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Reassuring words for immigrants about the census

The last time 38-year-old Chandra Gurung was counted in a national census was in Bhutan in 1991, and it led to the expulsion of more than 105,000 Bhutanese of Nepali descent.

The last time 38-year-old Chandra Gurung was counted in a national census was in Bhutan in 1991, and it led to the expulsion of more than 105,000 Bhutanese of Nepali descent.

Authorities "wanted to know if your parents and grandparents were born in Bhutan," she recalled. "If they weren't, you were forced to leave."

Gurung said that she had met the parentage requirement but that her husband's family had not. She moved with him and his family to one of seven United Nations-run resettlement camps outside Bhutan, a small kingdom between India and China.

Bhutan characterized the relocation in the 1990s as an overdue correction of a decades-old problem of illegal immigration. Human-rights groups called it ethnic cleansing.

Now, with some apprehension, Gurung faces another count: the 2010 U.S. Census.

As a refugee living legally in South Philadelphia since June, she knows her life is very different today. But the past is not easily forgotten. Filling out the 10-question census form gives her pause.

The questionnaire does not inquire about immigration status. Nonetheless, immigrants are among the toughest populations to count. Some are here illegally and want to avoid notice. Others, although legal residents, come from countries where being counted was the first step in singling them out for trouble.

To offset those bad experiences, local groups that work with immigrants are helping them understand the U.S. Census.

Meeting with her caseworker at the Nationalities Service Center - a Philadelphia nonprofit offering social, educational, and legal services to immigrants - Gurung wanted to know how the information she provides will be used.

"It's primarily used for determining how much federal money will go to your community," Heidi West explained through Nepali translator Yuki Poudyal.

Resettling the Bhutanese refugees has been a long and thorny process. Most had hoped to return to their homeland, but negotiations under the auspices of the U.N. went nowhere.

Within the last few years, some Western countries have stepped up efforts to welcome them. Local advocates for the Bhutanese say about 100 refugees were resettled here, mostly in South Philadelphia.

Of the eight families at the census orientation Monday at the service center's office near 12th and Arch Streets, five said their English-speaking friends or relatives had helped them fill out the census forms they received in the mail. Three families said they needed help or wanted to know more before proceeding.

Some had arrived in Philadelphia as recently as February and sported the knitted caps, pastel scarves, and side-tied blouses of their former home. They took seats in a conference room decorated with hand-drawn pictures of foreign flags and useful phrases in English: "Excuse me." "Please repeat." "Please speak slowly." "I don't understand."

Juliane Ramic, the center's director of social services, welcomed the families, praising their skill at getting around Philadelphia by bus and their children's success in school. With Poudyal translating, she pitched them on the census.

"Today," she said, "we will talk to you about another milestone that will connect you to the community and give you recognition."

Ganga Bastola, 36, listened intently, holding 3-year-old son Anil on her lap. Shivadevi Kafle's 5-year-old daughter, Prashila, and 3-year-old son, Mahendra, scampered on the floor.

Manmaya Kafle, 60, recalled the series of censuses in Bhutan in the 1990s and pressure on ethnic Nepalis to leave. Bastola recalled that one of her brothers had been arrested while protesting the expulsions and died in prison.

West assured the refugees that their census answers would remain confidential. Ramic told them that although a head count might have been used in the past to exclude them, the U.S. count was an "inclusive" exercise.

The refugees who already had filled out the forms reassured the few holdouts. And as the hour-long orientation came to a close, even the initially wary Gurung was reaching for a pen.

"I was a little worried," she said.

Then, with her caseworker's help, she began filling out the form, identifying herself, her husband, their three children, and a son-in-law as their new household in America.