AKRON (AP) — One of the area’s newest police officers is far away from the dusty refugee camp in Nepal where he grew up and spent more than half his life, but he’s committed to his adopted home of Akron.
Damber Subba, who arrived in the United States about 10 years ago, wants to be a bridge between the city’s Bhutanese-Nepali refugee community and Greater Akron.
Subba, 30, is Akron’s first police officer who is a Bhutanese refugee. He was among 12 officers sworn in May 4.
Just don’t call Subba a refugee.
“I like to call myself a former Bhutanese refugee now,” said Subba, who fled Bhutan with his family in 1991 and lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 17 years.
“I’m an American citizen, which I’m really proud of,” he said. “We (refugees) were pretty much never considered as human beings on the outside” of the camps in Nepal, dotted with bamboo-and-thatch huts.
Subba also is proud to be a part of Akron’s sizable Bhutanese-Nepali community, as well as an Akron police officer.
“I want to help in the community and that’s a core value,” he said. “I want to be a cultural broker for the community and the police department.”
He previously worked as a Nepali language interpreter at Akron Children’s Hospital, and trained his brother-in-law, as well as his sister, to work as interpreters there.
“I want to empower people in the community,” he said.
While at Children’s, he took some nursing courses at Kent State University, thinking he might help the community as a medical professional.
He switched to thinking about law enforcement, in part because friends and family expressed frustration at not being able to communicate with police after getting into car accidents. He also knew of domestic violence disputes in which members of the community didn’t understand this country’s laws and had language barriers.
“I realized we have to have someone over in the department who can explain how this (American) culture works and how the (U.S.) laws work,” he said.
But Subba, who is under 5 feet 2 inches tall, wasn’t sure police work was an option open to him because of his height.
“Coming over here, my community believes that to be a policeman in America you have to be really tall, really big. We never even tried,” he said, noting Bhutanese generally are not tall.
But in 2014, he spoke with Akron police officers who were recruiting at a community event aimed at the refugee community in Akron’s North Hill and learned there was no height requirement.
“I have this mental toughness,” he said. “I know my weaknesses and I know my strength and I try to use my strength and my quickness. The main thing is I just know how to talk to people and I just know how to respect people.”
New home in Akron
In July, Subba will celebrate the 10th anniversary of his arrival in Akron.
He remembers moving into an apartment with family in Akron, near Nesmith Lake, in 2008.
“I looked at the roof. I looked everywhere,” he said. “There were no holes,” that would allow rain to pour through — as it had in the bamboo house he lived in at the camp.
Subba recalled some of the discrimination he faced in Nepal that led him to reject the refugee label.
As a teen, he attended a university in Nepal, outside the camp, aiming to become a physics teacher. Near the university, he rented an apartment, hiding his refugee status from his landlord.
“They would not let you rent if you are a refugee. Whenever I left home from the camp, I had to hide my identity,” he said. “They (non-refugees) discriminated against us.”
Two months after arriving in Akron, he found work doing manual labor at a local foundry. But 10 months later he was laid off, during the Great Recession.
Soon, he began studying to be an interpreter, with help from someone at the International Institute of Akron, which is in the North Hill neighborhood and works to resettle refugees in the community.
North Hill has become a hub for refugees. Many of them fled Bhutan for Nepal, a small country in Southeast Asia that is squeezed between China and India, in the 1990s during a time of ethnic cleansing.
From 2007 to 2017, roughly 2,700 refugees from Bhutan arrived in Akron, after living in camps.
Subba did various freelance interpreting jobs and in 2012 became a nationally certified medical interpreter for Nepali and landed the interpreter job at Children’s Hospital.
There were some lean times after arriving in this country. But they never compared with some days in the camp when he’d eat only one meal, he said.
“I’m so fortunate to be here,” said Subba, who lives with is wife, Tara, and their infant daughter in a home he owns in Akron. “This country and this community has done so much for myself and my family and all immigrants.”
Joining the force
Perhaps the biggest challenge during his police training, he said, has been to understand slang: “I’m like, ‘Is this for real English? I don’t see this in a dictionary.’”
As far as learning how to use his body, he said, his experiences with muay thai boxing in the camp in Nepal have come in handy, he said.
But even more important, he said, has been the two months provided by the Akron Police Department: “I’ve learned so much when it comes to how to control the combative subject as far as grappling with them, how to manipulate things.”
He’s not done learning. All new officers are teamed with field training officers for the first four months, said Akron police Capt. Michael Yohe, commander of the Training Bureau.
Last week’s swearing in was the culmination of a months-long process that began with a written exam, a test of physical ability, a drug test, background check and an interview with the police chief.
Then recruits receive conditional job offers from the Akron Police Department before attending 20 weeks of training at a police academy. Subba attended the academy at Kent State.
Then recruits attend classes for the two months at the department’s Training Bureau, where they learn laws and procedures specific to the city and engage in various simulation activities, including using a firearm.
Starting salary for a new Akron Police Department officer is about $54,500, plus benefits.
The 12 new officers sworn in May 4 are replacing employees who have retired and bring the sworn strength to 439, city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said last week. The authorized strength is 455. The hope is to have a class of another eight officers on the street by October.