Moon Area senior offers friendship, hoops to refugees

Published on Apr 09 2009 // News Analysis
By By Anya Sostek

It’s the kind of lesson that would usually be taught in an elementary school gym class, if not before.

“There’s two types of passes in basketball: chest pass and bounce pass,” said Suyesh Acharya, an 18-year-old senior at Moon Area High School, demonstrating both as he led a basketball clinic Sunday morning at Wallace Park in Whitehall.

As part of “Bhutanese Basketball Camp,” Mr. Acharya was instructing a group of boys and men ranging from age 11 to young adulthood.

All of them moved to the Pittsburgh area from refugee camps in Nepal, some as recently as a month ago.

Mr. Acharya, who was born in Nepal and moved to the U.S. by way of Thailand, organized the clinic as part of his senior project in the hopes that basketball would help the Bhutanese fit into their new homes.

“When we moved here 10 years ago from Thailand, I already knew how to play basketball and that helped me make friends,” he said.

There are now about 180 Bhutanese refugees in the Pittsburgh area, living in Whitehall, Castle Shannon and Green Tree, with as many as 1,000 expected to move to Pittsburgh in the next several years.

Just this week, another family arrived and two more families are expected later this month.

The refugees are members of a primarily Hindu Nepali ethnic group that lived in Bhutan for generations before fleeing in the early 1990s after the Bhutanese government instituted restrictive policies against them.

More than 100,000 such refugees live in seven United Nations refugee camps in Nepal, often surviving on sparse rations and without electricity and running water.

The United States has announced it will resettle 60,000 of the refugees, and Pittsburgh received its first families last spring.

Bhangawat Phuyal, 15, was born in a refugee camp in Nepal and moved to Whitehall in June.

Many days after he comes home from Baldwin High School, where he’s a freshman, he and other refugees play soccer in the outfield of Wallace Park’s baseball diamond.

Through soccer they’ve met Africans and Americans, he said. Even on the basketball court, the soccer influence is clear. Camp participants often scoop the balls up from the court with their feet rather than bending over, and one particularly new arrival first shot the ball toward the hoop with both arms over his head, in the style of a soccer throw-in.

With Mr. Acharya’s instructions in both English and Nepali, however, their movements started to look less awkward. He taught them to dribble — first walking with the ball and then running — and showed them proper shooting form, supporting the ball with one hand and guiding it with the other.

As part of the clinic, each participant got his own basketball and “Bhutanese Basketball Camp” T-shirt. As the day progressed, the grounds around the court filled with toddlers playing on a swingset and grandparents in traditional dress who wandered down from the Prospect Park apartments.

“He helps us,” said 19-year-old Chitra Gautam midway through the clinic. “It’s getting easier to dribble and to hit the target.”

Though Mr. Gautam’s absolute favorite sport is table tennis, the Keystone Oaks High School senior is more than willing to give basketball a chance.

“In U.S., lots of people are very popular in sports,” he said. “I hope sports gets us more friends.”

Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.

(Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thursday, April 09, 2009)