Saturday, August 02, 2008

How I Covered Bhutanese Refugees

On the chilly winter mornings in Kathmandu, I would nurture a dream. It was not an American Dream per se. But it was in many ways related to America and somehow connected with American Dream. I was gearing up for my maiden tour to America to participate on Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships. And, an interesting development was taking place with a beat I was attached to in Nepal. I had covered the Bhutanese refugee issue for my magazine--writing cover story, visiting the camps and talking to the refugees, watching closely Bhutan's elections.

The offer for resettlement from US and six other western countries--Canada, Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway--to resettle nearly eighty thousand of them (US alone 60,000), had triggered a rift among refugees (those favoring and opting for third country resettlement and opposing it).

Sipping tea in a dusty roadside cafe near my office in downtown Kathmandu, I would talk with T P Mishra, an editor at the Bhutan News Service, about covering the refugees even in the US. When I was preparing for my maiden voyage to US in early March, the first batch of Bhutanese refugees had already left Nepal. I was flying on March 12, 2008. At the time, the dream seemed far fetched.

Little did I know that a group of about 25 Bhutanese refugees will be my co-passengers. As I was queuing up on the immigration at the Tribhuvan International Airport for the evening Dragon Air flight to Hong Kong, I heard an official say: "Refugees this line please." When I turned my head toward the source of the voice, I saw more than two dozen nicely dressed men, women and children making a beeline. After furnishing with the information required by the immigration official, I headed to the last security checking at the airport. The refugees were sitting there in a row of chairs; excited about their new life but a little worried about the journey.

I watched their every move. A white man and a Nepali guy were briefing them on their flights. I sat near them, projecting an image of a relaxed passenger while suppressing my journalistic instincts. As any reporter trying to figure out the best person among many in a group to talk to, I was looking out for such a reliable person. And that is how I struck a conversation with Tika Ram Chhetri, a Bhutanese refugee heading for New Zealand (All of them were flying to New Zealand after a seven hour transit in Hong Kong). I asked Tika Ram, a former teacher, about his destination, his expectations and how he felt about the resettlement, after those 17 tough years in the camps.

Then came the scream from the Nepali lad. First he scolded Tika Ram: Why are you speaking to him? I have told you not to speak to strangers. Don't do it next time. Now it was my turn: Who are you? I said: I'm a passenger. There was no way I could have revealed my identity because I knew very well how International Organization for Migration (IOM) that was screening and transporting the refugees, was keeping mum about any information on resettlement. Perhaps because of fear. Perhaps they wanted to promote a culture of secrecy that pervades these organizations.

Nevertheless, I was able to note down his email address (He communicated with me from Auckland, New Zealand). In Washington, DC, just before departing for our respective newsrooms, I showed a list of potential story ideas to Samuel Siringi, a Fellow from Kenya. "They are good story ideas. But see how you can relate issues of Nepal and Bhutan to your host city -- Pittsburgh -- if the ideas are to be accepted," he had said, sounding authoritative and a little disappointing to me.

I did not give up. I kept on pursuing for the Bhutanese even in Pittsburgh. When I discussed the issue with a Nepali friend in Pittsburgh, he remarked that he had heard of their arrival in Pittsburgh. He turned his laptop on, signed in a gmail account and showed me that Catholic Charities, a resettlement agency in Pittsburgh, had contacted the Nepali community in Pittsburgh, looking for translators. Lo and behold, I got the contacts! I returned to my apartment, realizing that my dream was coming true.

But I had to wait for a month before I would be allowed to meet three young Bhutanese who hadn't seen a Nepali in a month or so. Later, they would dwell upon how difficult it was for them to live in an alien surrounding, feeling cut off from their loved ones. I wrote the story for the Post-Gazette for which I received several responses, from Nepal, at the Post-Gazette newsroom and from Nepalis in US.

Recently, I wrote a follow up piece for which, among others, I am thankful to Thomas Huang, an Ethics and Diversity Fellow at Poynter Institute. Tom was the coach for me in our mid-term seminar at the Poynter. He went through my pieces and suggested to me ways to improve my reporting and writing. He taught me a technique called "fly on the wall" in which the reporter, like a fly on the wall, observes the character and takes notes. Some journalists call the technique immersion journalism.

Tom has remarked that on that part, I have succeeded but there's a long was to go. I need to write more precisely. Tom in his email says: "You know how to report by observation now. The next step is to be even more precise. I don't mean that you should write more sentences -- I mean that you should choose the more precise words." I am grateful to him for being such a great mentor.

On a lighter note, recently I received a memento from David Shribman, executive editor of the Post-Gazette.It is a slightly large laminated copy of the front page of Post-Gazette's magazine section that had my Bhutanese story. I was among a dozen journalists ( many of them interns) commemorated for their work this summer. Mr. Shribman remarked he learned a lot about Nepal from me. I was stunned and embarrassed!


clairetheloon said...

Well, congratulations are in order here! First on the rare and wonderful experience of having a dream come true, and second on being publicly recoginzed for the product of that dream. You are a fortunate man, indeed. Congratulations again!
Julie -AFPF-

Anonymous said...

Thanks Julie. Many people asked how I was able to cover the refugees. I had to wait but the it was rewarding!

Yuko Maskay said...

Hi, I was referred to your blog by a friend who reads your blog. I'm starting an online magazine called VENT! based here in Kathmandu and have a blog section. I'm wondering if you'd be interested in being featured on our site. Our magazine is dedicated to promoting emerging writers and visual writers, and giving citizens a voice in the media. You can choose to remain anonymous or use a pen name, if you like. I hope you'll join us!

Please contact me at Our group is also on Facebok at V.E.N.T. I look forward to hearing from you!

- Yuko