Coming to America: Here are six of the largest refugee communities in Greater Columbus

Yilun Cheng
The Columbus Dispatch
Center for New Americans case worker Ghanshyam Luitel records an outreach video in June to encourage the Bhutanese community to get vaccinated at the North Community Counseling Center, which caters specifically to Bhutanese-Nepali refugees.

Greater Columbus has become home to a diverse group of immigrants and refugees.

About 16,600 refugees were resettled in the area from 1983 to 2015, according to a report by the City of Columbus and other groups. In fact, the state of Ohio ranks eighth nationally in the number of refugees it has taken in the past 10 fiscal years – nearly 24,000 – statistics from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services show.

The state saw a drop in the number of refugee arrivals during the Trump administration, from 4,344 in 2017 to 552 in 2020. Last month, however, President Joe Biden said that he would lift the national refugee cap from 15,000 in the fiscal year 2021 to 125,000 in the fiscal year 2022.

Following the announcement, Columbus’ two resettlement agencies –– Community Refugee and Immigration Services and US Together –– received news that they will get about 1,560 refugees in the new fiscal year, a sharp increase from 188 in the previous year.

New Americans in the Columbus Area came from Somalia, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and many other countries around the world. Here is a breakdown of six of the largest refugee groups in the region. Learn more about who they are, why they fled their home countries and what their circumstances are in the Columbus area.

Read more: Columbus' resettlement agencies expect 1,600 refugees in new fiscal year as Biden raises national refugee cap

Bhutanese Nepalis

Families from Bhutan in South Asia account for the largest number of new refugee arrivals in Ohio in the past decade –– 8,140 in total.

Most of them are a part of the Nepali-speaking minority who had lived in Bhutan for decades until they became victims of ethnic cleansing by the ruling majority. In the 1990s, civil unrest in the country prompted the government to arrest, torture and deport Nepali-speaking residents. Those who escaped to Nepal were unable to get citizenship there and spent up to 20 years living in refugee camps before the international community started resettling them in 2008.

Bhutanese Nepalis make up one of the biggest immigrant groups in the Columbus area. The Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio, a Columbus-based organization, estimates that there are more than 27,000 Bhutanese Nepalis living here.

Due to prolonged time spent in refugee camps, the group suffers disproportionately with mental health challenges, with a suicide rate twice as high as the general American population. Like many other immigrant groups, a considerable number of Bhutanese Nepali individuals are educated and had higher-level jobs in Bhutan. Recent analysis shows that their arrivals are driving key population and economic growth in Columbus’ Northland area.

Bhutanese Nepalis are mostly Hindus but some practice Buddhism. The group mainly speaks Nepali.

Read more: Community therapists help Nepali refugees from Bhutan peel back layers of trauma

A boy holds a Somali flag while standing with local community leaders during a Somali Independence Day celebration on July 1 at the Ohio Statehouse.


Somalia’s ongoing civil war that started in 1991 has led to widespread poverty, hunger, political instability, civil unrest as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. Despite the international community’s resettlement efforts, more than 750,000 Somali refugees remain in neighboring countries, and 2.6 million are internally displaced in Somalia, according to a United Nations report.

Nearly 3,000 Somali refugees were resettled in Ohio in the last 10 fiscal years, but the number of Somali immigrants in the region is much higher. In Columbus alone, there are about 45,000 to 50,000 Somalis, according to estimates by the Somali Community Association of Ohio. Besides those who were initially resettled in the city, many also came here through secondary migration. In fact, Columbus is among the U.S. cities with the largest concentration of Somali-born residents.

In Columbus, some Somali refugees have had to take on low-skilled jobs in warehouses and food processing plants and continue to struggle with discrimination based on their religious and cultural practices, research shows. But there are also a number of Somali-born residents who have become successful business owners. These entrepreneurs were especially instrumental in the revival of the retail corridor on Morse Road in the city’s Northland area.

Somali and Arabic are the two official languages of Somalia, and more than 99 percent of the Somali population is Sunni Muslim.

Read more: New census data show Asian, other minority residents driving Northland’s population growth


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is marked by a long-standing humanitarian crisis. Fighting among local tribes ensued even after the country’s civil war ended in 2003. Civilians continue to struggle for survival.

In the U.S., Congolese refugees are largely concentrated in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. But Ohio also has a considerable Congolese community. Since the fiscal year 2011, the state has resettled 3,312 refugees from DRC.

In Ohio, Congolese refugee women, specifically, face significant resettlement challenges, according to research. These challenges range from financial difficulties and unemployment to family concerns and health problems. Researchers have recommended extended case management, long-term housing support, childcare assistance, among others, in order to better serve at-risk Congolese women.

French is the official language of DRC, and the majority of Congolese are Christian.


The Iraqi refugee crisis took place as a result of decades of wars and continuous fighting among local militant groups. Conflicts escalated in 2014 when the Islamic State attacked northern Iraq. Since then, more than three million Iraqis were displaced, a United Nations report shows. Residents, including millions of children, are in dire need of assistance.

More than one-third of Iraqis living in the U.S. came here as refugees. Many have special immigrant visas due to their assistance to the U.S. government during the Iraq War.

Ohio has been one of the large Arab settlement regions in the U.S. ever since the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s. In the past 10 years, it took in about 2,500 Iraqi refugees. Many suffer from mental health challenges caused by multiple relocations, prolonged time in refugee camps with poor living conditions, and experience witnessing the death and torture of families and friends.

The official languages of Iraq are Arabic and Kurdish. The country’s religion is overwhelmingly Muslim and split into two distinct sects, Shia and Sunni. 

Najma Shamsi works to sort clothes for incoming Afghan refugees behind My Project USA founder and executive director Zerqa Abid at the organization's new Youth Empowerment Center and Mid-Ohio Market in the Hilltop on Sept. 27.


Residents in Afghanistan have had to endure more than 40 years of conflicts, natural disasters and poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated their challenge. More than six million Afghans have had to flee their homes. More than 925 Afghan refugees were resettled in Ohio from the fiscal years 2011 to 2020.

Following the recent U.S. military withdrawal in August, the Taliban entered the capital of Kabul and took over the country. While some were able to evacuate to the U.S. or a third country, most are still stranded there, including those who have offered help to the U.S. government during the war in Afghanistan.

The first group of nearly 37,000 evacuees who made their way to the U.S. is now in the process of being resettled to different parts of the country. Ohio is set to welcome about 850 displaced Afghans in the coming months; 345 of them will come to Columbus. Families are already starting to arrive.

The latest Afghan nationals came here on humanitarian parole – a little-known process that allows immigrants in exceptional circumstances to enter the country without visas. They will have to find a way to regularize their immigration status in the next two years.

People from Afghanistan speak Dari, Pashto and dozens of other languages. They are mostly Muslim, with a Sunni majority.

Read more: Hundreds of displaced Afghans are coming to Columbus. Here's how to help.

People of Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia that suffered devastating natural disasters, military dictatorship and ethnic conflicts. The Rohingya people –– a stateless Muslim minority residing on the western coast of the country –– in particular, face long-time discrimination and persecution by the government. 

From 2000 to 2019, the number of immigrants from Myanmar in the U.S. increased from 17,000 to 189,000, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Ohio accepted 1,332 refugees from Myanmar in the last 10 years. People from Myanmar come from a number of different ethnic groups with their own languages and customs, which presents additional challenges for service providers. Refugees in the Columbus area mostly belong to the Karen and Chin ethnic groups.

The country’s official language is Myanmar. About 80% of its people are Buddhists while the rest of the population practices Christianity, Islam, folk religions and others.

Yilun Cheng is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration issues for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at