A refugee feels at home in Harrisburg, after years of turmoil
Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | 12.05.16
(Harrisburg) -- Moving to the United States as a refugee can be gratifying but also terrifying.
You have to find a job, learn English, and adjust to American culture.
But, you also can't just ignore your health.
Recently, I met one family from Bhutan that felt lost in America, until they arrived in Harrisburg.
I'm in a kitchen.
Make that a very small kitchen.
The fridge is in one corner, the stove in another, and I can touch both of them at once.
But this is Pushpa Rai Gurung's kitchen in her Harrisburg apartment.
And boy does it smell good.
Photo by Ben Allen/WITF
Pakora, a delicious Nepalese snack.
She's frying dough to make a scrumptious snack called pakora.
Oh and there's spices from Nepal.
And tea made with tea leaves from India is on the stove.
"We miss our country, homeland, and when we always eat, we don't feel like we are in the US, we are still back in Bhutan or Nepal," says Pushpa.
Refugee camp for 18 years
Pushpa's story starts when she fled Nepal when ethnic clashes broke out in the late 1980's.
When her family left, she was 14 and they thought it would be a temporary thing.
Instead, she spent 18 years in a refugee camp. Think about that. 18 years.
Over that time, she graduated college, got her master's, met and married her husband, and gave birth to her son Prithivi.
Pushpa remembers being so nervous a fire would tear through the camp.
The homes were made of out of bamboo, with thatch roofs.
One spark, and you could lose all you had.
But then relief came.
Move to New York
In 2010, 40 year old Pushpa and her husband, her son Prithivi and her daughter Prativa finally got the chance to come to America, and they settled in New York City.
She found an hourly job - it didn't pay great, but it was something.
Pushpa and her family in their Harrisburg apartment. Photo by Ben Allen / WITF.
Then one day, she had to leave work to take her son to the emergency room.
Pushpa was fired as a result.
"I felt like 'Oh my goodness, American people are like this? Where is the humanity?' Many times, they made me cry," says Pushpa.
That was it.
She wanted to move, and she settled on Harrisburg.
Health care is her calling
When she arrived in in central Pennsylvania, she discovered Hamilton Health Center.
"That's the place where we could go first," she says. "When we moved here from New York City, we didn't have insurance. My little baby, she was almost 2 months and it was time for her immunization."
Immediately, she felt a change.
She says: "They are all very happy. They all say, welcome. They are still welcoming me. That makes me feel very good."
Pushpa and her two children now have Medicaid, while her husband has health insurance coverage through work.
She had some costly health scares in Bhutan.
Those days are in the past.
How Hamilton has adjusted
Time and time again, for regular checkups or more complicated issues, they return to Hamilton Health Center.
Jeannine Peterson, CEO at Hamilton, says that's by design.
She says over the past couple of years, more and more Nepalese refugees have arrived in the Harrisburg area, and the health center has adjusted.
"We've all learned about culture. We may think we understand culture, but it's different when you interface with a culture you haven't come in contact with before," adds Peterson.
At a recent all staff meeting, Peterson says refugees told their stories.
People in the room were in tears.
"It was heartwrenching."
"Can you imagine? One day you're living a normal life where you live today, and somebody says to you, alright, whatever you can carry, you're out of here. And for the next ten years, you're on the move, from camp to camp," she says.
Now, Pushpa can go beyond worrying about a fire that might rip through camp, or whether she'll have enough food to make it.
So now, she's now giving back, working at Hamilton to help other refugees get care.
"She's blossomed, and is one of the most dedicated employees that we have right now, and she's so thankful of the job that she has."
Hamilton has adapted to a group of new patients from a different culture, and Pushpa has felt a change in herself.
She feels healthy, and at peace.
"A lot. A lot, I must say," says Rai Gurung.
"Now, I'm feeling very homely, very happy, feeling myself getting younger and that is the key point. I am happy now. I am happier now."
Pushpa has relatives all over the country - Pittsburgh, North Dakota, and more.
When they try to talk her into moving closer to them, she resists.
She says she wants to be in Harrisburg for the rest of her life.
Published in Personal Transformation