My friend, Steve called me one day with an idea. He thought he would like to use his charcoal drawing skills to draw pictures of some of our refugee friends and wondered if I would be willing to write their stories. He imagined a book or an art exhibit. Intrigued, I said I would think about it. Not long after, my videographer friend Andy sent me a message on Facebook. “I want to do something to support refugees. Do you have any ideas?” he wrote. A few days and a couple of conversations later, New Neighbors was born. And my faith in God once again increased. These crazy “coincidences” happen in my life often enough for me to recognize that God is still up to something in this world and that He most often works through people who are willing to love others. I sure do love the people God has sent my way. I would love for you to meet one: Shyam Rai.
“It’s like a dream,” he says. “Sometimes I think about my life in Bhutan and Nepal and my life in America seems like it must be a dream.” Shyam Rai’s life took a difficult turn before he was born. His father died leaving his mom and three year old brother alone to survive. His mom would trade labor for rice or oil. Once a year she would purchase one new set of clothes for Shyam–one outfit to be worn for the year. He did not own a pair of shoes until age 12 after he had quit school to provide for his mom. Once he started carrying oranges to market for a neighbor, he was able to purchase salt and food. Life was hard, but they were happy in the beautiful mountainous area of Bhutan.
Then the king of Bhutan started instituting a series of repressive acts against the ethnic Nepalese people who had been living in South Bhutan for 100 years: citizenships revoked, homes demolished, arrests and torture, and eventually eviction. When Shyam was only 13 years old, his relatives and neighbors began fleeing the country. As his mother wrestled with depression unable to clearly think through options, Shyam led as they left the only country he had ever known.
They arrived in a Nepal refugee camp on May 15, 1992 during a cholera outbreak. People were dying every day from diarrhea and disease. Thousands of people gathered under tents and bamboo huts.
Teenage Shyam began attending school finishing the equivalent of 7th grade before he once again looked for ways to support his mother and now his very young wife. As he was both hard working and industrious, over time he earned the respect of his sub-sector of the refugee camp and was voted in for the volunteer position coordinating the United Nation’s biweekly food distribution and arbitrating disagreements in the camp. Eventually he heard about the opportunity to be placed in another country. After 15 years of sitting in a refugee camp with few resources and no hope for a different future, he saw the possibility for a new life. He paid 25 rupees to the Prime Minister of Nepal to apply.
In January of 2009, his relatives and camp friends gathered around to tearfully say goodbye to Shyam, his mother, his wife and three young children as they boarded a plane to begin their journey to America. Five flights later they landed in Lansing Michigan where their immigration case manager offered them coats before stepping outside into the wintery January landscape.
And everything was different.
The airplane food looked nothing like anything they had ever eaten. He remembers looking at a salad and thinking, “Why are they feeding me the forest?” The children were given a small box of Fruit Loops and started arguing over it because it looked like a very spicy snack food they had eaten in Nepal. Imagine their surprise when it was not spicy at all but sweeter than anything they had ever tried! The first night in their house, they kept waking up hearing the furnace kick on and off. They had never heard such noises and wondered what people were trying to come into their house.
Shyam quickly realized that his greatest need was to learn English. As he thought over his life experience, he considered that Christians were people he had seen care about and help people. Though he was not a Christian, he thought if he could find a church, someone would help him. Through a beautiful working together of several followers of Jesus, Shyam and his family connected with Lansing Central Free Methodist Church and are now members of the Kripa Nepali Free Methodist congregation. Eight years after starting a new life in America, the Shyam Rai family owns their own home and two cars. His brother and sister and their families also now live in Lansing. Though Shyam still feels that his biggest struggle is that he only understands about 50% of the English language, his three children speak fluently and are excelling in school.
After being rejected by his home country and always considered a stranger in his refugee camp country, he entered the U.S. where he is thankful for freedom and equality. He didn’t need a dad or a lot of money to be given a chance. Shyam is now a citizen of the United States of America. It is a dream come true.