In the winter of 2011, Shyam Rai landed in Syracuse Hancock International Airport, a sleepy two-runway airfield in central New York, after a 24-hour flight from Kathmandu, Nepal. A volunteer from the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, a local resettlement agency, greeted him and drove him to Utica, a former manufacturing town that after many years of steady depopulation had found new life through its growing population of resettled refugees. But when the volunteer left him, Rai was alone in a cold, dark house, without any idea how to turn on the heat or lights. Seven years later, Rai is helping to teach others the ins and outs of daily life in Utica, about a quarter of whose residents are now resettled refugees.
For 18 years, Rai lived in a camp in Nepal, where he and thousands of other Nepali speakers had languished in stateless limbo after Bhutan stripped them of their citizenship and expelled them in the mid-1990s. Today, he has a cozy apartment in a house that he shares with relatives who followed him to the United States. His parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and a slew of US-born children all live within a few blocks of each other. For the past six years, he’s worked at the nearby Chobani yogurt factory. His home serves as a hub for religious holidays and family events. When I visited him in August, signs of past celebrations were all around—bunches of silk flowers, paper marigold garlands, and streamers from his son’s first birthday.
Most importantly, he has US citizenship at a time when the Trump administration has packed away the welcome mat for refugees. In 2011, Rai was one of more than 50,000 refugees who were admitted to this country. This year, the United States will resettle just 22,000, according to the International Rescue Committee. “Our life is really nameless and homeless when I was living in the refugee camp,” Rai told me, trying to convey what it was like to be stateless. The United States “gave us citizen[ship]. I don’t have to worry for my name anymore.” Rai no longer feels invisible; he is a man with a place in the world.
But his concerns didn’t end once he received his US passport. As the eldest son and first in his family to come to the United States, Rai feels responsible for his relatives. He cares for three disabled family members who live together in a nearby apartment—his wheelchair-bound grandmother, his physically disabled grandfather, and his mentally disabled uncle. He found them new apartments when the resettlement agency placed them in an unsafe house without wheelchair accessibility, when their floorboards were infested with insects, and when their pipes burst. He accompanies them to doctors’ appointments, and arranges for his sisters to receive funding to provide in-home care. Without his help translating paperwork, they once missed a deadline to file for an extension and went nearly six months without much-needed food stamps.
When the resettlement-agency staff told his sister that as an 18-year-old she was ineligible for public school and she was instead placed in a part-time, short-term ESL course, he rushed over to the Legal Aid office and pushed to have her named as one of six plaintiffs in what eventually became a class-action discrimination case against the city. The case was finally settled in July 2016, granting her permission to enroll in high school for the 2017–18 year. She is now hoping a full high-school education will help her create a life in the United States.