By Stephen Magagnini:
A crowded apartment in east Sacramento became a colorful dream factory recently when Bhanu Adhikari married his childhood sweetheart, Kamala Chauhan. The couple – who sealed their long-anticipated union in an elaborate Hindu ceremony – fell in love 12 years ago behind barbed wire in a Nepalese refugee camp.
Clad in red, gold and green wedding clothing, they celebrated not just the culmination of their love and bonding of their families, but their new life of religious and political freedom in the United States.
“Good climate, good soil, good people,” declared a bubbly Adhikari, one of the first 400 Bhutanese refugees who have been resettled in Sacramento this year. His bride’s family resettled in Phoenix in March. The Hindu wedding ceremony at Adhikari’s apartment welcomed Chauhan, 27, into his family and covered all her new responsibilities as a daughter-in-law.Adhikari, 29, became a teacher in the refugee camp Here he works as a cook. “It took me four months to find this job – it’s easier to find a diamond,” he said. “I want to be a pharmacist.”
The Bhutanese represent the latest chapter in Sacramento’s rich immigrant history, which embraces more than 100,000 refugees from across the globe.
Bhutan is a poor nation of 700,000 people perched in the Himalayas between India and Tibet. Most of the Bhutanese seeking refuge in the United States are Hindus who say they were persecuted by the government. As many as 600 more will be resettled in the Sacramento region.
Half the Bhutanese already in Sacramento who speak some English are working, said Rachel Lau, whose agency, International Rescue Committee, is helping resettle them.
“Bhutanese are very different in comparison with a lot of our other clients,” Lau said. Most couldn’t work in the camps in Nepal.
“So they basically were idle for two decades. They’ve used that experience as motivation,” Lau said. “They pretty much get off the plane ready to work and they will do whatever.”
Many, including several of the groom’s relatives, work as $8 an hour hotel maids.
Others have gotten jobs at Fry’s Electronics, grocery stores, gas stations, fast food franchises and a uniform cleaning company, Lau said. “The larger Indian Hindu community has taken them under their wing with some furniture donations and jobs.”
Chauhan, the new bride, was a social worker in the camps. She plans to become a cashier, the job she had in Phoenix, and eventually hopes to become a nurse.
Outcasts in the camps
The couple said their families fled to Nepal to escape Bhutan’s oppressive government, along with about 100,000 other Bhutanese Hindus of Nepali origin who settled in seven camps in Nepal.
The Bhutanese Hindus – called Lhotsampas, or people of southern Bhutan – claim they were driven off their lands and jailed for holding nonviolent protests.
About 20,000 have been resettled in the United States since March 2008, according to the U.S. State Department.
Bhutan denies human rights violations against the Lhotsampas and considers them illegal immigrants who threaten Bhutan’s “distinct political and cultural” identity, according to Tshewang C. Dorji of the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations.
“The citizenship laws of Bhutan are not discriminatory. It will only be found discriminatory by illegal residents,” Dorji wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Bee.
“Granting citizenship to such people would create a dangerous precedent for a small country like Bhutan.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said most of the refugees are descendants of Nepalese who migrated to southern Bhutan in the late 19th century to farm and settled in malaria-infested lowlands. The Lhotsampas who left the lowlands for the camps in Nepal spent nearly 20 years there before the United States and other countries agreed to resettle them.
“Many of them were stripped of citizenship rights and were effectively expelled from the country,” said UNHCR spokesman Tim Irwin. “They … feel they had no option but to leave.”
(For full news story and more pictures, please visit sacbee.com)