Bijaya Khadka arrived in Rochester in 2009 as a Nepali refugee by way of Bhutan. He has worked in the community for years as the founder of House of Refuge and currently serves as chairperson of the New Americans Advisory Council.
At a recent New American Outreach Initiative meeting, Khadka shared a story of when his wife was pulled over by police. After stopping the car, her first instinct was to get out and approach the officers.
“She had no idea you’re not supposed to step out of your car, that’s what you do in her country,” says Khadka, who was upset with the officers when they berated her actions. “I felt anger because I had been working with the police for so many years trying to help, but they didn’t take the time to understand her.”
In the Rochester refugee community, even among those who have lived in the United States for years, cultural confusion with law enforcement has the potential for unreported crimes, distrust and tragic incidents.
“Nothing bad happened, but it could have,” adds Getachew Beshir, refugee program manager at Catholic Family Center, who recalls similar incidents with New Americans pulled over by law enforcement.
“If she was grabbing her purse or looking for ID, it could have,” Beshir says of the incident with Khadka’s wife.
Keith Stith, deputy chief for community engagement, was in attendance at the event and nodded in agreement as he listened, acknowledging the outcome could have been much different.
“I’m hearing that it seems like our (cultural diversity) training is not enough, and we need to work on improving that,” Stith says.
The panel discussion was the first between the New American Advisory Council and the Rochester Police Department. Using feedback from the discussions, the RPD plans to host a series of workshops to build further relationships with the refugee community. Stith hopes previous programs he instituted with diverse populations while working in New Jersey can serve as a guideline for this development.
While not as numerous in years past due to Trump-era policies and a decline in refugees staying in the area, they are still a significant group in the city. Rochester was among the primary choices for resettlers in New York, achieving the highest levels in 2016 with over 1,000 refugees. According to 2021 Census data, Monroe County has 64,000 foreign-born people with a third of those living in the city of Rochester. The refugee population is diverse; many in the area are Nepalese, Somali and Afghan with more from Ukraine as of last year.
Studies have shown refugees to be an economic boon to communities, revitalizing the city of Utica, for example. A 2017 study from the New American Economy found that refugees “can help reverse population decline and crime.”
Crime might be one of the reasons many refugees do not stay in Rochester. Both Khadka’s uncle and father were the victims of violence and others attending the panel discussion shared accounts of assaults, domestic violence, and property theft. Many of these crimes go unreported by the New American community due to past experiences and fears of future repercussions.
“Personally, I never liked police. I had bad experiences working with police officers back in our country,” says Khadka, who recalls being harassed due to his ethnic minority status in Bhutan.
“In many countries we come from, there are beautiful laws. But they are just laws on paper. They say you have a right to a lawyer, but you don’t get one. You have a right to fair treatment, but they throw you in jail,” Beshir says, who views ignorance of the legal system as part of the distrust issue. “Here in the U.S., (laws) are enforced. If that is the message, I think there can be success.”
In addition, fear of deportation and a lack of English language skills keep refugees from reporting crimes to the police. Khadka, Beshir, and Abdul Bakakkhail, founder of Afghan Society of Rochester NY, who was also in attendance, all said they sometimes are asked to serve as a cultural and linguistic translator before a refugee calls the police. For them, there needs to be trust between the groups before progress can be made.
“Trust doesn’t have to be in a big way,” says Beshir. “Saying ‘namaste’ to a Nepali or ‘salaam alaikum’ (to a Muslim) as a greeting, it shows you are trying to know that culture.”
Community Liaison Officer Moses Robinson agrees that trust is important. He believes RPD has been making efforts at reaching out, referencing Eid celebrations with the Somali community and the 2021 “Stop Asian Hate” rally at the Maplewood YMCA.
“We (at the RPD) want to be the center of change, but this is not just a city issue–the entire county should be involved,” Robinson says. “We’ve been doing this for a long time and this culture divide is hard to break through. There has to be some give and take.”
“It will take time,” Khadka acknowledges. “But (the New American Advisory Council) has been getting more phone calls more than ever. This shows it is working.”
Stith and the other RPD representatives are looking at a January date for new workshops and training. They also hope they can meet for more panels including a possible event with the Rochester International Academy, which they see as another important part of the New American community.