People & Places

Intercultural Festival at Kirkwood College highlights immigrant stories

Bhim Magar (left) sits with his son Biplav Magar, 2, and Hark Thapa of Cedar Rapids in the Magar’s Hiawatha home on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Magar and Thapa are Bhutanese Nepali refugees who arrived in Iowa recently. Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa has been invited to participate in an upcoming intercultural festival organized by Wake Up For Your Rights. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Bhim Magar (left) sits with his son Biplav Magar, 2, and Hark Thapa of Cedar Rapids in the Magar’s Hiawatha home on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Magar and Thapa are Bhutanese Nepali refugees who arrived in Iowa recently. Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa has been invited to participate in an upcoming intercultural festival organized by Wake Up For Your Rights. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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When Bhim Magar first moved to the United States in 2011, the transition wasn’t easy.

“I spoke little English. I felt lost in America at the time,” he said.

Originally from Bhutan, he spent some 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before a resettlement program sent him to San Antonio, Texas. Later, he moved to Iowa; he now lives with his family in Hiawatha.

“I came for a visit, and I found it very safe and peaceful, in spite of the snowfall,” he said with a laugh.

He said he no longer feels lost in America, and as a volunteer with the group Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa, a social support organization formed in 2015, he is trying to help other newcomers navigate their lives. Magar acts as a translator and helps community members with paperwork and getting to appointments.

The organization’s goals go beyond English-language classes and job placements, however. Leaders want community members to find a sense of belonging in Iowa.

That’s why Magar and other members of the Bhutanese community will participate in an Intercultural Festival being held Sept. 23 at Kirkwood Community College.

The event is being organized by Wake Up for Your Rights, a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that works on human rights issues internationally and with immigrant communities in Iowa,

Wake Up for Your Rights President Esaie Toingar said it is important to build community between immigrant groups in Cedar Rapids and other Iowans and also to educate Americans about the lives of immigrants.

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“I feel it is very important to allow Americans to discover all that immigrants have to offer and at the same time to allow immigrants to know they belong to a community that welcomes them and cares for them,” he said.

The day will include speakers, a soccer tournament, a zumba class and a cultural fashion show. A panel discussion will address immigration and civil rights, and participants from around the world will share how they came to Iowa.

Magar and Harka Thapa, director of the Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa, will be there to share information about their community.

“People don’t know where we came from or why we came here,” Thapa said. “We are the refugees, but we are also educated, loyal, hardworking. We are gas assistants and grocers, we work in banks and hospitals. We go to work, and our kids go to school.”

Magar said there are around 300 Bhutanese people living in the Cedar Rapids area. Most are Lhotshampas, ethnic Nepali Bhutanese, whom the Bhutanese government forcibly evicted from the country in the early 1990s. Most then lived in refugee camps in Nepal until a refugee resettlement program began in 2008. From there, they moved to countries around the globe.

“Especially for our elderly population, this is really painful. Some families have five or six kids, who are scattered in five or six countries,” Thapa said.

He spent some 20 years of his life in the refugee camp and arrived in Syracuse, New York, in 2011 before moving to Cedar Rapids in 2015. He said he came to Iowa for the lifestyle available here.

“I am a peace lover. Iowa is a peaceful state,” he said. “I feel this place is more secure. I found this place is good to live.”

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He also saw job opportunities for his parents here. They never attended school and have found learning English a challenge. He was able to find them work that didn’t require language skills at CCB Packaging in Hiawatha.

Moving to the United States hasn’t been easy for the older generation, he said. They are often dealing with the mental scars of the oppression and hardship they lived through, as well as isolation due to the language barrier and loss of their community.

The Bhutanese organization wants to make integration into American life easier, for the older generation through language and citizenship classes and for the younger generation through social activities like soccer. They have several community teams, which will participate in the festival’s soccer tournament.

Thapa looks to that younger generation — including his own children, ages 8 and 5, — and wants more for them than he had.

“We are focusing on the future generations,” he said. “Most of our parents, they chose to come here not for themselves but for the kids. The parents want to make their lives more fruitful, better.”

Thapa said he sees the Intercultural Festival as a chance to build community, which can help build that better future.

“We have refugees from different countries here. We just want to assimilate and keep communication and cooperation not only among immigrants but also with the people here,” he said.

If You Go

What: Intercultural Festival

Where: Kirkwood Community College, Horticulture/Floral Careers Building, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids

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When: Sept. 23: Soccer tournament 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; speakers 12:30 to 1:15 p.m.; panel discussion 1:20 p.m.; fashion show 2:20 p.m.; zumba 3:45 p.m.; Share My Story 2:20 to 4 p.m.

More information: (319) 786-4235

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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