A year ago, I contributed a story on Bhutanese refugees resettled in US for Global Nepali. Then, the number of refugees resettled in Western countries was just 5,000. Now, it has swelled to 25,000. Also, check this fine piece on Bhutanese refugees published at Sacramanto Bee. My piece on the refugees at the Post-Gazette.
Deepak Adhikari in Pittsburgh
On a recent sunny afternoon, a group of 10 Bhutanese refugees walked through a winding road to Whitehall, six miles from downtown Pittsburgh. They had boarded a colorful Port Authority bus, getting off few miles away from their apartments. On Sundays, the bus doesn’t run along the route to Prospect Park (also called White Hall) where they live.
The group was a mix of middle-aged Bhutanese and young ones, newly arrived and old ones. Some of them had arrived over four months ago while some as recent as a week before. They had gone to a downtown market called Strip District known to Asians as Chinese Market, where shoppers look for cheaper fruits and vegetables.
Carrying bags full of grocery; they walked for an hour from the nearest bus stop, talking about new life in America. Once they arrived at the apartment furnished with old television sets, they shared the day’s shopping experience. Some of them had already asked others to buy some green vegetables they were used to in Nepal.
The ladies started to organize the grocery items on the refrigerator while the men sat on the couch. After a while, the sweet, milky tea was served followed by fried noodles.
Noticeably, this is a far cry from the life the refugees lived in the camps in eastern Nepal. More than 1,07,000 refugees from Bhutan live on makeshift bamboo huts with thatched roofs in seven sprawling camps managed by UNHCR in Jhapa and Morang districts . The dwellings lack basics such as running water, electricity, bathroom and kitchen. They depend on a fortnightly ration of rice, coal, vegetables, sugar, salt etc provided by World Food Program (WFP), another UN agency.
In November 2005, core working group of countries—Australia, Canada, Denmark, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the US—proposed to resettle 80,000, US alone is resettling 60,000 of them over the next five years, in what United Nations describes as one of the largest resettlement efforts.
Officials with UNHCR--the United Nations agency dealing with the refugees, said by September this year, over 5,000 Bhutanese refugees had been resettled in the 'core working group' countries. "Out of the total of 1,07,000 refugees from Bhutan who live in seven camps in eastern Nepal, 50,000 have expressed interest in resettlement," UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a news conference in Geneva.
Regular meetings have been held with the refugees to discuss resettlement and other durable solutions, as well as provide information for women at risk or people with disabilities, he sad.
"Refugees are being offered English classes as well as additional vocational and skill-based training to prepare for a life in a new country," said Spindler.
UNHCR officials say they expect another 2,000 to 3,000 refugees to leave Nepal for third countries by end of this year. The agency is, however, quick to point out that it hasn't completely given up the option of repatriation of the refugees to their home countries. "We continue to advocate for the option of voluntary return to Bhutan for those refugees who wish to do so, and hope that talks on repatriation can restart soon." said Spindler.
But those watching the stalemate closely over the last several years say it is easier said that done.
A tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between India and China, Bhutan evicted nearly 120000 Nepali speaking Southerners known as Lhotsampa in late 1980s and early ‘90s. Bhutan’s ruling elite identified them as a political and cultural threat. Like any other South Asian country, Bhutan is multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. But the Druk regime imposed “One Nation, One People” policy, thereby suppressing the culture and language of their own citizens of Nepali-origin.
As the state unleashed systematic suppression in southern Bhutan, described by rights groups as 'ethnic cleansing,' pro-democracy protests erupted. The Royal Bhutan Army employed the methods including threats, torture, detention and persecution, and confiscation of property. The crackdown led to the expulsion of one sixth of Bhutan’s population.
The refugees left Bhutan, initially spilling over in India but ultimately landing in southeastern Nepal. Many refugees often recall of hardship and many deaths of refugees in the bank of Mai River in Jhapa. After languishing for seventeen years, the failure of talk between Nepal and Bhutan to resolve the issue and several unsuccessful attempts to return home has incurred a sense of resentment and desperation among refugees.
In such a situation, many see the third country resettlement as the only ray of hope. This also comes at a time when Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), has launched a “People’s War” in Bhutan. The Bhutani Maoists apparently are rallying against the third country resettlement. But with the numbers of refugees opting for third country growing in leaps and bounds, their slogans have been waning.
For Narad Mani Phuyal, a former school teacher, an opportunity to come to US meant a lot. “I always wanted to come here,” said Mr. Phuyal who arrived with his wife and a four year old daughter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in July 11. He joined the growing Bhutanese community in Whitehall, where the families of his elder and younger brothers live a few blocks away.
He frequents a nearby library to check email. He is well aware of the American system, and is confident that he will get a job very soon and lead a decent life in the new country. “Life was miserable in camps” he said, “But here, it’s like a heaven.” His brother Kuber Phuyal shakes his head in approval. Kuber got job two months ago and with a salary of 8 US $ an hour, he hopes to support his family of four. Catholic Charities, the resettlement agency in Pittsburgh helps them with food, bus fare and housing for three months. The refugees have to pay for their air fare from Nepal as they start earning money.
At 55, Bhawani Prasad Odari is still eager start a job. Model Uniform, an apparel plant in Charleroi in suburban Pittsburgh, has hired him. A Nepali interpreter helped him navigate through the lengthy contract papers. Unlike his three young daughters and a son who assimilated to work place environment very easily, he is worried about the language. “I’ve asked the manager not to expect a work where I have to communicate a lot,” he said. For the elderly, language has been a barrier in communicating with non-Nepali speakers.
Perhaps because of the shared history and a common cultural heritage, Nepali communities in all over the US have been instrumental in helping Bhutanese refugees cope with an alien environment. News welcome programs organized by local Nepali communities have been trickling in. On July, Atlanta based Nepalese America Political Action Committee organized a barbecue for about 60 Bhutanese relocated in Georgia. Similarly, Sahayeta, a Bay Area Nepalese Alliance hosted a welcome program for the refugees in July 27.
As the Bhutanese are scattered around 33 states in America, finding them and helping them could well be an uphill task. Organizations like Association of Bhutanese in America (ABA) is also gearing up for assistance. Whether the refugee community will merge with Nepali Diaspora or it will be a distinct Nepali-speaking community--only time will tell.
Originally published in Global Nepali magazine, Oct/Nov 2008.