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Squirrel Hill center offers hand to arriving Bhutanese |

Squirrel Hill center offers hand to arriving Bhutanese

| Sunday, May 20, 2012 11:56 p.m
Jose Arasena, a medical assistant, gives Suresh Guragai, 13, a Bhutanese immigrant, a polio immunization in the Squirrel Hill Health Center on May 16, 2012. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

More than a century after a wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived in Pittsburgh, a new wave has hit the banks of the Three Rivers. This time, many are coming from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The Squirrel Hill Health Center, which provides a variety of services to refugees, has helped 741 Bhutanese immigrants over the past two years, said Susan Kalson, CEO of the health center.

The Pittsburgh Foundation recently awarded the center $50,000 to form a refugee care team consisting of a doctor, a medical assistant and other staffers to meet the needs and address cultural issues of the Bhutanese. The center plans a grand opening on Tuesday to celebrate its new clinic on Browns Hill Road, which will more than double its space and add a dental clinic to help immigrants and other local residents, including the elderly.

Bhutan is a country of fewer than 1 million people sandwiched between China and India. The Department of State says 85,544 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, complaining of ethnic and political repression, had fled to seven refugee camps in Nepal as of January 2010. But the camps in Nepal are closing, and more than 23,000 Bhutanese have resettled in the United States, including Pittsburgh.

“I’m doing good. I’m learning something,” said Sarupa Giri, 21, an immigrant from Bhutan who works as a medical assistant at the health center.

She arrived at a refugee camp in Nepal as a baby and spent 18 years there. She has lived for the past 3 12years here and graduated from Keystone Oaks High School and Everest Institute, Downtown.

Observers say immigrants like Giri can help revitalize this region by getting jobs, paying taxes and sending their children to underused public schools.

“That energy is so important, and we lost that through the hard times Pittsburgh went through,” Kalson said. “I think it’s exciting that it’s coming back.”

Kalson cited two reasons for Pittsburgh’s popularity among the Bhutanese.

One is the classic pattern of immigrants moving to a region and reaching a critical mass that attracts more immigrants from their home country. The other is Pittsburgh’s economy, which offers more jobs than other U.S. cities.

“With its hospital systems and universities, it’s not uncommon that Pittsburgh is a destination for refugees looking for a better life,” said Kevin Jenkins, director of community initiatives for The Pittsburgh Foundation.

The center provides immigrants with free vaccinations and screening for illnesses such as tuberculosis. The staff occasionally has to deal with language and cultural barriers.

“A lady once sat in a dental chair upside down because she didn’t know the appropriate way to get into it,” Kalson said.

A sign above a water fountain advises in English, Spanish and Nepali: “Please no spitting.”

Despite the initial cultural obstacles, Kalson predicts that these immigrants someday will be the city’s leaders.

“I hope that a generation from now, these folks will be leading our agencies, sitting in our boardrooms, reinvigorating this community,” she said.

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