Bhutanese refugee strives for foothold in new Dallas home

DALLAS, TX — (AP) It’s two miles from Shyam Rai’s apartment to the Cheesecake Factory, where he works nights as a dishwasher.

The trip takes the Bhutanese refugee over 30 minutes.

About halfway into the ride, he cuts through a parking lot and passes some construction before he emerges at Northwest Highway.

He wheels his bike up the sidewalk and pauses, watching traffic. There are seven lanes here – four to make it through before he reaches the median. But this is the fastest way. There’s a break in traffic.

He crosses.

In a city known for its car culture and conspicuous wealth, refugees still struggle to find the most basic things they need to start a new life. In Rai’s case, it’s a bike: It offers him freedom, but it exposes him to risks as well, The Dallas Morning News reported.

There are no bike lanes on the roads Rai travels between his home in Vickery Meadow and his workplace across from NorthPark Center. His trip leaves him exposed to heat, traffic and criminal activity. But for Rai, 29, and his wife, Suk Maya, who have been in the U.S. only a year, bikes make employment possible.

The International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization that assists refugees, gave Rai his bike. For the past two years, the IRC has worked with nonprofit Spokes for Folks to collect and distribute used bikes, as well as lights and the helmets required under Dallas code. When donations run low, they sometimes buy the bikes.

Upon arriving in the U.S., refugees receive four months of government assistance. IRC volunteers teach them to trust police, lock their doors and distinguish shampoo from soap without reading English. The IRC helps them find housing, often in Vickery Meadow, and works closely with businesses to find suitable jobs, said Debi Wheeler, executive director of IRC Dallas.

“Refugees don’t have cars when they arrive, so we teach them how to ride the bus. We show them how to ride the (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) rail. And then we also have been providing bikes,” Wheeler said.

But Dallas’ size can make travel difficult. DART is often too expensive, out of range or doesn’t reach the workers’ destination in time. For many, cars are out of the question. Language barriers make some jobs tough to land, but unreliable or expensive transportation can make employment impossible to keep.

The program has given out around 35 bikes over the course of about two years, said Jim Stokes, IRC’s employment coordinator. Staff members teach the refugees bike safety and show them the safest routes to get to their workplaces – though refugees like Rai don’t always stick to those routes.

Still, the transition can be difficult. Dallas has ranked as one of America’s worst biking cities. And many of the refugees have spent years in camps, where roads have fewer rules.

Rai’s family fled political persecution in Bhutan when he was young. He spent most of his life in a Nepal refugee camp, where he worked in construction and met his wife. Their 9-month-old daughter, Sophia, was born in Dallas.

Rai speaks through a translator, smiling often. He says Dallas is big and loud. But he likes it here. There’s a stack of diapers and baby supplies on a table in his apartment’s back room, a reminder that his young family depends on his dishwashing job to survive. The biggest transition, for him, was learning where to ride his bike.

“I wish I can ride my bike in the middle of the road, but I can’t do that here,” Rai said.

It works, if tenuously, for now. After the road bike donated by IRC had a flat tire, he bought another model for $115 at Wal-Mart. Biking is faster, but it makes him tired as soon as he starts his shift. He hopes the bike is only temporary. His dream, he says, is to stop dodging cars and buy his own.

On a map, Rai’s route is a jagged line of crossings and cut-throughs. It’s not the route the IRC taught him when it gave him the bike, but it’s the shortest path – one he has forged over nine months of biking alone.

He wears his dishwashing uniform during his ride – black cotton pants, black shoes and a black T-shirt with the restaurant’s logo. It’s just after 4 p.m., and with a high temperature of 102 degrees, Dallas is under a heat advisory. Despite the heat, he says, he’s most worried when he travels home after his shift.

“My job is basically at night, and it’s not safe for me to ride at night,” Rai said.

The highway crossing takes patience, but once he makes it over, Rai is nearly home free. He heads toward the shopping center, pedals around back, hops off his bike and slides it behind a low wall. He removes his helmet and unclips his baseball cap from its resting place on his handlebars.

As he steps away from his bike, another man in the same uniform wheels his bike behind the low wall.

He leaves it next to Rai’s, and together they walk in to start their shifts.

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