in the 1990s by fleeing to Nepali camps setup by the United Nations. Many arrived as children, surviving on little assistance from the Nepali government in sectioned-off camps rife with corruption and cruelty.

They lived for decades with little hope, lacking the freedom to go home and often the opportunity to better their lives. That’s why parents of the Jennings students say anything is better than life in Nepal.

The adults struggle more so than the children to learn a new language and customs. But health, behavioral and social agencies like Child Guidance & Family Solutions are seeing more and more Bhutanese children, who can’t forget what they’ve seen.

“In Nepal, the police do only things for money. If you pay them, you are OK,” Rabina Subba said. The 12-year-old described camp life as full of thieves and buildings with no doors or locks.

“In Nepal, they rub [shake] babies and they kill them for no reason. They just go into houses,” said Lhasang Dolma Tamang, 13.

These are the ghastly stories the children must process, said Gajmer, who encourages the students to talk about their experiences, even if their culture and their parents believe all emotional anguish can be repressed.

 

Building character

The program helps students respect themselves and others while building healthy relationships and good communication skills.

Last Tuesday, Hogan tossed a beach ball into a circle of 11 giggling Bhutanese girls, who batted it around to loosen up.

Next, the girls sat on stools chatting about their similarities and differences. The conversation tracked their thoughts on life in Nepal versus America.

None of them celebrated Independence Day until arriving in America. They all celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Some still celebrate Brother’s Day during a festival of lights in the Bhutanese culture when sisters give brothers a gift in exchange for money.

Hogan asked: Is there a book like the Bible for Bhutanese Hindus? Yeah, the girls replied, but most of their parents were never taught to read, so only two of them said they too can read Nepali.

Then Hogan walked into the middle of the circle. “The cool breeze blows for anyone who likes ice cream,” the counselor said. Any girl who liked ice cream, which they all did, left her chair then raced to an empty seat.

Any girl left standing in the probing game of musical chairs had to start again with “the cool breeze blows for anyone who likes …”

Some got up for school — even more for summer break. One stood up for a South Korean boy band. A couple crashed to the floor over singer Cardi B. Most had an impressive grasp on popular American culture.

They all raced around for spaghetti, family and — finally — the after-school program itself.

 

Gaining insight

The games and discussion allow Hogan to key in on any student whose perceived trauma, if not met with intensive counseling, could manifest in poor grades, bad behavior or worse.

Parents rely on the children as interpreters and cultural liaisons, which can deprive them of a childhood.

“It’s a role reversal. The children end up taking care of the adults,” Hogan said. As the culturally competent children gain power in the family structure, the parents lose some of their authority. “That can be a challenge,” Hogan said.

Despite the challenges, the parents appreciate the opportunities for their children in America.

“Life in U.S. is really good,” said Hari Maya Majhi, using Gajmer to interpret a reporter’s questions. The mother fled to Nepal at 8 years old, a year younger than her daughter was when the family arrived in America in 2015.

“They can build their lives in any way they want to,” she said of the kids, happy if only to see them mingling and learning about America.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.