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Inside the modest Brentwood offices of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, Khara Timsina and Upendra Dahal, attempt to tally just how many Bhutanese-owned businesses there are along Brownsville Road in Carrick.
“The store next to Gorkhali Market, the new one, is first,” says Timsina, executive director.
“What about the one by the library?” asks Daha, project director.
“OK, that’s the first one,” agrees Timsina.
“Then Bhanu’s jeweler.”
“Then the new one.”
“So Gorkhali is fourth.”
“Then Desi Market, five…”
Continue down Brownsville Road toward Brentwood and the total soon hits double digits. That’s without counting the Bhutanese-owned grocers, dance studio and furniture shop on nearby Saw Mill Run Boulevard.
Timsina and Dahal would know. An incorporated non-profit since 2012, BCAP advocates for a high quality of life for Pittsburgh’s 6,000-strong Bhutanese population and supports their integration into the community at large.
These businesses along Brownsville Road in Carrick form the heart of Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese community, serving the city as a whole, but especially the 1,000 or so Bhutanese who live in Carrick and the 5,000 more who reside throughout the South Hills.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Bhutan is a small, independent Himalayan kingdom wedged between India and China with a population of fewer than 1 million people.
Immigrants from Nepal began to populate the southern Bhutanese provinces en masse in the early 20th century. In the 1980s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck implemented a “One Nation, One People” policy that imposed a mandatory dress code and other prohibitions aimed at silencing the Nepalese minority, or Lhotsampa.
Despite the postcard-perfect mountain temples, Bhutan was no Shangri-La for the Lhotsampa. Pro-democracy protests began in the early ’90s, and scores were uprooted or killed during a government ethnic cleansing campaign. By the mid-’90s some 100,000 people were driven to refugee camps in nearby Nepal.
It took over a decade of international negotiations, but many of the refugees were relocated overseas, including to Pittsburgh, where the first Bhutanese started to arrive in 2008.
Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese population is estimated to be around 5 or 6,000, nearly double the size of the original population because of a secondary wave of migration where refugees resettle again within their newly adopted homelands to be closer to family or job opportunities.
Rup Pokharel is a product of both waves. Originally relocated to Sacramento from Nepalese refugee camps with his 3-year-old daughter, elderly parents and wife, Tika, in 2009. He learned his father had blood cancer in 2011. In addition to medical care, Pokharel wanted to lift his father’s spirits by finding him some friends.
“I asked where the most seniors my father’s age were living,” he recalls. “Most of my friends told me Pittsburgh.”
Today, Pokharel works as a service coordinator at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, one of the primary immigrant-serving organizations in the area. He also serves as managing editor for Bhutan News Service, a Bhutanese news source run by refugee journalists.
In 2015, Pokharel was elected to a two-year term as a member of the Carrick Community Council.
Pokharel shares his story from inside the Gorkhali Market on Brownsville Road. The store specializes in a bit everything: from hard-to-find spices and groceries to religious icons, clothing, cell phones and cigarettes. Customers linger after making their purchase to chat and watch World Cup qualifiers on an oversized flat screen across from the registers.
Narad Phuyal is one of Gorkhali’s owners. Aged 44, Phuyal spent 16 years living inside a refugee camp in Nepal before moving to Baldwin in 2008. He opened Gorkhali with his business partner, Uttam, in 2014.
Phuyal says business is good, though he’s feeling the pinch from new grocers that have opened nearby. He says most of his customers are from the Bhutanese community, but he also receives a fair amount of customers from other refugee communities, including the Burmese and Somali Bantu.
Phuyal and a business partner plan to open a new restaurant, Nepalese Asian Restaurant, in Carrick by the end of September.
Back at BCAP, Dahal says that his organization works with Zone 3 police to host regular public forums to address the community’s safety concerns. Otherwise, he says, the Bhutanese like to be in Carrick for reasons others find it attractive: public transportation and affordable housing.
“It is bustling with so much activity there,” he says.
Timsina adds that Carrick has been welcoming to the Bhutanese since the beginning and singles out the work of Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and Carrick Community Council John Rudiak for their work in engaging with his community.