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Refugees in Atlanta
Interview with Leslie Sokolow
I pulled into the parking lot of Starbucks in North Druid Hills on a late Wednesday
evening. Two boxes of donation clothing were sitting on the back seat of my car, remnants of a
clothing drive that I had led a few months past. The boxes had been hidden in the back of a
closet and had followed me from one apartment to the next. Tonight, however, the clothing and
the good will that inspired the donations would be passed on to those who needed warmth and
compassion the most. I was meeting with Leslie Sokolow, the driving force behind the new
grassroots organization that calls itself the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group. We each bought a
coffee and sat down on the leather couches in the Starbucks, talking over the grinding of coffee
beans in the background as we introduced ourselves and took a look at what the Atlanta
Bhutanese Refugee Support Group has been doing in the community and what the future holds
for the refugees that the group serves.
Atlanta is now home to a recently arrived population of Bhutanese refugees.
Approximately 1600 Bhutanese men, women, and children have sought and found safety in
Atlanta, Georgia since March of 2008. The refugees have been living in the United Nations
refugee camps in Nepal for nearly twenty years. The new lives that await them in the United
States are frightening, challenging, and inspiring. Refugees arrive through the assistance of
resettlement agencies. The agencies assist the families with basic necessities for the first four
months and then the families are expected to be self-sufficient. Four months isn’t a lot of time.
When the agencies leave, the families are faced with the difficulty of managing their lives and
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well-being in an unfamiliar nation with limited resources. Here to help is the Atlanta Bhutanese
Refugee Support Group (ABR). It is not a federally funded agency. It receives no government
funding. There is no office. It is a community outpouring of support and devotion by the people
The outreach group has humble beginnings. An ESOL teacher at Atlanta’s Druid Hills
High School noticed that her students were lacking proper clothing and school supplies. She
requested donations from teachers and parents, and the response has been overwhelming. Leslie
Sokolow was one of the recipients of the e-mail requesting donations. A CDC (Centers for
Disease Control & Prevention) employee and a mother of two teenage daughters, Sokolow
reached out through her company resources to help the students. She said, “We have this parent
list-serve that has 2700 people on it, so when I got the e-mail I just forwarded it on to the list
group because I thought someone’s going to have stuff. I got such a tremendous response that all
of a sudden I was deeply involved.” The CDC list serve is open to the public and the Atlanta
Bhutanese Refugee Support Group section has grown since Sokolow began her initial
involvement. Along with a Facebook group, a website, and a blog, the list-serve provides
helpers, supplies, and contacts as well as keeping a steady flow of information to the community.
The use of online social networking services has been instrumental in building up the momentum
for the support group. All of the volunteers are working professionals with full-time jobs and
families. As Sokolow admits, “This can very easily be a full-time job.” With caring individuals
simply taking time out of their day to help and sending in information whenever they have
supplies available or find a new contact, the quick efficiency of the internet helps to make things
happen. It also provides an easy way for both refugees and community members to
communicate. Having since joined the list-serve myself, I see weekly updates of new
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opportunities to help and grateful thank you notes from the families who receive the group’s
assistance. The Support Group e-mails alerts to its followers regarding Bhutanese community
events as well as urgent volunteer or supply needs.
Sokolow herself does not speak Nepali, the language spoken by most Bhutanese refugees.
She relies on bi-lingual representative to communicate with the Bhutanese community. The
primary liaison is Tulasi Ghimirey. Tulasi, an employee at Emory University, was one of the first
Bhutanese refugees to arrive in Atlanta ten years ago. His remarkable escape from the ethnic
cleansing in Bhutan brought him to the United States and, since then, he has made an effort to
help others find safe and productive lives in the United States. He reflects in one interview,
saying, “The philosophy of people in Bhutan is that everybody has to work. We have a saying,
‘work is worship’” (Tagami). Tulasi now serves as an elder statesman for the community as he
assists incoming families in the resettlement process. He helps to connect the Bhutanese Support
Group to new families, alerting the group of priority needs, and providing translation. In
November of 2009, Tulasi was finally able to bring his own father into the United States after ten
years of separation. The Bhutanese Support Group was there with him as his father arrived at the
Another important resource to the Bhutanese Support Group is the Bhutanese youth.
Teenagers like Kamal Dahal, a bright high school student whose family recently resettled in the
Atlanta area, are taking the weight of their family and community upon their shoulders in order
to help their neighbors adjust and succeed in their new lives. Surrounded by their peers at school
and supportive teachers and tutors, the youth learn quickly and adapt to the fast paced
environment of electronics, MARTA, and American life. His devotion to his community is far
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reaching and inspiring to others who join in to help deliver donations, assist neighbors with
complicated government paperwork, and help locate supplies for those in need.
Sokolow reveals that local resettlement agencies are hurting because of the recession and,
as funds run dry, some agencies are unable to provide the same quality of service for everyone
and refugees are faced with shorter and shorter time spans in which to receive assistance before
being left on their own. Some agencies shirk their responsibilities entirely, leaving refugee
families in dangerous or unhealthy living conditions upon arrival in the United States.
This is where the Bhutanese Support Group steps in. “We bring them sensible shoes,
warm clothing, blankets.” The Support Group steps in to assist with small projects and
immediate needs. Sokolow mentioned two current projects that were seeing tremendous success.
When faced with supporting themselves financially, the Bhutanese refugee families
harvested the local and abundant kudzu vines behind their apartment complex and began
weaving them into baskets. Men and women, elderly, adults, and teenagers came together with
members of the Atlanta community to weave the baskets and sell them in local markets to help
supplement their income. Sokolow recounts the success of the first morning at the market, “The
baskets sold out by 10:00 A.M.” The families made a sum of six hundred dollars; easily a
month’s rent for one apartment. “How can you not embrace hacking that stuff down and making
it useful? But culturally they’re basket makers and they’re resurrecting a skill that they’ve had all
their lives,” says Sokolow. Not only are the family’s finding fulfilling work, they are also able to
maintain and share a cultural tradition with their children and with their new neighbors in the
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A second project leader in the Bhutanese Support Group “organized the folks at CDC
who are nurses by trade, about two hundred of them, and they are doing focus groups at the
various apartment complexes with refugee women, specifically Bhutanese, to find out what
health issues they want to work on.” The nurses are available to discuss sex education, nutrition,
and more. They let the mothers choose which topics are priorities for their families and thus find
out what health concerns are present or valued in the community.
New projects come in each week and the success of the endeavors is heartwarming.
Despite the hardships of a recession, established refugees are joining in as volunteers and
community organizers to help ensure the protection and wellbeing of newly arrived families.
This community care relieves the heavy burdens on both resettlement agencies and on the
families themselves by providing a network of support, communication, and opportunity. The
benefits aren’t limited to the refugees, however. Sokolow’s involvement in the Bhutanese
community is a family effort and her husband and two teenage daughters have worked together
on many projects. She values the lessons in diversity, hardship, and humanity that she has been
able to teach her daughters by involving them in the community. “The whole refugee
community, I think, is one of the things that make Atlanta special. [Others] could use that as a
cross-cultural experience,” she says.
Sokolow encourages Atlanta citizens to take a look around the city. University students
and medical programs support diversity awareness and global learning. Teenagers constantly
hear about studying abroad and experiencing a foreign nation. In Sokolow’s opinion, there’s
plenty of diversity to be found right at home. “Before they go overseas, they could do two miles
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down and get some experience,” she says. It is the responsibility of a community to appreciate its
own richness and to look inward to discover its secret treasures.
The Atlanta Bhutanese Support Group continues to support the Bhutanese community in
moments of crisis. For more information on the Atlanta Bhutanese Refugee Support Group,
contact them via the Facebook Group or the website and blog at: http://Bhutan-