New Culture, Language Challenges Elderly Refugees

By Regina Revazova
Published: Monday, July 4, 2016 - 12:33pm
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Monday we celebrate the exceptional nature of our country that welcomes thousands of immigrants each year. Among them are elderly refugees. For older immigrants the transition to a new culture and language is much more challenging.

Prem Bhandari was born and raised in Bhutan. From a well-to-do family, he owned a house and 25 acres of land. He was a school teacher, dividing his life between teaching math and working on the land.

In the early 90s he was caught up in the middle of the violence in Bhutan. He along with more than hundred thousand Bhutanese had to flee. Nepal accepted the refugees and settled them by the bank of the Mai River.

“No food, no medicine, nothing," Bhandari said. "Many people are dying, even children. I’ve seen every day around 45 children dying."

The Bhutanese government refused, over and over, to accept the people, even after 18 years. Bhandari’s property was confiscated, the land was distributed to others and his house was demolished.

“A very, very, very small fraction of refugees ever get resettled to a third country,” said Chris Boian, a United Nations Refugee Agency spokesman.

Jole Mbonyingabo, the director of the refugee program at the Area Agency for Aging. Jole said many elderly come from rural communities where their lives were determined by unwritten rules of local traditions dating back thousands of years.

“They were the person everyone goes to to get the last word from that wise person," Mbonyingabo said. "So it’s no longer exist(ing) here and they feel it and that.”

On top of all this, they are at the age when the language acquisition drops sharply. They are often considered unemployable. They have hard times grasping things like public transportation, or the basics of health care. Even some day-to-day perks may pose a challenge to them.

“I’ve seen many refugees that have no understanding of unlimited drinks at fast food restaurants, something as simple as that," said Fred  Bemak, a professor at George Mason University who taught a refugee mental health class for years. "So we have higher rates of despair and hopelessness and depression among the elder and sometimes that results in suicide.”   

Elderly refugees rarely talk about their feelings. It’s another cultural difference counselors such as Jole Mbonyingabo pay careful attention to.

“Elders don’t believe in mental health," Mbonyingabo said. "You don’t see any sign that you are sick. You are not bleeding, bleeding is inside.”

That’s why the socialization is critical, Fred Bemak said. There’s a concept in psychology called universality: “Wow, you feel as alienated as I do? I feel better hearing that.”

Prem Bhandari got his paperwork approved for resettlement and arrived in the United States a few years ago. He is still helping refugees, volunteering as an interpreter, driver, assistant to help people like himself.

When asked, what he misses the most, he always says Bhutan: “I was born there, grown there, so mostly when I dream I dream back to Bhutan.”