- Matthew Thorsen
- Prinsha, Megnath, Praveen, and Chhali Maya Neupane
Five years ago, Megnath Neupane was one of 17,000 Bhutanese living in an overcrowded refugee camp in eastern Nepal. He and his family were holed up in a tiny shack with a leaky plastic roof and no electricity or indoor plumbing.
Today, you could say 35-year-old Neupane is living the American dream. He owns a $353,000 duplex in Winooski with his wife, Chhali Maya, 8-year-old daughter, Prinsha, and 18-month-old son, Praveen. The rent he gets from the second unit, which houses 11 more Bhutanese refugees, covers the mortgage and property taxes for the entire building.
The Neupanes closed on their home on April 14, 2011, and have already paid down nearly half the $225,000 mortgage.
What’s the secret to their real-estate success?
“I strongly believe in sincerity, hard work, dedication, punctuality,” says Neupane, who works afternoon and evening shifts as a pharmacy technician at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. Being “friendly to everybody, especially our new culture.”
Neupane smiles often, and it’s easy to see why. He’s part of a growing population of Bhutanese in Vermont who are transitioning from being renters to being homeowners. Some, like Neupane, are even starting to buy investment properties. More income is only part of the motivation; Neupane wants to be in a position to help more recent immigrants get established.
“Typically, when people are forced to flee their homeland, they lose their homes and virtually all their possessions,” says Judy Scott, executive director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. “This instills a great respect for the value and security of owning a home in a democracy, where the right to own property cannot be abrogated.”
Neither VRRP nor its parent organization, the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, keep statistics on home-ownership rates among the immigrants they resettle. But while all refugee groups work hard to assimilate into American culture and put down roots, anecdotal evidence suggests the Bhutanese have proven especially successful in real-estate endeavors. They’ve accomplished this, she explains, by pooling their resources, keeping extended families under one roof and practicing extreme frugality.
On a recent visit to the Neupane home, we sat in their living room drinking chai tea and eating bowls of spicy Bhutanese soup made using instant Ramen noodles. On this particular afternoon, both Megnath and Chhali Maya were home, which they noted is unusual. On most days, the couple works at their respective jobs outside the home while a parent watches their toddler son.
Neupane, who’s one of four brothers, isn’t the only member of his family to own a home. In the last year, a younger brother built a new house in Colchester.
“We don’t work for seven days and spend for a night,” Neupane says, referring to the family’s fiscal discipline. They always eat home-cooked meals, never buy alcohol and don’t spend “a penny” on “unnecessary things.”
As Neupane conducted a tour of his home, he explained that his immediate family occupies the much smaller side of the duplex. Built in 2007, the house is cozy and modern, with an unfinished basement, an eat-in kitchen and three bedrooms on the second floor. Neupane’s daughter has her own room, but the baby sleeps in the master bedroom. A third bedroom is a guest room, where the Neupanes occasionally host newly arrived refugees, both Bhutanese and Iraqi, until they find permanent housing.
Next door, Neupane showed the other half of the duplex — a two-story unit that seems palatial in comparison to his own. It includes a huge eat-in kitchen, three bathrooms and a spacious living room. Upstairs, five large bedrooms with high ceilings are shared by 11 members of an extended Bhutanese family. Most were at work, except for a set of grandparents, their daughter and an infant grandson. Unable to communicate in English, they were seated in front of a large TV watching a VCR tape of a traditional Bhutanese dance.
Neupane was 11 — and had learned English in kindergarten — when his family was kicked out of Bhutan. He spent 19 years in a refugee camp but still managed to earn bachelor’s degrees in both chemistry and education at a nearby university in Nepal.
Prepared as he was, Neupane knew he’d have to remake himself in America.
“I came to United States with hope I can do a lot better,” he says. “Even back in Nepal, I knew USA doesn’t just mean ‘United States of America,’ but ‘U Start Again.’”
Immediately after their arrival, the Neupanes lived with a Vermont family for about a week before moving into an apartment in Burlington’s Old North End. Despite two decades of refugee camp living, the condition of the property came as a shock.
“I cannot forget that apartment for my life. It was so nasty,” Neupane recalls, referring to the bedbugs, mice and cockroaches that infested the place. “It was totally opposite of my imagination of what America would be.”
Was it better or worse than the refugee camp? “Both have pros and cons,” he says.
Despite a popular misconception, resettled refugees receive housing assistance for only a few months. For those who want to buy their own homes, there are no preferential deals or federal-assistance programs that help them obtain mortgages at a lower-than-market rate.
Like most new Americans, Neupane didn’t have a credit history. Early on, however, he heeded the advice of friends and advisers at VRRP and applied for a credit card — his first-ever form of personal identification.
“I really worked hard building up the credit,” Neupane explains. Today, he says, he urges his own tenants to do the same. As each tenant pays just a small portion of their income in rent, they, too, are able to put away money.
Several miles away, Lalit Adhikari, 32, welcomes a visitor into his large house in Burlington’s New North End. Adhikari, 32, was born in Bhutan in the same village as Neupane. The oldest of five children, he lived there for seven years until the government imprisoned his father, a lawyer, for being a Hindu.
“I had to take care of everything when my dad was put in prison,” Adhikari recalls. “The government wouldn’t release him until we say we’re happy to leave the country.”
Adhikari spent 19 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before moving to the United States. He arrived on June 2, 2008, with little more than the clothes on his back and 50 Nepalese rupees in his pocket — about one dollar.
Four years later, on June 6, 2012, Adhikari closed on a spacious house on almost a quarter acre, where he lives with six other family members: his wife, parents, brother, sister and 2-year-old son. The family bought the house by pooling their resources. His mother is the only family member who doesn’t work outside the home; she stays home to watch her grandson.
“The Bhutanese have their heritage of families living together and finding the resources to help each other,” says Adhikari, who paid $299,000 for the house. “That helps us a little bit, with all of us working together to buy a house.”
Back in Nepal, Adhikari was a mathematics and science teacher. But because his college degree isn’t recognized in the United States, his first job in Vermont was washing dishes at Tiny Thai restaurant in Winooski. One day his brother and sister stopped by to visit him at his new job.
“When they saw me, they started crying,” he recalls. “I had a good job in my country, so they thought I’d get the same kind of job over here.” Adhikari quit after one week and found another job at IBM. Later, with his family’s help, he bought an Indian grocery in Winooski, which he sold after two years to help pay for this house. Today he works at the Rhino Foods factory in Burlington with several other family members. While the work isn’t what he trained for in Nepal, Adhikari says, “It’s better than before.”
Janice Battaline, a real estate agent with REMAX North in Colchester, has helped nearly a dozen Bhutanese families buy their first homes. Battaline didn’t represent either the Neupanes or the Adhikaris but says their stories are consistent with other Bhutanese clients she’s had, who have purchased property in Essex Junction, Burlington, Winooski and Colchester.
“They’re such hard workers — oh, my gosh!” she says. “They’ll each work two or three jobs, whatever it takes, to save up to get their own home.”
Battaline, who first connected with the Bhutanese community about five years ago when she and her husband became VRRP volunteers, notes that these families are providing an invaluable service to Chittenden County’s housing market by moving up the real-estate chain, thereby making more rentals available to immigrants who have arrived more recently.
Indeed, while Neupane was showing off his Winooski duplex, he received a cellphone call from his real estate agent about an investment property, which he planned to visit later that afternoon. Ultimately, he said, he hopes to become a full-time property manager.
His goal isn’t to be rich, Neupane said, but “prestigious” within his community.
“I don’t want to be a ‘landlord,’” he added emphatically. “I just want to be someone who helps my community.”