Purna Gurung survived nearly two decades in a refugee camp before he arrived in Clarkston. Those who knew him thought he was bound to succeed.
Within two years of his arrival he was found locked inside his apartment bathroom bleeding to death, a police report states. He had slit his wrists and neck and stabbed himself in the abdomen. His wife told investigators they were three months behind on rent and Purna had been out of work for six months.
“I didn’t believe it,” his brother Mongal Gurung said. “He was my brother, and best friend, too.”
Clarkston is known across the world as a town that welcomes refugees. In recent years, its 1.4 square miles have also become home
to some 20 state-sanctioned video gambling locations, and refugees are among their most frequent
customers, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation
found. Experts say that refugees are often still reckoning with the hardship and violence in their pasts, making them ideal candidates for addiction.
Mongal remains unsure exactly what role gambling played in his eldest brother’s death. But looking back three years later, he sees hints that Purna was in far deeper trouble than he let on.
Mongal thought Purna was a survivor. He had already overcome so much. While they were living in a southern Nepal refugee camp, their father died and their mother, haunted by nightmares, killed herself six months later, Mongal said. They left behind six children, the youngest a girl of four.
It fell to Purna, 18, to support the family. Because he was better educated than many in the camps he decided to leave to work as a teacher.
Refugees were barred from working outside camp walls, forcing Purna to hide his identity. Yet he managed to be a good provider, Mongal said. His brothers and sisters had money for food and other necessities.
Purna was the first to leave for America, where life was harder than he expected. Gutting and processing chickens made moving his hands and arms painful. Still, he told Mongal to come to Clarkston.
“I am with others from the same country, but they are strangers to me,” Purna told Mongal over the telephone. Mongal followed his brother to Clarkston in 2012.
By outward appearances, Purna seemed fine, said Dao Sharma, a leader in the Bhutanese community. He had a sharp mind and a better command of English than other Bhutanese refugees, his brother Mongal Gurung and others said. A new job at a chicken processing plant seemed to be going well.
“He wore clean clothes. He was well dressed. No one thought something was going on in his life,” Sharma said.
But to Mongal, Purna seemed a little withdrawn. A mutual friend told Mongal about Purna’s gambling, and Mongal decided to confront him.
“You need to slow down,” Mongal recalled telling him. “It’s not a place you need to be spending money.”
Only after Purna’s suicide did others learn he had been leaving his wife alone with their new daughter to gamble, and they remained unaware of the purported depth of his financial troubles during a recent AJC interview. But visits to any gas station in Clarkston are a reminder of the power of the games. Gamblers stand at the terminals mesmerized.
“They forget everything,” Mongal said. “They forget food to eat and water to drink.”