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Only in America: How a Ugandan Refugee Became a Louisiana Success Story

Feb 13, 2018

Blog Post

Maggie Whitehead, Guest Contributor

Daulat Sthanki visits the HIAS headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland on February 2, 2018. Sthanki was resettled in Louisiana by HIAS in November 1972 and went on to start a multi-million dollar business.

(Maggie Whitehead)

Daulat Sthanki catches up with his daughter Maunica, an immigration lawyer, outside her Washington, D.C. home, February 3, 2018.

(Maggie Whitehead)

Daulat Sthanki arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana in November 1972 with a single bag.

Its meager contents hadn’t been enough to keep him warm during his last two weeks in Italy, but he’d left everything else behind in Uganda: his home, his business, all of his belongings. He didn’t even have contact with his wife; she was in a refugee camp in the United Kingdom.

But Uganda’s loss would ultimately be Louisiana’s, and America’s, gain. Daulat, a small-time jukebox repairman would end up a shrewd multi-million dollar American businessman, investor and developer. The United States government, and HIAS—which had rarely before resettled non-Jewish refugees—took a bet on Daulat, a Hindu, and Jewish Family Service in New Orleans sponsored his resettlement.

Living in Baton Rouge today, Daulat is acutely aware of the anti-immigrant sentiments dividing the country today. But he remains adamant about the value immigrants bring to America.

“Look at my story,” Daulat says. “From what I’ve seen, when [refugees] come to this country they work hard. Because they appreciate the opportunities this country has and they appreciate this country’s resources, and that really helps this country grow, too. So it is an asset, more than a liability, to help these refugees come to this country."

Daulat was born in India but raised in Uganda. Until Idi Amin came to power, he was a Ugandan citizen and held a Ugandan passport. He owned a modest electronics repair shop in Kasese, where jukeboxes continuously bopped out Western rock and country hits.

In 1972, when Amin ordered all 60,000 residents of Asian descent to leave the country within 90 days or face imprisonment, the rest of Daulat’s family had a safety net: They used their British citizenship to move to England. Daulat, however, was only a citizen of Uganda. His exile left him stateless.

6,000 other Asian Ugandans were equally unmoored. While Daulat waited in a transit camp in Naples, Italy, the United Nations scrambled to find a solution for the Asian Ugandan refugees. The United States faced a historic obstacle. Until this point, the country’s seven voluntary resettlement agencies had largely focused on resettling people with affiliations to their communities.

This new group of refugees—Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Ugandan—had no community ready and waiting to sponsor them.

After receiving the plea from the U.S. State Department, HIAS consulted with community representatives and sent their answer back: the Jewish organization absolutely would help.

Image from 1972 HIAS Annual Report shows organization officials greeting Ugandan refugees at JFK airport in New York.

(HIAS)

Gaynor I. Jacobson, the Executive Vice President of United Hias Service at the time, said: “Jews have long memories.”

Even though in 1972 HIAS was busy helping 700 Soviet Jews resettle to new homes, a mass effort among Jewish agencies ensued in order to help resettle 117 of the Asian Ugandan refugees in a two-month span. When the first group arrived at Kennedy Airport on November 2, 1972, Carl Glick, then President of United Hias Services was there to meet them. 

Daulat’s final destination in the United States was Louisiana, but when he finally arrived at the New Orleans airport, he faltered. He wasn’t sure where to go. By some mix-up, nobody was there to meet him. He made his way to the Eastern Airlines gate, and the agent on duty called the local Jewish Family Service and asked them if they were expecting someone.

“Yes,” Daulat remembers them saying, chuckling at the memory as he tells the story at HIAS’ Maryland headquarters in February 2018, “but we thought he had instructions and money.”

Seeing as he had neither, the airline agent coordinated with JFS in New Orleans and helped him get a cab to the JFS office. Once there, he recalls being greeted by not only his caseworker but the entire staff.

After resettling the Asian Ugandan refugees across the U.S., HIAS threw its weight behind connecting those refugees with their family members and facilitating family reunions. Daulat’s wife soon came to join him in Baton Rouge.

Daulat Sthanki's record of arrival.

(HIAS)

Louisiana was full of new experiences for Daulat. He was amazed to see the spectacle of Mardi Gras (“I didn’t know something like that existed”). There seemed to be no way to function in the United States as a vegetarian, so he dropped it “to survive” and took up barbeque. 

Fast forward a few years, Daulat makes a mean gumbo and jambalaya, is a rabid LSU and Saints fan, and still reminisces about how when he got to the U.S., Dale Brown was coaching LSU basketball and did wonders for the team.

He’s pleased that the Saints did better this year and is hopeful about David Aranda as the new defensive coordinator at LSU. He says he may not know every minor rule in football, “But I know one thing: What the score is.” He adds, “Bottom line is if the Saints won or not.”

When he found a job as an electronic machines technician in Louisiana, he saw a pinball machine for the first time and learned how it worked. Daulat slowly began to climb the career ladder in the machine repair world. He made a point of working harder than anyone else and always, no matter what, sticking to his word. It paid off.

After years of being a company man, he started his own business. He was so successful that there is now a street named after him in Duson, Louisiana: Daulaut Drive.

“That’s my success story,” Daulat says. “I’m happy that I’ve contributed to this country. Even though I do not have a high school degree.” He says that he made it because he worked hard. “I did not take anything for granted.”

Since Daulat retired, his son has taken over his multi-million dollar business, which specializes in automated gambling machines, as well as investments in hotel real estate.

His daughter, Maunica Sthanki, is an immigration lawyer raised with her father’s story of building himself up from scratch in the United States. She’s given a lot of thought lately to the assumptions people make about immigrants, and about her parents’ story.

“Is he not assimilated?” Maunica wonders. “My dad’s story challenges the assumption that refugees are downtrodden and cannot assimilate. He is living proof of the resolve and resilience of refugees.”

She says that as the daughter of a refugee, her father’s story is her story; and therefore, the debate around refugees is deeply personal.

“The U.S. refugee program is at the core of my patriotism, and my connection to this country. To me, it’s what makes this country great.”

“Look at me,” says Daulat. “I developed a commercial area in Duson when there was nobody who had dared to do it. The town benefited out of it, and the government also benefited. And all the development I’ve done has helped the country to prosper. So it’s not only me prospering, but the country is prospering. The community is prospering.”

In his retirement, Daulat has returned to vegetarianism, and has turned to serving his community as a Hindu priest at his temple. He prides himself on the fact that his temple welcomes people of all faiths.

Fittingly, he was a part of a watershed moment in American resettlement history when many resettlement agencies, including HIAS, first decided to open the door to serve people of different religious backgrounds.

As a person forced to flee his country, embraced by a new one, and now witnessing a wave of anti-refugee backlash, Daulat boils his experience down to a belief unadorned by political rhetoric.

“We are all human beings. And human beings should help other human beings,” he says. “If nobody helps refugees, it is inhumane. Look at my story.”

Click below to hear Daulat Sthanki in his own words.

Maggie Whitehead is a writer currently working on a nonfiction book about refugee family reunification. Learn more at www.RefugeesWaitingForFamily.com.