New wave from Bhutan settles in

“After 17 stateless years, they’re starting over”

Every refugee who resettles in Vermont brings a story of hardship, but those from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, dozens of whom have been arriving during the past two years, have endured one of the longest, strangest ordeals of all.Westerners for years have romanticized their homeland as a version of Shangri-La, lauding it as the only country in the world where promoting happiness is a formal goal of public policy.

Bhutanese refugees Mon (right) and Bishnu speak about their experiences living in Bhutan and the United States at their home in Winooski on Monday.

Bhutanese refugees Mon (right) and Bishnu speak about their experiences living in Bhutan and the United States at their home in Winooski on Monday.

Westerners for years have romanticized their homeland as a version of Shangri-La, lauding it as the only country in the world where promoting happiness is a formal goal of public policy.

Yet this is also a country that reportedly expelled a large share of its own population — about one-sixth, by some estimates, more than 100,000 people — and refused to let them return. They were confined largely to squalid camps in nearby Nepal for 17 years. The Bhutanese government has characterized the exodus as voluntary. Refugees here have a different account.

Phul Pokhrel, 24, came of age in the camp known as Beldangi One, where 14,000 people lived in makeshift bamboo huts topped with plastic sheeting. She went to school, grew up, married, gave birth to her first child — all in the camp — and retains little memory of life in her family’s Bhutan village.

She does, however, remember soldiers knocking on the door and saying, “Either leave the country or we will kill your father.” Her father, a middle-school teacher who taught in the Nepali language, fled in 1991, and the family followed.

Her husband, Chandra Pokhrel, 29, was 12 when police showed up at the village grocery his mother ran, locked them out of their office, and gave them a date to leave the country. He wound up in Beldangi Two, population 22,000.

Bishnu and Mon Rai were driven off the 5-acre farm they tended, as was Khadananda Luitel. Luitel said he was jailed and beaten, then was released and hobbled three days to reach the border.

Like most other Bhutanese who fled in the early 1990s, they’re members of the Lhotshampa minority group — Nepali-speakers and predominantly Hindu in a country where the dominant majority, and the ruling elite, are Buddhist and speakers of Djongkha, Bhutan’s national language.

Now the Rais and Pokhrels are all living in Winooski, where they’re facing an entirely new environment. For example, after years subsisting on rice rations in the camps, they find themselves puzzling over unit pricing during their regular pilgrimages to Shaw’s supermarket.(source:burlingtonfreepress)

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