Puspa Gajmer founds school, music festival to share South Asian culture in Akron's North Hill

Puspa Gajmer wears many hats.

© Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal Puspa Gajmer, a former refugee, owns the Himalayan Arts Language & Cultural Academy and organizes the annual North Hill Music Festival.

With family, he is a husband and father. At North Hill’s Himalayan Arts Language & Cultural Academy, he bears the title of founder, CEO and instructor. When he walks into Child Guidance & Family Solutions, he is a caseworker and confidant.

Unbeknownst to many, one of his first hats was painted with the word “refugee.”

Gajmer, 37, of Cuyahoga Falls, was born in Chirang, Bhutan, a small, mountainous country in south-central Asia. One night in 1989, 5-year-old Gajmer and his family fled to Nepal, joining more than 100,000 other Nepalese individuals who were being ethnically cleansed from the region.  

For the next 22 years, Gajmer lived in a Nepalese refugee camp. During this time, he learned British English, attended Tribhuvan University and became involved with Youth Forum Center, an organization through which he taught music to Bhutanese youths. Between 2002 and 2011, Gajmer also taught at the Oasis Academy, a school within the refugee camp, and two private schools outside the camp, Grace Academy and Himalayan English Boarding School. It was at this time that he decided to expand his horizons.

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“I heard some rumors that people, if they are interested, can go to America,” Gajmer said. “I want[ed] to go somewhere else… like America and then do something.”

Brave New World

Gajmer’s plane touched down east of Chicago in Quad City International Airport on Sept. 26, 2011. Soon after arriving in the U.S., he began studying music at Black Hawk College, a community college in Moline, Illinois. Gajmer also completed interpreter training at the college and started working as a medical interpreter for multiple hospitals and courts in Moline.

His first priority after coming to America was learning how to survive. The culture, people, weather and language Gajmer found himself surrounded by were completely new.

That winter, Gajmer waited at an outdoor bus stop for 15 to 30 minutes multiple times a week to get to school. He said it was quite a change for someone who had never seen snow.

“I had never had any experience of the snow in Nepal, but coming here and waiting for the bus for half an hour in the snow was really hard,” he said. After being there for six months, Gajmer acquired his driver’s license and put those snow-filled mornings behind him.

Impact in Akron

Gajmer moved to the Akron area in 2013 in hopes of contributing to its diverse communities. He continued his education at the University of Akron while working as an interpreter at hospitals in the Akron area.

© Puspa Gajmer Puspa Gajmer sits with students from his Himalayan Arts Language & Cultural Academy located in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Falling into old habits, Gajmer began offering private music lessons in his home to 10 to 15 students. Later on, his friends suggested he open a school. This encouragement from friends and the Nepalese community led him to open the Himalayan Arts Language & Cultural Academy in 2016, the same year he graduated from the University of Akron. The school is located at 739 N. Main St. in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

After acquiring the building, Gajmer hired instructors to give lessons on music and dance to children in the community. Those who attend the school learn music theory, piano, guitar, dance and Eastern instruments such as the tabla and harmonium. Reading and writing classes also are available, as is legal consultation by the school’s lawyers.

“Most of our immigrants, they don’t have any knowledge about tickets, traffic laws, domestic violence, all these things,” Gajmer said.

In 2018, Gajmer won and matched a three-year grant from the Knight Foundation to create the first annual North Hill Music Festival the following year. The event features food, dances and music from the various cultures that coexist within North Hill. The point of the festival, Gajmer said, is to bridge the gaps between these cultures.

This year’s event takes place 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Exchange House, located at 760 Elma St.

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“This festival will bring together everyone, whether we are from Nepal or whether we are from India, wherever we are from,” he said.

Present and future endeavors

Today, Gajmer lives in Cuyahoga Falls with his wife and two children, Anku, 4, and Amu, 9, and works as a caseworker at Child Guidance & Family Solutions. Gajmer doesn’t have much free time with his family, career and the academy, but every now and then he visits members of the Nepalese community within Illinois.

Gajmer intends to continue the North Hill Music Festival for as long as possible and has even grander plans for the Himalayan Arts Language & Cultural Academy.

“My main vision is, in five years of time or 10 years, I want to put this academy somewhere in the top level,” he explained.

Gajmer started his life several continents away during a time of heavy ethnic cleansing and, after moving to a new country and immersing himself in its culture, has made it his goal to share the culture of Akron’s minorities with one another — an aspiration that his students and community members would surely consider to be top level.

Contact Beacon Journal reporter Tawney Beans at tbeans@gannett.com and on Twitter @TawneyBeans.

Change Agents

The Beacon Journal is highlighting emerging leaders from newer generations who are making a difference in Summit County neighborhoods, businesses, schools and organizations. Do you know a Change Agent we should feature? Tell us about that person at bjnews@thebeaconjournal.com. Please include “Change Agents” in the subject line and be sure to share contact information for the individual. 

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Puspa Gajmer founds school, music festival to share South Asian culture in Akron’s North Hill

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