As ART WORKS Projects reflects on our past 15 years amplifying the voices of those impacted by human rights abuses, we are revisiting our friends whose stories left an indelible mark on our journey together.
SANCTUARY/SUSTENANCE was first released in 2013 as a short film tracing the refugee journey. In 2015, AWP commissioned a series of visual stories exhibited in cities across the U.S. in order to take a closer look at families navigating resettlement, including following a refugee family’s first 30 days in Seattle after spending many years in a camp in Nepal. We asked photographer Erika Schultz to check in with the Biswa family to see how they continue to adjust to life in the U.S.
Relatives and International Rescue Committee caseworkers surround a smiling Birkha Biswa at Sea-Tac Airport in August. Birkha, with his wife and daughters, was the last of his family to be resettled in the United States from the refugee camp. For years, he wasn’t sure if they’d ever be reunited. “When I saw my parents, I felt like I found something which I had lost.” With the help of their family, the Biswas go grocery shopping for the first time at a Tukwila supermarket. Pranshu and her relative Dave Biswa, 2, take a ride in a toy luxury convertible in Tukwila. Pranshu’s former home was a bamboo house in a refugee camp in Nepal. Upon her arrival to the US, she delighted in eating vanilla ice cream, watching movies, and playing with her reunited cousins. The family’s arrival in Tukwila after leaving the airport was cause for much anticipation and celebration. During Summer 2016, Sunita and Birka Biswa and their two daughters, Prashana, 13, and Pranshu, 8, left their bamboo home in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal and boarded a plane for the first time in their lives.
After traveling for three days, relatives and International Rescue Committee caseworkers embraced the Biswas at Sea-Tac Airport on the evening of August 8, 2016. They were the last of their family to be resettled in the United States after years of being stateless and separated by thousands of miles from their loved ones.
The Biswa family shared during their first weeks in the United States with The Seattle Times — including family reunions, first errands, as well as their initial health and job screenings.
Five years later — ART WORKS Projects connected with the Biswas to learn about their milestones after living in Washington state for five years.
Image courtesy of the Biswa family. Wearing a long purple gown and cap, Prashana Biswa, 18, graduated from Foster High School in Tukwila, Washington during June 2021. “When I first came here, I had no English,” she said. “Everything was very difficult… I never thought I’d be able to graduate.”
From learning a new language to adapting to a new school system to making friends — eighth grade presented many challenges. Prashana said she often felt alone during her first years in the United States. However, her teachers and her close-knit family helped her along the way. “At first, it’s going to look like you’re not going to make it,” she said. “You have to be brave to face it.” Her courage and hard work paid off. By the start of the ninth grade, Prashana said her English improved to the point where, “I never felt like it was easy, but I understood what I was doing.”
Image courtesy of the Biswa family. As the eldest daughter, Prashana said family was her motivation. She often helped her mother with daily tasks like navigating directions and making appointments. She said she tapped into a “bravery” inside herself. “I can do this — I have to do this,” she said. “If I don’t do it, who is going to do it?” During high school, Prashana developed a love for learning history— particularly Black history and the context of conflicts around the world. She also started teaching guitar lessons to younger kids from her church. “Even now, I’m still learning,” she said. “There are many more things I have to learn and know.”
This September, Prashana will attend the University of Washington Tacoma. She is currently studying for her drivers license and plans to take a hybrid writing and social science classes. Prashana is currently exploring majors, but is interested in architecture or journalism. “When I was in eighth grade, I never thought I’d be able to get through this,” she said. “When I did, I felt very proud of myself.”
Sunita Biswa, 35, says her proudest moments in the United States have been seeing her daughters excel in school. “Education is important,” she said.
Sunita, who works at a baking company in South King County, said she’s happy to see her two daughters obtaining a free education in Washington state. During the last five years, Sunita has supported her daughters by working at an airline food company, a housekeeper and — most recently — an employee at Top Pot Donuts. With her family in West Bengal, India— Sunita said it’s been challenging to be separated. Her mother is currently in the hospital and her brother is sick. She often worries about their health. Sunita sends remittances to her family in India. During June, Nepal suffered from severe flash flooding and mudslides across the country. Sunita and members of her church sent money to people who lost their homes. She said it felt rewarding to “be able to help people” in need.
Image courtesy of the Biswa family. During the last five years, Sunita visited numerous sites in Washington state — including challenging hikes on Cascade Mountain to glacier lakes. Her favorite place in the United States, so far, is visiting the Skagit Valley tulip fields with her daughters during the springtime.
Pranshu, 13, is looking forward to attending her first year in middle school as a seventh grader in Kent, Washington. “My favorite subject is math,” she said. “I’ve liked math since Nepal.”
During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Pranshu said she didn’t mind attending online classes. While in elementary school in Tukwila, bullies made her life challenging. She looks forward to a fresh start and making friends at a new middle school.
About a year and a half ago the Biswa’s— Sunita, Prashana, Pranshu and their extended family — moved from the Western Washington city of Tukwila to Kent. The family purchased a newly-constructed four bedroom, three-and-a-half bedroom home next to a park with a lake. Pranshu said she loves to walk their new dog Brownie around the neighborhood.
On a recent evening, Pranshu played games on a phone while her grandmother watered herbs, vegetables and flowers in the front yard.
“It’s been really great,” she said. “I’m really happy.”
Pranshu enjoys watching horror movies, listening to the boy band BTS and focusing on her anime and manga drawings. She wants to take art classes to learn more realistic styles of drawing and painting. Pranshu plans to study computer engineering in college and yearns to learn violin as a hobby. More than anything, Pranshu wants to spend time and make memories with her family. “I hope we can be happy forever,” she said.
Sunita hopes to continue with her education and to become proficient in speaking English. She said she would feel fulfilled if her daughters followed their passions for their careers, such as Pranshu’s interest in art. For Prashana, her next goal is to finish college and secure “a good, respectable job.” She wants to be the breadwinner for her grandparents and mother as they get older. “I want to make my mother proud,” she says.
Image courtesy of the Biswa family.
About the Photographer Erika Schultz works as a staff photographer for The Seattle Times, where she focuses on photo and video storytelling. She taught visual storytelling at The University of Washington’s School of Communication, Photographic Center Northwest and Mountain Workshops. As a visual journalist, Schultz often focuses on community journalism and in-depth multimedia projects.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos are by Erika Schultz.