At my company, we were recently asked to write a story that motivates us to advocate for financially underbanked/underserved consumers. I wrote this story about an elderly Nepali-Bhutanese refugee woman as an expression of what motivates me.
As she sat in the apartment complex in Louisville, Kentucky Nirmila thought to herself “The streets in America are so lonely. Where are all the people?” Nirmila reflected on the refugee camps in Nepal and instantly recalled the musty smoke of the mud stoves, the sharp crackle of buffalo gobar they used for fuel, and the nightly trips to the market to buy fresh spices, beans and herbs for the evening meal.
She missed the smell of incense, the sounds of goat herds settling down for the night, the look of a light glow as the family sat on the floor to eat dinner, laughing, shoveling down handfuls of fresh hot daal-bhat (lentils and rice) and the neighbors stopping in to get coal out of the small pile they shared.
All of these things brought back the close feelings of community and love in the camps in Nepal. Louisville was so cold. The walls were so white. The glass windows in their apartment kept the sounds from the outside world far away and muffled.
Nirmila was born in Bhutan as part of an upper caste Brahmin farming family. She is a part of a community of 300,000 Nepalis who immigrated to Bhutan and were cast out due to a form of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan over the past few decades. Until recently they had been living in refugee camps in Nepal after having been stripped of their wealth, dealt with split families and experienced culture shock. Her husband died from tuberculosis in the refugee camp. She has 3 sons- all married with 6 grandchildren. They all came to Louisville, Kentucky in March of 2010 as part of the United States asylum agreement with Nepal to re-settle the Nepali-Bhutanese.
Nirmila lives in what is called a “joint family.” Grandparents, children, and grandchildren all live together by choice. Multiple generations under the same roof is what the Nepali Bhutanese have always been used to and have continued that same pattern in the US. Nirmila’s son Alok has works nights at a meat packing facility. Her other two sons are still searching for a job and hesitate working at the meat packing facility since they are Brahmin and for generations have strictly stayed away from eating meat, much less butchering a large animal like cow or pig. Only Alok has a car and they rely on him heavily to drive the family for groceries, doctor’s appointments, the 6 children to school, and for any other appointments family members may have while he is not working. The two other brothers are learning how to drive, but it will be several months before they are ready to take the drivers test from the DMV.
Any money they have left over at the month goes into visiting relatives in other states, seeing friends who were resettled in other cities in the US, and saving for the weddings of younger members of the family. Their big screen TV is a status symbol, and provides entertainment for the whole family.
The banking system in the United States was a brief part of their orientation, but access and practicality is lacking.
Wearing her jewelry is part of her daily routine. A large nose ring was a gift from her mother in law when she married her husband Vishnu at age 15. Part of the inheritance passed down from generation to generation. Nirmila also prizes her mangalsutra (a locket and chain) as well as gold earrings that were passed down. She has worn this jewelry since her wedding day and it is more of a marker of status than a matter of personal style. With the rise in gold prices in the past few years, the value of gold jewelry in their home probably adds up to about $15,000 USD. In her mind, the safest place for it is around her neck, and on her ears.
With only one family member with a car, and the bank hours only open from 9-5pm, going to the bank is a huge inconvenience. Often times the family keeps their cash in jars in the kitchen, under bags of rice, and stuff precious family heirlooms inside plastic bags in clothes drawers.
One of the aid workers that assists in resettling the Nepali-Bhutanese community suggested using a safety deposit box for their valuables, but Nirmila had no understanding of this. She thinks to herself “Why would I keep my jewelry in a box!? And what if we get called for a wedding last minute and need to wear my gold (as often happens in the Nepali-Bhutanese community)? How will I get my jewelry when the bank is miles away? I don’t trust anyone to keep my valuables outside the home. Last time we put our valuables in the care of someone else, the government took it away.”
People like Nirmila who have huge cultural boundaries to cross are an example of people who are good at managing their money, but whose needs are not met by the rigid structure and hours of a bank. Financial services that are easy to use, flexible, and accessible by families like Nirmila’s are much needed.