Sheryl Rajbhandari used to travel the world, supporting businesses with their technology and strategic needs but gave that up to work with refugees in her hometown.
Ms. Rajbhandari is known to many refugees as Sheryl. Her cell phone number and home address is well circulated among the refugee community in Cincinnati. The familiar face is the founder and executive director of Heartfelt Tidbits, a non-profit whose mission is to provide the resources and support so that each immigrant can feel welcomed, loved and supported. They provide tools for refugees to become successful in their new country.
It began when Sheryl’s husband, Amsu Rajbhandari, an expat from Nepal, received an email from Catholic Charities to help with the incoming Bhutanese refugees in 2008. The family responded to the call and made these new community members their family.
Sewing time at Makers' Circle is happening every other Saturday, 10 am - 2 pm
Cincinnati has been the selected destination among 34,000 refugees resettled in the US since then. Each month, Catholic Charities, the only refugee resettlement organization in Cincinnati, resettles about 150-200 refugees in the area. A total of 11,000 Bhutanese refugees now call Cincinnati home with the majority being secondary migrants from other cities. The new of the successes realized by those Cincinnati refugees quickly traveled to the others originally resettled in other cities such as Syracuse, New York and Seattle, Washington.
With her own efforts and a large network of volunteers and partnership that she has established, Sheryl has helped more than 2,000 people obtain jobs. For those who do not speak English, she has created a process in which people are mentored to work with them to learn skills in the restaurant industry, landscaping, and domestic work.
It is hard to describe Sheryl’s day-to-day work. She is constantly answering her cell phone, helping each single person with care and attention. When someone is new to a country and this way of life, every single thing they do will be daunting. Whether it is setting up an apartment, registering children for school, taking public transportation, getting a driver’s license, obtaining health insurance, and how to use the gas stove in the kitchen. Newly arrived refugee families setting up a fire pit to cook with in the middle of their back yard is not unheard of. It is extremely hard to move from a developing country and refugee camp after 20 years and adjust to the modern amenities that the US provides.
A day in the life
It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. Sheryl Rajbhandari was already in the hospital, visiting a critically ill four year old whose parents are refugees from Bhutan. She has been there for the past two weeks, mediating between the parents and medical staff, translating difficult medical concepts that are foreign for the new English speaking parents. The hospital provides translation services and a patient advocate, but the parents need more support and explanation of terms, long term prognosis and just dealing with the shock of the situation.
After the hospital visit, she met with a local community organization to pick up donations stored in her garage. Heartfelt Tidbits maintains a storage facility where people can drop off furniture which then is distributed to new families who need them. Then she took me to the Centennial Barn community garden, located on Compton Rd in Wyoming. Gardening is one of the number of talents the Bhutanese refugees have. Many had orchards or farms in Bhutan. There are about 56 plots intermingled amongst the other community gardeners that are farmed by the refugees. Heartfelt Tidbits requires refugees to accumulate community volunteer hours, and the community garden work is one of them. Last year, the Centennial Barn donated 1000 pounds of food to local agencies.
This year Heartfelt Tidbits collaborated with Turner Farm, who teach the refugees more gardening skills. Peter Huttinger, from Turner Farm, offered a program called, “Learn, Earn, Grow”, where refugees can earn a garden bed frame and soil when completed a number of volunteer hours. Refugees have to attend gardening classes, visit the farm, and work in the community garden plot on “garden work day”. The joy that came from gardening is apparent in their faces. When we visited the garden that morning, we found that a group have walked over two miles, on the street with no sidewalk, just to visit and hang out at the garden.
Visit to Turner Farm in June 2015.
The concept of refugee agriculture of course is not new and has been developed in other cities, such as in Kansas City (by International Rescue Committee), called New Roots. However, the approach that Turner Farm and HT have is organic (no pun intended) and fueled by the enthusiasm of the refugees to learn more and to contribute what they know. Next year, Heartfelt Tidbits is hoping to build a 3-acre community garden in Colerain Township, the area where most refugees live.
Working their way to Citizenship
With a refugee status, a person holds a permanent resident card that’s valid for five years. Before it’s expired, they need to apply for US citizenship to maintain their legality. The main barrier is language, and some elderly refugees from Bhutan cannot read. This is the main challenge Sheryl faced in her ESL class, where the class is growing while the skills are varied. She hopes to gain more volunteers who can work with refugees in different level of English. The citizenship class is organized by tables of 4-5 refugees per volunteer. This is where learning is more effective. The class is currently hosted by the Christ Lutheran Church on Compton Rd. in Colerain, every Friday, from 9 am to 1 pm. Since 2011, Heartfelt Tidbits has helped 14 refugees to become US Citizens. They also offer scholarships to pay for the citizenship test to refugees in the past.
Making her way out of the job
Sheryl understood that empowering a community meant to give them tools to be independent. She and husband, Amsu, helped the community to form an association, named the Bhutanese Cincinnati Community. The organization has grown in the past five years, and it has become a place for the community to exercise their understanding of the non-profit culture and democracy in the US. Recently, the organization held their own election, organized their own programs such as Nepali Class for Kids and our working towards holding citizenship classes in Colerain Township and Forest Park. This past Saturday, the association organized their first volley ball tournament.
While most of Heartfelt Tidbits work is currently with Bhutanese refugees, they are not the only refugee population resettled in Cincinnati. There are approximately 25,000 refugees in the Greater Cincinnati are from Somalia, Burundi, Iraq, and Russia. With the possibility of the US commitment to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees by 2017, Heartfelt Tidbits is ready with the challenges ahead. Each refugee community offers their own challenge, with variety in education, cultural backgrounds and their experiences with conflict in their home country. Every refugee is going through a unique journey from fleeing the conflict zones to the resettlement country. With the current refugee crisis in Europe, Sheryl mentioned that the best thing to do as a community is to educate ourselves about refugees and what we can do to help them resettle in our community. Despite our differences, which are mostly just geographical, we are all humans who are searching for peace for our family.
Sheryl’s main driving force is empathy. She said she could never imagine leaving behind the life and the country for an unknown and then coming to a foreign country. If that had happened to her or her relatives, she would hope that they would get no less than she has been giving to the refugees through Heartfelt Tidbits.
The United Nations declared today, September 21st, as International Peace Day. It is our common responsibility to contribute to a peaceful world where we are. Sheryl Rajbhandari is doing her part.
What are you doing to bring peace to your community?
Note: This article was originally posted on September 21, 2015, but moved to the new website on November 11, 2015