Carnegie Mellon University

Kayla Lee

Kayla LeeMajors: Global Studies and Hispanic Studies
Minor: Politics and Public Policy
Adviser: Kenya Dworkin y Méndez
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Understanding the Economic Self-Sufficiency of Adult Bhutanese-Nepali Refugees in Pittsburgh Through English Language Proficiency: Towards a Theory of Refugee Self-Sufficiency

In discussions on refugee integration in the United States, English language proficiency is widely seen as a key factor in achieving economic self-sufficiency. The U.S. government and resettlement agencies prioritize finding jobs for refugee adults. Some critics have expressed concern that the high emphasis on employment does not provide refugee adults the opportunity to learn English. Usually, refugees are only able to obtain entry-level jobs because of their limited English language proficiency. This research project aims to explore, utilizing ethnographic methods, the validity of this correlation in the local context, with Bhutanese-Nepali refugees in Pittsburgh. By the end of the study, I will have identified and analyzed the factors that influence the Bhutanese-Nepali refugees’ understanding of economic self-sufficiency as a result of English language proficiency.


I found my interest in the topic of refugees when a translator from Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JF&CS) introduced me to a Bhutanese-Nepali family of four during my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon. My participation in Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment (FORGE), the student organization that volunteers with refugee families through JF&CS, was an opportunity to immerse myself in the Pittsburgh community, off-campus, through civic engagement. Two and a half years later, the family is my family away from home. As a freshman, I found the first couple of encounters awkward. Instead of conversations, the visits consisted largely of me talking and asking questions in English only to receive four blank stares. They saw me as their weekly English teacher, despite the fact that I had no formal training in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). This perception has drastically changed over the years from a distant teacher-student relationship to one closer to a family friend. I discovered that our relationship was not only significant in their connection to the Pittsburgh community, but a connection that allowed them to share their own culture through stories. Saturdays no longer begin with a new list of vocabulary words and matching photographs; Saturdays are for storytelling. Today, the family can contribute to at least 50 percent of the conversations in English. They want to practice, but occasionally, I will ask them to share their own language with me. Usually, their eyes light up as they begin to find comfort in sharing a story in a familiar language.

FORGE has opened a lot of doors for me over the years, both personally and professionally. During my summers at home, I had the opportunity to intern with Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Seattle. It led me to declare Global Studies as my primary major and to come to Washington, D.C. in order to connect with the larger community that is working with immigration and refugee policy. Here, I see storytelling as a powerful tool in advocacy. A major part of my internship at the Center for American Progress (CAP) was collecting the stories of refugees and immigrants. The topic of immigration and refugee resettlement cannot be discussed without the myriad of stories told by the immigrants and refugees themselves. The stories are what paint the picture of a perpetually changing demographic.

As I am inspired by the stories of immigrants and refugees, my own story is not as easy. When an employer, for example, asks, “What is your personal story?” Intuitively, I want to start with, "I was born and raised in Seattle." To someone I am meeting for the first time, it only makes sense to start from the very beginning. As I begin, I am simultaneously questioning the necessity of this introduction to a story that changes each time. Who cares about where I was born? Where will I take it from my place of birth? How do I make this conversation more engaging? Rather than talking about myself, I often talk about the lives of others that affected me.

It was not until I listened and told the stories of others that I began to understand the importance of knowing my own. The immigration story of my parents is somewhere I like to begin, because this is how I connected with my Bhutanese-Nepali family. It took me a while to see the impact my parents’ immigration story had in making the connection with the family. Listening to stories can inspire and spark curiosity, and to find ways to tell my own has taught me to self-reflect, another important skill. Other people’s lives affected me in unexpected ways and their stories were always more interesting than mine. They shaped me and this realization allowed me to see that storytelling serves an important purpose for me; it helps me understand how I am the individual I am.