Knowing a refugee turned me into a booking agent for a Nepali folk band

Kathryn Stam

Getting to know refugees brought me back from being the teacher into being the learner.

I am a cultural anthropology professor and my job is to teach about culture and cross-cultural communication. I am also an amateur storyteller, a parent of a college student, and a fan of the folk music of singer-songwriters Amos Lee and Ryan Montbleau. I have traveled quite a bit and lived abroad and people in the world have been so kind and generous to me for the past three decades of my life. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, people much poorer than me gave me rides, taught me, fed me, and showered me with thoughtful and strange gifts beyond my wildest imagination. In efforts to help me with my fieldwork, countless people have endured my many probing, naive, and personal questions.

In my role as a volunteer at a local community center (Midtown Utica Community Center) since 2014, my understanding of refugee experiences has grown, along with my perspective on the many ways there are to help and welcome them.

I am in awe of refugees who are able to simply get up in the morning, nevermind build their new lives so gracefully.

I met Tek Monger during a training for interpreters at the local refugee center in 2011. I was training to be a Thai and Lao interpreter, and Tek was training to be a Nepali interpreter. I had just returned from a trip to Nepal, where I had seen a newspaper article that there were 400 Nepalis living in my small Central New York city (Utica). I was so intrigued by that idea, and had been driving around town looking for people in traditional Nepali topi hats or sarongs, to no avail. Our town is very diverse, with refugees making up almost ¼ of our population, so there are many refugees from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam around. But this was the first I had heard of Nepalis. As it turned out, they were actually some of the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who were ethnic Nepali but had been expelled from Bhutan in 1992 and had been relatively forgotten in eastern Nepal until they started to be resettled in about 2008.

Tek Monger was the first one who told me that he had been living in a refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years. I was stunned. I had never heard of this group of refugees nor the concept that anyone could be stuck in a camp for almost two decades. Now I know that this is relatively common.

Tek is kind, funny, and has the best smile in the world. He is a dealer at a casino. He is good with electronics and photography and is wise beyond his close to 30 years. He cares deeply about his family and his community. As we got to know each other, Tek told me about his life and his community. We tried not to be obnoxious about our budding friendship during the 40-hour training, but honestly we spent every free (and borrowed) minute talking about the Bhutanese experience.  I quickly got to know his extended family, about 75 people. I was brought into the fold as “Kath Sister,” and was invited to everything from birthdays and weddings to baby naming ceremonies to ceremonies by the three shamans in town, known in Nepal as jumping doctors. I brought the kids trick-or-treating with me, and invited them to library storytime and dance classes. Tek’s extended family enveloped me with attention, text messages, and samosas.

Tek spoke often of his struggles in the camps and how playing music with his friends had made them all feel a little bit better.

Kathryn Stam World Refugee Day

Tek and his friends decided to start a small folk band and dance troupe that at its peak had 75 members. We performed approximately 10 times per year, at music festivals, museums, colleges, and schools.  The band and dancers slowed down on the performing a few years ago due to a variety of complicated factors and Tek’s move to another state, but I will always have the sweet memories of those times. I especially loved practicing in unfinished basements with bare lightbulbs as the only light, and hearing songs on the harmonium  for the first time that they had been playing since childhood. I have a newfound sense of patience and an intuitive sense of how Nepalis understand time, which is very different from my own. Also I feel proud. I so often found myself on stage introducing them, and felt so inspired by them. My heart soared at the opportunities to share their culture with people who hadn’t spent all the hours I had getting to know that. I still love going back and watching the videos of our performances.

For example, this was one from 2012 at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdOwtp1mebU

Getting to know Tek and his community showed me first hand how our refugee policy is inadequate. We accept refugees but we (as a society) are not always equipped to give them what they need for a fair shot at a new and successful life. They receive help for 90 days but that is not enough for some families, who have been through so much trauma and struggle already. From Tek, I gained so much respect for the role of younger people (20-30 yrs old) in saving and helping their culture, and preserving their traditions.

Finally, I learned what it means to help people. There are many ways to help, and different people feel comfortable doing different things. I felt fulfilled when I started pitching in at a community center and listening to refugees themselves every day about what they needed the most.

I know this lifestyle doesn’t fit everyone, and that’s fine. The hardest thing for me to deal with is when people stand in the way of other people trying to help refugees. There are people and agencies who could change lives for the better with a few phone calls, but they don’t want to get involved or don’t take the time to assess what is needed. Some people even talk about refugees like they are not worthy of living lives of dignity. “At least it’s better than where they lived in Nepal.” Or, “They should find a relative to translate that form.” My purpose in life these days is to take the time and then make the calls, give the rides, save the photos, and celebrate the stories.

The story of how I got to know refugees in Utica is also told in this TEDx Utica talk from 2014:

http://tedxutica.com/kathryn-stam-refugees-starting-over-in-utica-ny/

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017, the Refugee Center Online is collecting stories of how refugees make our lives better.

The Refugee Center Online believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement is not just the moral or ethical thing to do – it benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.

Refugees shaking hands

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About Kathryn Stam

Kathryn Stam is a professor, mother, and today, a booking agent for a Nepali folk band.