Text by Juliette Rousselot
Photography by Omar Havana
Design by Shakeeb Asrar
My Country is
Everyone is going to the US and they are happy there, so […] I am happy to go there. My country is my family.
Surrounded by a stunning forest, Beldangi is an example of how a refugee camp should be. Only one banner and a barrier at the main entrance indicate that almost 20,000 Bhutanese refugees live there with the dilemma of not knowing to which country they belong. After Bhutan expelled them over 20 years ago because of their Nepali origins, Nepal took them in, letting them stay in refugee camps along its eastern border. But as Nepal has refused to resettle them permanently, other countries have stepped in to help them start rebuilding their lives away from the mountains under which they grew up.
The resettlement programme for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal is one of the largest in the world, if not the largest. Over 95,000 of the approximately 120,000 refugees who fled from Bhutan to Nepal in the
early 1990s have already been resettled in third countries, with the majority in the United States, and many of them are already well on their way to building new lives.
With little prospect of being able to settle permanently in Nepal, which has continually claimed that it is not capable of absorbing such a large refugee population, resettlement in a third country is the only foreseeable option for many of Bhutan’s refugees. And with many already settled in the US or other countries, many see leaving Nepal as a hope for a better future, especially for the younger generation. Yet, after living in refugee camps for close to 25 years, the journey to a foreign country, where they will have to get accustomed to a completely new way of life, learn a new language, and adapt to a new culture, is one that is fraught with worries.
Bhutan to Beldangi, Nepal
We had to leave everything behind. We had cows, oxen, land … but all of that, we had to abandon in Bhutan. We just carried our children and the clothes on our backs.
Starting in the 19th century, ethnic Nepalis began migrating to Bhutan, settling in the southern part of the country, all the while maintaining their own language, customs, and religion. However, in the late 1970s, the growing population of ethnic Nepalis, who accounted for one-fifth of Bhutan’s population, became increasingly seen as a threat to Bhutan’s culture by the government.
By the late 1980s, Bhutan’s “one nation, one people” policy, which resulted in a series of “Bhutanisation” measures aimed at imposing a distinct national identity on all people in Bhutan, was increasingly seen by ethnic Nepalis as a direct attack on their community, resulting in mass demonstrations and unrest in southern Bhutan.
The Bhutanese government’s response to this unrest was unequivocal: police forces raided homes of ethnic Nepalis; people were detained and tortured in prison; and schools and health services in southern Bhutan were suspended. By the end of 1990, the first ethnic Nepalis were forced out of the country, and within a few years, over 100,000 who had fled Bhutan were living in camps in eastern Nepal.
“We had to leave everything behind. We had cows, oxen, land … but all of that, we had to abandon in Bhutan. We just carried our children and the clothes on our backs,” says Duku Maya Dhakal, who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s. She said the journey took three days on foot just to reach the border with India, from where trucks took the refugees to Nepal.
Stay or Go
Here I have learned to live together with others, to believe in what we want to believe and I am sure that we will soon return to our country.
Years of negotiations to convince Bhutan to take back the refugees bore no fruit. Nepal also showed reluctance to relocate them on its soil, so proposals to settle them in third countries began in 2006. The first batch of refugees arrived in the US in 2007, and although countries like Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand also took some refugees, 80,752 of the 95,361 refugees resettled as of the end of February 2015 were given shelter by the US.
Nepal has remained opposed to resettling any of the refugees on its soil, arguing that the country is too poor to be able to absorb such a large population – concerns which were compounded by Nepal’s civil war (1996-2006), which was still ongoing at the time the negotiations began, and the ensuing political instability that continues to plague the country today.
The resettlement programme was criticised in its initial years, as some felt that it meant giving up on the hope that Bhutan might one day allow the refugees to go home. “At the very beginning, among the refugees, there was a small but very vocal group that was against this. But at a certain point, you have to be pragmatic, with no guarantees that Bhutan would ever give in on this,” Craig Sanders, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) representative in Nepal, told Al Jazeera.
These days, however, it seems like that hope is gone for most people. “There are no other options aside from being an American. The Bhutanese people won’t take us back. In the past there was a lot of talk about them taking us back, but now that hope is also gone,” says Duku Maya Dhakal. “Everyone wants to go back to their homelands, where they were born. But if life is good in America, why would we want to go back to Bhutan?” she adds.
And while most are dreaming of how their lives will be in their new host countries, only a few remain committed to someday returning to Bhutan. "Many things still have to change in Bhutan, but I haven’t lost hope that the king and the government will realise that we cannot be forced to believe in the same religion as the King of Bhutan's. We must be free and I hope that the king someday will realise that. Here I have learned to live together with others, to believe in what we want to believe and I am sure that we will soon return to our country," says 58-year-old Jang Chub, while sanding bamboos that he will sell to a businessman in Kathmandu as incense boxes.
The only struggle in life is what you wear and what you eat; so if you get that, you will be happy.
Much different than many other refugee camps, Beldangi feels more like a home than anything else. For years, the money sent back to the camp by relatives who have already been resettled in other countries, has allowed refugees still living in the camp to open up businesses.
Traditional restaurants are found next door to more modern fast food ones, as shops specialising in recharging mobile phones, tailors and even a beauty salon occupy some of the empty houses that have been made vacant after their occupants were resettled abroad.
Although work done by the refugees themselves has resulted in significant improvements and the development of the camp, shortages of electricity and water mean that life in the camp is still hard. Traditions have been kept; shamans bless families and assist those with health conditions.
Meanwhile, in the schools, thousands of children are glued to their books in preparation for a life that everyone tells them will be much better. In the camp, religions coexist in harmony. Catholic churches that have been opened by the refugees themselves are mixed with chants that come almost every day from the Hindu temples.
The camp is more like a village than a camp. Leaving behind friends and families is the hardest part for most people going for resettlement. For Dirga Bahadur Dhakal, 71, and his wife Maya Duku, 65, the last few days before resettlement have been busy, with streams of relatives and friends visiting them to say goodbye, many of them sharing their memories of more than two decades.
But for them, excitement is mixed with sadness: They will be reunited with two of their sons in the United States, but they are also leaving behind their eldest son, Rupen, who recently married a Nepali woman. This has slowed down the paperwork for his resettlement. “I’m in a big dilemma, because I’m happy about seeing [my sons] in America again, but I’m also sad because I’m leaving my eldest son behind. I always thought we would go together. I don’t know how I should feel,” says Duku Maya.
In contrast, Gori Maya Tamang, 51, and her husband Bhim Chhiring, 52, are excited to go to the US, without any reservations. Their eldest son and daughter, who have already been living in North Dakota for two years, will be waiting for them at the airport when they arrive in Fargo with their younger son, Santa Bir, 21. “The only struggle in life is what you wear and what you eat; so if you get that, you will be happy,” says Gori Maya.
Neither of them can erase the smiles off their faces. In their humble house, family and friends have gathered to recount the memories that they have shared since they were forced to flee Bhutan. In one room, Bhim Chhiring’s brother prays that everything will go well, while in the kitchen, all eyes are on a family member who has travelled clandestinely from Bhutan to see his relatives one last time after 22 years of separation.
“Wherever we are, I love that plane. We were forced to leave Bhutan, where we had to work in forced labour camps. Here in the camps, life has been much better, especially with the help of international organisations. But in America, I will be with my family. My country is my family,” says Gori Maya.
Beldangi to Kathmandu, Nepal
I'm afraid that I'll never see my parents again. The frustration is huge, my papers have been delayed just because I married a Nepali woman.
As the sun breaks the fog that covers the forest surrounding Beldangi, family and friends are already crammed in the houses of those departing to say goodbye as they embark on the first step of a journey that will change their lives forever. Tears, smiles, and anxiety are mixed in with the suitcases marked with the names of those who are to begin a new life in the US.
Outside the bus in Beldangi, everyone poses for one last photo which will be kept by those staying behind as a souvenir. Dozens of people are there to say goodbye, while others shout: “I love you,” and “good luck!” It’s time to go; a new life is waiting for them in the US.
Rupen Dhakal decides not to accompany his family to the bus that
will take them to the airport in Bhadrapur, about 45 minutes away; the fear of never seeing them again beats the desire to hug his parents one last time. “I'm afraid that I'll never see my parents again. The frustration is huge, my papers have been delayed just because I married a Nepali woman. I hope I will travel soon and that all the family will be together again,” Rupen says.
On the drive to the airport, dizziness is common: Most are not used to travelling and the movement of the bus on Nepal’s notoriously bad roads makes some of the refugees feel sick. But once at the airport, everyone is like a child, looking at things they never could have imagined. “A plane! A plane!” shouts Priyashu Sherpa, who at six years old is travelling with his parents to Texas.
Omar Havana/Al Jazeera
Gradually, everyone boards the plane, which has been chartered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for the trip to Kathmandu. Although their faces turn pale during take-off, the fear is mixed with excitement on their first plane ride ever. The seat belt sign is turned off, and outside the plane’s windows, the magnificent Himalayas says goodbye to its children.
At 87 years old, Dhan Maya Rai is taking the plane for the first time, for a trip that will take her from the refugee camp in Nepal’s southeast where she has lived for the past 23 years, to Cincinnati, Ohio – via Kathmandu, New Delhi, Brussels, and Newark. She is travelling with her son, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter, 18-year-old Chandra.
During the flight to Kathmandu, she keeps her nose glued to the window of the plane. “It was my fate to see it. If it hadn’t been written in my karma, then I wouldn’t have seen it. I saw heaps of stone somewhere and then there was something like water down here, and there were a lot of clouds. I saw the sunlight coming somewhere. I don’t know if it was sunlight, but it looked it. I flew above the clouds,” she says after arriving in Kathmandu.
When asked how she feels about going to the US, she says: “Wherever you are, you have to love that place. I don’t have a land to go back to. The Bhutanese chased me away from my home, but now I am happy to be going to America.”
Preparing for life outside the camps
A big adjustment for them is to learn to live outside a refugee camp, in addition to acclimating to American life and culture.
Both in the camps and in the Transit Centre run by IOM in Kathmandu, where refugees spend their last few days before heading to their resettlement countries, they are provided with basic orientation training on life abroad: from using Western-style toilets, to filling out job applications, to finding their seats on the plane.
Inside one of the classrooms in the Transit Centre, plastic chairs are lined up on each side of the room; a group of refugees are given fake boarding passes and instructed to find their seats. The excitement is there, but also a bit of anxiety; “Who will help us during the trip,” is a common question the refugees have. Leaders are selected among each group and given extra training, but they are also flying for the first time.
The mood at the Transit Centre is one of excitement and anticipation for their upcoming departure. In between the orientation sessions, the refugees sit around the courtyard and think about the challenges that they will face once there, about how they will be able to adapt to a new life and to a new culture.
The lack of language abilities is perhaps one of the most frequently voiced concerns, especially among the older refugees. Whereas the children and teenagers expect to pick up English – or other languages, depending on where they are being resettled – in no time, it is clear that the adults anticipate greater difficulties in learning the language fast enough to find jobs and navigate their new surroundings. “I’m illiterate and I don’t know how to speak English. When someone is illiterate, it’s a lot harder. That’s the biggest fear that I have,” says Gori Maya Tamang.
After so many years spent in a refugee camp where they have had almost no opportunities for employment and little prospects of bettering their lives, they know that adjusting to their new lives will be hard. “With the Bhutanese refugees in particular […] a big adjustment for them is to learn to live outside a refugee camp, in addition to acclimating to American life and culture,” says Kelly Anchrum of Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, the organisation that assists with the resettlement of refugees in the greater Cincinnati area.
Omar Havana/Al Jazeera
What might help the Bhutanese a little bit versus other refugees is that they come as a multigenerational unit which enables both parents to get out and work and to be part of society.
Yet, despite concerns about adjusting to life abroad, the prospect of becoming self-sufficient outside of a refugee camp and of finally moving past their ordeal is one that is exciting for the refugees. These days, most of the families departing for the US and other countries are joining relatives who have already resettled, making the transition to life abroad easier.
Maurizio Busatti, chief of mission of IOM in Nepal, explains that although the assistance given to refugees once they arrive in the host country is fairly limited, especially in the US, “much of what the state cannot provide is very much provided by the extended family”.
And although they may not know exactly how life will play itself out abroad, the refugees have the confidence that their family members will help them figure it out. “My brother-in-law arranged everything over there for us. They have been there almost 5 years, and my brother-in-law has good information, so he’s helping us with everything,” says Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa, who is being resettled in Texas with his Nepali wife and young child.
This excitement about being resettled and the drive to build better lives for themselves is perhaps what has contributed to a relatively high degree of success among the Bhutanese community abroad, many of whom have already opened up businesses, purchased homes and cars, and sent their children to school.
“What might help the Bhutanese a little bit versus other refugees is that they come as a multigenerational unit which enables both parents to get out and work and to be part of society,” says Anchrum. “What we find with our Bhutanese refugees is a high degree of success,” she adds.
For the younger generation especially, the prospects of pursuing higher education and careers in the US are particularly appealing. “Here you have to live a life supported by someone else, but in the US you can study for yourself, work for yourself, make a living for yourself … my future will be bright there,” says 18-year-old Chandra Rai.
Omar Havana/Al Jazeera
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Text by Juliette Rousselot
Photography by Omar Havana
Design by Shakeeb Asrar