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Story Publication logo September 16, 2014

Nepal: Refugees from Bhutan Long for Pittsburgh

Image by Julia Rendleman. Bhutan, 2014.

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal never got much international attention and now, after more than 20 years...

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In the dusty courtyard of his hut, Ganga Ram Khanal folds his fragile frame to sit on a low stool. His face hangs with sadness as he recounts the story of the time he almost came to America.

It was late March 2010 when he got word of his "travel date," the day he would get to leave behind the sweltering refugee camp in eastern Nepal, where he has lived for years since fleeing neighboring Bhutan.

His new home would be a place he could scarcely pronounce, Erie, which in his accented English sounds like "Eee-dee." He knew nothing about the Pennsylvania city except that it would be cold there. To prepare himself, his parents and his brother for their new life, he borrowed 100,000 Nepali rupees (about $1,000) from friends, relatives and neighbors and went on a shopping spree: for himself, a canvas jacket with a fake fur lining; for his father, a pinstripe suit; for his mother, kitchen utensils and a pressure cooker; for all, a large duffel bag to hold the new belongings.

A few days before he was supposed to leave, the International Organization for Migration told him that his trip was canceled. Ganga, 28, said he's never received any official explanation, but his parents believe it has something to do with an incident long before the travel was arranged in which he slapped a young student he was tutoring and a fight ensued. Like many young men in the camp, he was an alcoholic, a problem that he sought treatment for earlier this year.

Now the suit is gray with dust and its jacket eaten through by rats. His relatives — including many of his mother's 16 siblings — have departed for the United States and are living in Pittsburgh. His uncle Kul Poudel lives in a comfortable rented house in Pittsburgh with his mother, Ganga's grandmother. When they speak, he tells Ganga that America is great, that if you work hard, you can buy your own car.

He hears that in the United States, there's no dust, no smoke and that he can get a steady job. Like many refugees, who are technically barred from working outside the camps, he had once been consigned to work as a day hire on a construction site, hauling heavy bags of concrete up a mountainside.

Ganga and his family live in a torturous limbo. Although his brother and parents are eligible for relocation, they've resolved to stay in the camps until their eldest son is approved. Another cousin, 19-year-old Chandra Khadka, is due to depart next, bound for Pittsburgh with his wife.

They're part of a community of exiled Lhotshampas that shrinks by the week, each departing bus a reminder that someday the camp will close. They are among the 25,000 or so ethnic Nepalis who are awaiting relocation in the United States and in seven other Western countries. It's the largest active relocation effort in the world. Nearly all of the 108,000 refugees who fled Bhutan have settled in "Third Countries" or are scheduled to do so.

Fleeing in the night

They left Bhutan in the early 1990s, driven by fear of a crackdown by the government. They abandoned homes and farms on sprawling tracts of land, where they had grown oranges, cardamom, rice and lentils for generations.

Devi Maya Timsina and her husband, Khagendra, fled on a pitch-black night carrying little more than their four children. The youngest were naked — there was no time to dress them.

"It was so horrible," she said. Her father had been beaten by the police and forced to sign an agreement to leave the country. Her neighbors had disappeared and word had spread that they had been killed by the police. "I couldn't think [about] what to do and what not to do."

The journey of the exiled Lhotshampas, ethnic Nepalis who had settled in the south of the tiny nation of Bhutan, would bring them first to India and then to rural eastern Nepal, where scores died along the Mai River from illnesses wrought by heat, exhaustion and unclean water. Devi Maya and her family took shelter under a bridge there and she prayed she would survive to protect her children.

Soon after, official camps were established, growing to accommodate more than 100,000 people. In 2008, the United Nations Refugee Agency began an ambitious relocation effort after several attempts to repatriate them to Bhutan failed.

As a result of the resettlement effort, more than 77,000 have come to the United States as of May of this year. Between 2008 and 2012, more than 6,000 were sent to live in Pennsylvania with the help of social service agencies — the most of any state during that time period, according to a report by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund.

It's how Devi Maya's son-in-law, Pralad Mishra, came to live in Green Tree. It's why Ganga's uncle Kul Poudel, who was 9 when he walked shoeless from his village to the Indian border, ended up flipping burgers at a restaurant in Robinson.

For every Bhutanese refugee who has made his home here directly from Nepal, many more have migrated here from other American cities, often for the same reasons immigrants landed here a century ago: a robust job market and a tightknit community. They hear that Pittsburgh, with its verdant hillsides, looks like southern Bhutan.

It's difficult to count these "second-wave" migrants, but Jaime M. Turek, refugee resettlement case manager with the Northern Area Multi-Service Center of Allegheny County, estimated that more than 5,000 combined first- and second-wave Bhutanese migrants are living in the city and its suburbs, and that about 70 percent of that number is secondary migration. That means the region has one of the largest concentrations of Bhutanese in the nation.

But as they build a community here, their minds are in eastern Nepal, where many of their relatives still languish. The camps there continue to shrink and those who remain grow more desperate, especially as the resettlement program comes to a close. The deadline to apply for resettlement passed on June 30 and nearly all of the remaining refugees applied. But the process of getting resettled can be long and convoluted and filled with delays, adding to the daily angst of living in the camps.

Most eventually will be relocated to other countries, but some will not qualify and will be left behind, their fate in the hands of a government that has long demonstrated ambivalence about their presence.

Ekmani Nepal, the chief district officer who oversees the region where the camps are located, said it's unclear what will happen to those who are left behind.

"The … government has not made any decisions so far on this regard. There need to be special decisions by government in this case," he said. "It has to be done from political level. So we can't say anything now."

New challenges

Kul Poudel lives in a home off Brownsville Road, up a steep set of steps with a worn wooden porch.

Kul moved there in June with his pregnant wife, his daughter and his mother. He started his life in Pittsburgh in a townhouse in Carrick that was one of the few places that would take a refugee without a credit history or a job. Occasionally, his townhouse had no water and a pool of putrid sewage showed up in front of his house, along with an open pit that went unsealed for months.

The townhouses eventually were shuttered by the Allegheny County Health Department, and Kul and his family were once again forced into tight quarters. He hauled his stuff up a broken set of concrete steps to his brother's two-bedroom apartment in a complex owned by the same man who owned the townhouses. Eight people occupied the small space with its own problems: no smoke alarms, broken windows, broken screens and peeling paint containing lead that showed up in his young nephew's blood. The complex housed dozens of refugees, many from extended families.

But Kul told no one in Nepal about these problems, unwilling to burden any of his depressed relatives with news of struggles in the Third Country. And his problems seemed trivial compared with theirs.

That's true of many refugees who struggle to find jobs and to adjust to a new culture, language and climate. Older refugees, who did not benefit from an education in the camps, often are illiterate.

Many grapple with depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. Without the ability to work or own land, relying on U.N. food rations for survival, some refugees feel helpless or worthless. With the majority of refugees now resettled, loneliness seems to exacerbate those feelings.

"My friends understood me, understood my feelings. They've all left to the U.S.," Ganga said.

Ganga was treated at Happy Nepal, a rehabilitation facility. Bimal Gurung, a counselor there, has seen firsthand how poverty, the delay of resettlement and feelings of inferiority have created drug and alcohol dependency among refugees.

Bimal, himself a former addict, has not seen his family since fleeing Bhutan. "I started drinking because I had to leave my country and leave my family," he said.

Now that he is clean, he seeks to help others.

Suicide has become an alarming problem in the Bhutanese community, both in the camps and abroad, where the rates are above the U.S. average.

Hanging onto a culture

For those who remember Bhutan and still feel closely tied to it, the move to the United States provokes ambivalence. Many had hoped to return to their homes and for a time it appeared they would. A dozen years ago, the camp began issuing special identification cards to prepare refugees to be repatriated. But that effort failed, along with 17 others.

There was a time, too, when sentiments about the homeland sharply divided the camps, resulting in sporadic violence between those who had given up hope and were ready to relocate and those who were still agitating to go back to Bhutan. But most now are resigned to going to the "Third Country" because the refugee life offers few options for them or their children.

"By staying here, we wait for five kilograms of rice every 15 days and one kilogram of salt every 15 days … and that will not help our future," said Ganga's mother, Surja Maya.

Devi Maya is among those who wishes she could return and grows anxious about the possibility of moving so far from her homeland, even though there's little possibility of her being able to safely go back to Bhutan. At least here in eastern Nepal, she can hold onto her language and her culture and blend easily with the outside world. At least here, her husband's relatives from Bhutan can visit, slipping across two porous borders.

"That's the big dilemma," she said. "We see no chance to getting back to Bhutan."

She's moving for her children, who desperately want out of the refugee life, which provides few options.

Those who left Bhutan represented nearly all of the Lhotshampas in that country. So when Devi Maya and other refugees worry about losing their culture and fear that their children will abandon their language and strict religious traditions, they are worrying about the fate of an entire culture.

Kul, who has almost no memory of Bhutan, nonetheless shares this sentiment. He held his daughter out of preschool so she would learn Nepali at home, but 4-year-old Perika is adept at the family's tablet computer, swiping through cooking videos and cartoons in English on YouTube.

"Keeping our culture alive is the most important thing. Let the children learn the culture of this country but don't let them forget their own culture, too," he said. "Even in my own family, I need a translator. My mother speaks no English and [the] kids only want to speak English."

Devi Maya is worried, too, whether she will be prepared for this new world. What if she can't get a job and make money? What if she can't pay the rent and the landlord kicks her family out? She wonders aloud if she'll once again find herself homeless, stateless and living under a bridge.

Tough decision for a family

After sunset, the camps are engulfed in darkness, save for a few battery-powered lights. The Khanals hang one from the wall in a bedroom, where its harsh rays cast shadows around the room.

Seated in a chair illuminated by the weak light, Ganga's face appears longer than normal. Away from his parents, he does not speak hopefully about the future. His hunched posture is that of a man resigned.

In rough English, he sums up the dilemma that weighs heavily on him: "If I not go, they not go."

And when he told them that he'll be OK in Nepal without them, "they wept a lot."

Ganga is caught in this in-between world and is holding his family here with him. It's apparent that the guilt is wearing on him.

"Our minds are already in the U.S.," Ganga said in July, "but we don't know when we'll get to go."

Post-Gazette photographer Julia Rendleman and Nepali journalist Pradeep Bashyal contributed to this report.



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Migration and Refugees

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