A place to call home

Once a victim, Bhutanese refugee Ryan Koirala is now a protector.

Ryan Koirala barely notices the three young men trailing him.

It’s late, around 10 p.m. on a warm summer evening in 2009. Ryan has just met his older sister, Anupa, at a bus stop in the Stone Mountain area to accompany her home. She’s returning from a shift at a McDonald’s a few stops away.

Ryan’s friend, Santi Ram, tags along.

Behind them, the three men dart out of a gas station near the bus stop and hurry along Central Drive.

They are following us, Santi says in Nepali in a hushed tone.

Ryan shakes his head. It’s a coincidence, he thinks. They just happen to be walking in the same direction along the busy street lined with budget apartment rentals, sparse pine trees and empty potato chip bags. Cars whiz by, but there are no other pedestrians on the street this particular Friday night.

Ryan has warm, espresso-colored eyes and flop of black hair. Just 16 in 2009, he’s still adjusting to his new life in America. He’s still learning English and how to use public transportation to get from his family’s tiny, two-bedroom apartment in the Stone Mountain area to the sprawling DeKalb Farmer’s Market, where he buys weekly supplies of curry powder, vegetables, rice, cloves and black tea.

When Ryan moved to Georgia, he imagined a place with soaring, steel-and-glass skyscrapers shimmering in the sun by day, twinkling with lights at night — images drawn from American movies. For Ryan, the United States represented unbridled freedom, an elusive, deeply desired concept for a boy who grew up in a refugee camp.

Now he was here, in metro Atlanta, having arrived just three months earlier, trying to carve a path for himself in this strange new world.

Almost home, Ryan, Anupa and Santi walk into a dark, unlit alleyway on the edge of their apartment complex. Even the single bulb that usually lit their way is dark.

Suddenly, the three men are upon them.

Don’t move, one of them spits as he presses a handgun against Santi’s temple. Another man grabs Anupa’s purse. It only contains a few dollars, just enough to cover public transportation.

Ryan’s lips quiver. His arms and legs shake uncontrollably. On instinct, he runs.

The men flee. No one is hurt. But the robbery shatters a sense of calm and triggers fear, confusion.

For the next seven days, Ryan remains inside his apartment.

He’s far away from the dusty refugee camps of Nepal, and perhaps even farther away from the life he anticipated.

Photo: Ryan and his brother Basan, 11, at their home in Clarkston. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

2. Life in camp

Before coming to the United States, all Ryan knew was life in a Nepali refugee camp. He was born there in 1992. His parents named him Ram after the Hindu god.

He and his family lived in a simple bamboo hut with a thatched roof and dirt floors. Thick clouds of smoke enveloped the camp from the coal they burned to cook and stay warm. Basic outhouses were strung along dusty dirt roads that turned into rivers of mud when heavy rains fell. The rain often seeped into their tiny abode.

Every 15 days his family received rations of rice, oil and salt.

One day when Ryan was about 10 years old, he lay on the floor of his hut and watched a snake slither up the newspaper-padded wall. He stared at the serpent in terror, shouting in alarm, recalling stories he’d heard about a little girl in camp who’d died from a snake bite. He sighed with relief when the snake slipped away.

Despite the difficult conditions, Ryan had his friends and enjoyed going to school.

“I didn’t know a life outside the camp,” said Ryan. “Me and the other kids were all in this together, so we had strong relationships.”

He loved playing with glass marbles and competing in soccer games played with balls fashioned out of plastic and rope.

Ryan thought he might live in camp forever. There seemed to be only one way out — education.

His mother, Bhakti Koirala, and his father, Tila Koirala, continuously stressed the importance of doing well in school. Top students who graduated could potentially find jobs as teachers, even doctors, outside the camp.

Ryan’s parents often repeated the same message: If you don’t do well in school, you won’t get a good job. Doing well in school will keep us moving forward. So Ryan would practice basic English and study at night by the light of a kerosene lamp.

In a way, Ryan’s journey started before he was born when his parents lived with baby Anupa in Bhutan, a tiny and remote kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and China. Descendants of people who left Nepal during the 1800s in search of better farmland in Bhutan, Ryan’s family and others were known as Lhotshampas, or “People of the South.”

They lived there peacefully until the mid-1980s, when Bhutan’s king grew worried that the largely Hindu Lhotshampas population might outnumber the traditional Druk Buddhist culture. So he barred the speaking of Nepali in schools, required Druk dress and stripped citizenship for many Lhotshampas. Tens of thousands were either expelled or fled the country. Ryan’s family was forced to settle in one of seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal for Bhutanese refugees. Once there, Bhutan refused to take them back and Nepal refused to give them citizenship. There they lived in limbo.

In 2007, the United States launched a program to resettle tens of thousands of Bhutanese languishing in refugee camps. Ryan’s parents filed an application.

Metro Atlanta emerged as a top destination. More than 4,800 Bhutanese refugees have come here since 2008, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

In the spring of 2009, Ryan and his family boarded a plane in Kathmandu. From there, they flew to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, then New York City to Atlanta. Ryan arrived at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport so sleepy, he could barely keep his eyes open. But he managed to spot a sign held up by a case manager with a local refugee agency that proclaimed his family’s last name in big letters — Koirala.

The Koirala family — mom; dad; Ryan, who was now 16; Anupa, 17; Tara, 13; Padam, 12; and Basan, 3 — was driven to their apartment in the Stone Mountain area. There they were greeted by a home-cooked meal of curry, vegetables and rice prepared for them by another refugee family from Nepal living in the same apartment complex.

Ryan (center) helps his parents Tila (left) and Bhakti operate a smartphone while they drink milk tea at their home in Clarkston. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Photo: Ryan and his brother Basan, 11, take a walk around their apartment complex in Clarkston. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

3. A safe place

After the robbery, Ryan shuddered at the thought of leaving his apartment. His family felt under siege. They gathered around a TV, watching one movie after another, alternating between Bollywood-style movies, and American action films.

A local police officer arrived at their apartment to file a report and offered advice for staying safe, telling the family of newcomers to avoid walking in the neighborhood at night, especially alone. The officer explained that Friday evenings were especially dangerous because it was payday, and thieves knew that many workers would be carrying around their paychecks in cash.

Ryan and his family huddled together in their living room and decided they needed to reach out for help. They connected with Ralph Parker, a retiree who lives in east Cobb and regularly volunteers his time to help the local refugee community. Parker sensed the family was on edge.

“They couldn’t believe this had happened to them,” said Parker, who worked in financial management. “The family finally gets here, thinking they are in a safe place.”

It wasn’t only the robbery making the family feel uneasy and vulnerable. Loud music and arguments spilled out of the apartment units all hours of the night. Ryan and his family felt a predatory stare from some residents. They felt like someone was ready to pounce on them at any time.

Parker encouraged the family meet with the local refugee services organization and request a move to another apartment complex, one closer to Clarkston, and in a better school zone.

Within days, Ryan and his family moved into a small apartment off Valley Brook Road where several other Bhutanese families lived. It was zoned for Druid Hills, a more desirable school. Two other Bhutanese families at their complex made the move, too.

The family strung up Christmas lights in the living room, hung posters of Hindu gods on the wall, and split up the two bedrooms — mom and daughters in one; father and sons in the other. Ryan started attending Druid Hills High School in the fall on 2009 as a freshman.

The teenager who had always been known as Ram decided to adopt the name of Ryan, for him a quintessential American name. It was a turning point.

In class, all of his teachers — geometry, social studies, science — seemed to speak so quickly, their accents unfamiliar. But little by little, he made strides. The words began to come more easily. He landed a part-time job at a Subway sandwich shop. He kept some of the money for himself to cover expenses like clothes and gave the rest to his parents. He was in charge of grocery shopping at the DeKalb Farmer’s Market once a week.

He enjoyed school. While math was always his favorite subject, his English teacher — Alyssa “Aly” Montooth — stood out.

“She was kind and enthusiastic, and everything about the way she taught was perfect,” said Ryan.

Ryan performed well in school, getting mostly A’s. When he saw his younger brother Padam not applying himself in school, Ryan spoke up.

“He is supportive and optimistic, but he is not afraid to call us out either,” said Padam. Now 21, he is studying engineering at Georgia State University. “He told me, ‘You should focus on your school instead of playing in the street.’ I was not applying myself. He was right.”

The family fell into a comfortable routine. Every night they gathered at a wooden table where they dined on curry vegetables and rice and sipped homemade chai. They shared details about their day and their school work. Sometimes they watched soccer games on TV. But mostly they talked about working hard and moving forward.

Ryan loved to take long walks. He could often be seen doing loops around his apartment complex, and about twice a week he climbed to the top of Stone Mountain.

He recalled one day in particular when he raced Padam to the top of Stone Mountain. Warm, sweaty and smiling, he stood at the top, 1,686 feet above sea level, and gazed at the horizon. The Atlanta metropolis glinted in the distance. To Ryan it felt like a vast, seemingly endless vista filled with possibilities.

Tara serves milk tea to her family (from left) father Tila, brother Ryan and mother Bhakti at their home in Clarkston. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Photo: Ryan suits up for his shift as a Clarkston police officer. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

4. True calling

After high school, Ryan enrolled at Georgia Perimeter College where he studied science and math. He became a U.S. citizen. But it wasn’t until he took an elective in criminal justice that he found his true calling.

Ryan arrived in this country apprehensive. Unsure what to expect, he was attacked by thieves. He knew what it meant to feel scared and vulnerable. Now he wanted to help people. He attended the police academy in Rome and upon graduation applied to the Clarkston police department, becoming the first refugee on the force.

Clarkston encompasses just 1.7 square miles, but it is considered the most ethnically and culturally diverse swath of land in the United States. People from around the globe — Myanmar, the Congo, Syria, Cambodia — have sought refuge here, fleeing wars and oppressive regimes. About a third of the 12,000 residents are Bhutanese refugees.

Homicides are rare in this tiny town five miles east of Decatur. More common are break-ins and domestic violence.

Ryan is a unique asset to the force because in addition to speaking Nepali, his background as a refugee helps connect the police force with the residents, many of whom have reason to fear authority figures based on the conditions they escaped in their home countries.

“We want to break walls. We want to strengthen the bonds between residents and police officers,” said Clarkston Police Chief Christine Hudson. “I understand where they are coming from, police are bad. We want residents to know we are here to help you.”

Ryan with children with refugee and immigrant children in Clarkston. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Photo: Ryan answers questions at a community meeting attended by immigrants eager to learn the customs and laws of their new home. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

5. Part of the community

In early November, Ryan, parked his police cruiser in a parking lot at a sprawling apartment complex in Clarkston and strolled into a small, makeshift classroom where an after-school program typically takes place.

But on this mild fall afternoon, moms and dads filled every student desk in a room decorated with the alphabet in big pastel-colored letters and cute drawings of animals. Word had spread that Ryan would be there to answer questions.

Slender and unassuming, Ryan, now 25, stood tall in his Clarkston police department uniform and answered the parents’ questions.

What is the minimum age a child can be to stay home alone?

Children younger than 8 years old should never be left alone, even for short periods of time. Children between the ages of 9 and 12, based on level of maturity, can be left home alone for brief periods of time.

Can you spank your children here?

Georgia law allows parents to spank their children, but you can not injure a child or that would cross the line into abuse.

Can you shoot an intruder?

If someone invades your home, and you fear harm or death, then yes, the law will generally protect you if you shoot an intruder.

Once the Q&A session was over, children began to flow into the classroom, but when Ryan stepped outside, the children followed him to his vehicle. There he turned on the blue flashing light and the children squealed with delight.

One by one, he allowed each child to sit in the police car and take turns using the loud speaker.

Hello? Hi… How are you?

The children and their parents gathered around Ryan for a group photo. Wearing a perfectly pressed navy-blue uniform, he smiled genially, his dark eyes crinkling at the corners.

Ryan Koirala arrived in the United States a nervous, anxious teenager who spent the first 16 years of his life without a place to call home. He was victimized by gun-toting criminals, but instead of letting it break him he was motivated to be a part of the solution. Today he is a confident police officer who spends his days protecting the community of Clarkston, the first place he ever truly called home.

Ryan Koirala suits up for his shift as a Clarkston police officer. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

New Americans

Four young adults share stories about their experiences as first-generation Americans from the challenges they encountered growing up in the United States to the rewards they reaped blending their heritage with American culture.

In addition to Ryan Koirala, we talk to Christie Thuy Pham, a Vietnamese American and senior at Georgia State University; Sunidhi Ramesh, who was born in India but moved here when she was a baby; and German Botello, who was born at Grady Memorial Hospital to two Mexican immigrants.


Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer. Previously she worked for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She was educated at the University of San Francisco. This is her 20th Personal Journey.

Read more of our Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.