MANCHESTER, N.H. — Susmik Lama moved to South Philadelphia from Nepal in 2007. She was the only Nepali student at Furness High School and, later, in college. But she quickly felt at home, even as her family struggled to pay for housing, college tuition, and unexpected medical bills.
It was an American Dream realized gradually. And looking back, she says it shaped her politically.
Now Lama, 28, has moved to New Hampshire to work as a field organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Part of her job is to reach out to immigrant and refugee communities in the state, which has a particularly high number of Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. Her parents also relocated to the state after her dad got a job opportunity here, and the couple volunteer for Sanders.
“I have friends who’ve come here for education. … I know someone who is a domestic worker and I know how people have struggled with visa situations here," Lama said last week. "For him to have such an inclusive plan that incorporates every single person, for me in that plan I see faces, not just policies.”
There doesn’t appear to be public polling on immigrants and refugees specifically, but Sanders seems to have strong support among them in New Hampshire and elsewhere. A slate of leaders in the Bhutanese, Rohingya, and Congolese communities endorsed Sanders in August, and there are several nationwide “Bhutanese for Bernie Sanders” and “Nepal for Sanders” Facebook groups. No similar groups exist for other Democratic candidates.
Sanders was an outspoken critic of how the United States handled the Syrian refugee crisis and has staked out arguably one of the most liberal approaches to immigration. He often talks about how his father emigrated from central Europe, broke, and sold paint to support his family.
Lama, who is based in the campaign’s Manchester office, thinks Sanders’ policies on refugee and immigrant inclusion have attracted the eye of communities that hadn’t otherwise been engaged politically. President Donald Trump’s election activated her interest in politics — as did working in medicine as a biochemist and seeing problems with access to the health-care system.
Lama’s parents also became more engaged since she joined the campaign. Her father has voted Democratic since becoming a U.S. citizen but never volunteered with a candidate until Sanders. Her mom’s momo (a type of dumplings) have become a favorite campaign office snack.
“He tries to lift up the poor people, and that’s very important to me,” Kalyan Lama, Lama’s father, said of Sanders. “Looking out for poor people, for health insurance, minimum wage — this is my second language. I don’t know how to say all of it, but whenever he’s talking, I feel it so strong in my heart.”
More than 200,000 Nepalese live in the United States, with the largest populations in Texas, followed by New York and California. There are an estimated 96,000 Bhutanese in the United States, many of whom immigrated to this country from U.N. refugee camps in Nepal after Bhutan expelled more than 100,000 people in the early 1990s. Some settled in New Hampshire, along with larger populations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg.
Nepal and Bhutan have different politics and cultures, but both border India and share the same language, and certain festivals and traditions. The United States received 7,100 refugees from Bhutan in 2018 and about 8,500 from Nepal. Bhutan was the fourth most common country of origin for immigrants in Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2015, before being surpassed by Syria in 2016 and Congo in 2017.
Suraj Budathoki is a Bhutanese refugee who also works for Sanders’ campaign in Manchester. He became a refugee at age 9, a victim of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan, and lived for 19 years in refugee camps with his family in Nepal. When he moved to the United States, he had a notion of what to expect: “The land of abundance, land of opportunity," he said. "No poverty, no homelessness, no discrimination.”
His first job stocking grocery shelves paid $7 an hour. He immediately had to find a second job. “The reality I found was very different,” Budathoki said.
Eventually Budathoki enrolled in English classes and earned a degree from Southern New Hampshire University. He founded an organization for Bhutanese refugees, which has expanded to serve all immigrant and refugee populations.
The barriers to political engagement are huge for many refugees and immigrants, Budathoki said, from language to lack of knowledge — and even disbelief that elections could be open to all citizens. Many Bhutanese refugees living in the United States, Budathoki said, spent their lives under a monarchy or in a refugee camp, uninvolved in any democratic process.
Lama’s support for Sanders has as much to do with his policies regarding refugees and immigrants as his Medicare for All plan. Lama spent two years taking classes at Drexel University at Hahnemann University Hospital. As part of that postbaccalaureate program, she also worked with low-income patients at clinics around Philadelphia, encountering many people with no health insurance or inadequate coverage. At the same time, she was dealing with her own medical issues — anemia and a jaw disorder that caused migraines. Therapies came with pricey co-pays and insurance didn’t cover all of her medications.
Last summer, she saw Hahnemann closed and watched her new boss, Sanders, head down to Philadelphia to protest.
“That was a Philadelphia story, and I’m pretty sure people here in [New Hampshire] and all over can relate to that story — people putting profit before people and a hospital shutting down,” she said.
In Manchester last week, Lama trained volunteers on how to make calls in the critical days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Sanders is leading by about four percentage points in New Hampshire, according to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average.
Lama led the office in a virtual video conference call with the other field offices. It started with a quote from Sanders: “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” She asked people on the call to share whom they are fighting for.
For Lama, it’s some of the people she met working in clinics in Philadelphia. She hopes to return to the city for medical school and to become a cardiologist. Her family still owns their home near the Italian Market, close to the pho restaurant and taco stand she often craves. And she’s still a registered Pennsylvania voter who will be casting her vote in the state.
“Philadelphia is my home," Lama said. "I was born in Kathmandu and raised in Kathmandu and I was that Kathmandu girl. When I moved to Philly, Philly was my home away from home. Philly has become my Kathmandu.”