SALT LAKE CITY — Champha Magar and Kiran Gurung met and married in Salt Lake City, but both were born in Bhutan. Their families became displaced during the Lhotshampa refugee crisis of the 1980s.
"My parents told me that it's hard to live in Bhutan because they don't allow us to practice our religion and culture, they have a fight so it's not safe for us," said Magar, noting she does not remember much before life at camp.
The couple said life in refugee camps was not easy. "We ate, but not too much," said Gurung, explaining that compared to camp everything in their new home seemed "beautiful." And now, there is always food on the table.
Both Magar and her husband were just toddlers when they arrived with their families in Nepal.
"We stayed almost 18 or 19 years in the camp and then we came here," said Magar.
According to a report from the United Nations refugee agency, the Lhotshampas were descendents of Nepalese and migrated to Bhutan in the 19th century. The third-largest ethnic group in Bhutan, the Lhotshampas practice Hinduism and never integrated with Bhutan’s Buddhist Druk majority.
The agency reports that religious and cultural persecution of the Lhotshampas in the 1980s caused 100,000 people to take refuge in seven refugee camps in southeastern Nepal.
Gurung, who arrived in Salt Lake City a couple of years prior to Magar, said at first he was "scared, because it's all very difficult." He noted that, at the time, "only few Nepalese (had come) from my country."
After becoming oriented and obtaining employment, Gurung wanted to help other Nepalese refugees to do the same. That desire to serve led him to his wife.
"It was very difficult, the language and culture," said Magar, noting that "it's really hard without cars to go shopping." She said Gurung helped her and other Nepalese refugees by driving them to go grocery shopping or to doctor's visits.
After six months of getting to know each other, the couple married. They faced a new kind of challenge as they started their family.
"My baby, Alex, was born premature, like 25 weeks (old)," Magar explained. She broke down in tears as she described the moment the doctor told her it wasn't likely Alex would survive and would have a number of disabilities if he did.
"They want(ed) to do a surgery because maybe he might not be able to live," she said.
As his wife wiped tears from her eyes, Gurung chimed in, "one time the doctor told us (Alex was breathing) only (thanks to) oxygen (from a ventilation device) but (they said) 'he's not (fully) alive.'"
Gurung said doctors suggested Alex be taken off the assisted breathing device, but Magar refused to let him go. As she spoke she glanced over at her son playing with an iPad on a nearby couch.
Doctors told her she would not likely be able to have another child, but she went on to give birth to a healthy girl, Allysia, who is now 4 years old.
Alex is now 8 years old and has autism, cerebral palsy and other health issues that limit his ability to control his motor functions. For years the family did they best the could to care for him in the home they had, and thanks to an upgrade from a local interior design studio, now have a space to help with some of their needs.
“Their home was just not working for them," said Jennifer Stagg, who decided to help the family upgrade their home.
Stagg, who set out with her husband to remodel the home, wanted to do "whatever we can do to help (the family) have the best start."
Changes to the home were revealed at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday.
"It's World Refugee Day and rather than tweet or just do something from my office, I wanted to get out and see what was happening," said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson after cutting the ribbon.
She noted that "When families like this come to our community, they are bringing (with them) a very different and an important perspective on our world as a whole and (one) that enriches this community."
The couple said the home remodel provided their children with a more functional living space.Comment on this story
"They have a playing room inside and then it's all beautiful and nice," said Magar. For her, the new in-home washer and dryer will make life a lot easier since she will no longer have to visit a laundromat.
"I have to do laundry every week because (Alex) is messy all the time so it (is) really hard," she said.
Intellibed for provided new mattresses, Walker Edison donated furnishings, and Denise Sanchez of Homeworks in San Antonio funded the washer and dryer, according to a news release. Other donors included Benjamin Moore Paint and Former NFL player Merril Hoge, who provided a specialty bed for Alex.