UPAC Volunteer: Refugee gives City Heights a big hand

Refugee gives City Heights a big hand

San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood struggles with crime and poverty and a shortage of everything from parks to doctors. But for 22-year-old resident Jhaga Mahat,the biggest challenge of living in City Heights is getting people to see it the way he does.

“When I tell people I live here, they say it’s a ghetto and there are a lot of gangs here. But for me, City Heights is not like that,” said Mahat, who came to San Diego in 2011 from a refugee camp in Nepal.  “When I got here, I saw a lot of diverse people, and I was kind of glad, because it felt like I was still at home. City Heights is more peaceful than people say, and I just want to improve the neighborhood. I want people to see the good side.”

With giving back on his mind and able hands at the ready, Mahat has become the go-to volunteer for the Union of Pan Asian Communities’ efforts to bolster the people and image of City Heights.

A nonprofit that provides health and human services to under-served ethnic populations in San Diego, UPAC popped on Mahat’s radar through the teen clubhouse sponsored by its Alliance for Community Empowerment Program.

Mahat discovered ACE shortly after he and his family moved to San Diego. He was a newly arrived freshman at Crawford High School in need of friendship and socialization. The ACE clubhouse in City Heights provided both, along with video games, volunteer opportunities and other activities designed to keep its young members away from gangs, drugs and other bad influences.

He came to ACE because he heard they had dancing and boxing video games, a big draw for a kid who spent his first 16 years living in a bamboo hut with no electricity and no trace of technology anywhere.

But Mahat ended up sticking around for the less material perks. The ACE program also emphasizes community outreach, and when Mahat helped feed the homeless for the first time, he knew he had found something special.

“I don’t know why, but after I helped feed the homeless that first day, I was very emotional,” Mahat said.

“I saw how they were living in tents, and I just appreciated so much that I live in a home now. I started to really appreciate what I have.”

Since then, Mahat has become a vital part of the ACE community-improvement team. He is a founding member of the organization’s fledgling Youth Business Enterprise program, which teaches local young people how to run a business.

The program recently opened its own printing business, and after spending hours learning how to operate the equipment needed for printing T-shirts, embroidering hats and printing on mugs and other promotional items, Mahat is teaching other Youth Business members how to do it.

Mahat has also put in many long, sweaty days helping to transform a former Vietnamese restaurant into the UPAC Neighborhood Enterprise Center, which organization members hope will become a neighborhood hub offering everything from Zumba sessions to ethnic cooking lessons.

“I don’t feel like a leader, but the other kids are curious, and I always like to help curious people,” Mahat said during an interview at the Neighborhood Enterprise Center, which will be the new home for the Youth Business program.

“I didn’t have a lot of opportunities growing up, but when I came here, I had the opportunity to go to school and do so many other things. Back in Nepal, there are people in refugee camps who don’t have the opportunities I have, and maybe they wish they could have a life like mine. So whatever they need me to do here, I will do.”

The center and its commercial kitchen opened in August, and ACE program supervisor Dante Dauz says he couldn’t have done it without Mahat’s help.

“He is always my first call,” Dauz said. “Anytime there is any community event in City Heights, he is the first one out there and the last one to leave. The other kids look up to him a lot more than he thinks. He is impacting a lot of the youth here, and he doesn’t even realize it.”

The oldest of four, Mahat was born in a refugee camp in Nepal, after his parents fled there to escape political unrest and violence in Bhutan. Life in the camp was not terrible, but it was hard. The huts were small and the camp was crowded. Every summer, people would succumb to the heat and to the fevers that came with it.

A free education was offered to children in first through 10th grade. After that, school was no longer free. In 2011, just after Mahat finished ninth grade, the family moved to San Diego. He was re-enrolled in ninth grade at Crawford High School, where neither his limited grasp of English nor his lack of a social network could dim his enthusiasm for his new country.

“When I got here, I had a hard time communicating with people, but I really liked this place,” Mahat said with a shy smile. “When I got to school, I felt welcome. I remember one teacher playing ‘Good Morning’ from ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the morning, and that is still my favorite song.”

After graduating in 2015, Mahat took some time off from school to work in construction. He has since taken some general education classes at San Diego City College, and he plans on taking more. He is interested in photography and design, and he is looking forward to figuring out how to do repairs on his used car.

He doesn’t know where the future will take him, but Jhaga Mahat does know one thing for sure. He wants to make things better for the community that did its best to make a refugee feel at home.

“This is what makes me happy,” he said, looking around the cavernous room he helped whip into shape. “I don’t know how to say it, but this is just my thing. I’m not good at talking or communicating with people, but helping out without saying anything, that is my strength.”