100,000 Bhutanese Refugees Resettled - First Family Recall Their Journey to the USA

United States - When they left Nepal in 2008, Pingala Dhital and her family thought that they would be living in Washington, D.C. It turned out that they were headed to Washington State – Spokane, to be exact.

Far from being disappointed, the Dhitals were actually happy and relieved to start a new life in a place where they would stop worrying about the future of their children. On February 27, 2008, they became the first Bhutanese refugee family to be resettled in the United States.

This month, the 100,000th Bhutanese refugee from Nepal will be resettled. Although several countries have given new homes to the Bhutanese refugees, the vast majority opted to accept the US resettlement offer.

IOM processed their asylum applications for US status determination and provided medical screening and cultural orientation. It also organized their travel from remote camps in Eastern Nepal to the capital Kathmandu and on to their final destinations in America.

The Dhitals were refugees in Nepal for 17 years, following Bhutan’s expulsion of its citizens of Nepali descent in the 1990s. Their last home, prior to their resettlement was the Beldangi II refugee camp in Eastern Nepal.

Pingala arrived in Spokane with her husband Kamal, her son Satya, and daughter Trishna. Both children were born in the refugee camp. “It was not the ideal setting,” said Pingala, who used to be concerned about the future of her children.

Since they entered the US, school is no longer a concern for the Dhitals. The children speak flawless English and have had no issues integrating. While Satya is in his third year of college, studying civil engineering, Trishna is still in high school.

Both say that they are grateful to their parents for bringing them to US and offering them opportunities. “That is one of the biggest reasons that drives me to do well in school,” said Satya. “It is giving them back what they hoped for us to be. They wanted us to have a good education so we can have a good life. I feel like it is my responsibility to respond to that.”

Unlike his sister, Satya still remembers his life in the refugee camp. “I can still see all the hazes, the way the camp was laid out. I can tell you where all the different places were. I was old enough to remember,” he said.

 

A radiologist examines x-rays of Bhutanese refugees accepted for resettlement as part of IOM's resettlement programme in Nepal. © IOM/Kari Collins

His mother Pingala left Bhutan with her parents and siblings in 1990 to escape a campaign of violence and oppression waged by the government against their Lhotsampa, ethnic Nepali community. She was only 16.

The Lhotshampa settled in the south of Bhutan in the late 19th century, but in the 1980s became seen by the Bhutanese government as a threat to the established political order. A string of discriminatory measures – One Nation, One People - were passed against them.

Demonstrations against the measures led to thousands of arrests and de facto ethnic cleansing. Over 100,000 Lhotsampas fled to India and Nepal.

Pingala and her family fled first to India. They remained there for nine months. In India, Pingala met Kamal, her future husband. Both were living in the same neighborhood.

Kamal left Bhutan for similar reasons. He had protested the One Nation, One People policy and was a member of the student union of Bhutan. But when friends were arrested and sent to solitary confinement in Bhutanese prisons, he decided that it was time to leave.

In 1991, they all found refuge in one of the camps set up by UNHCR in Nepal. Three years later, Pingala and Kamal tied the knot. Pingala gave birth in the camp twice - in 1995 and 1998.

Before becoming a mother, Pingala worked as an adult education supervisor in the camp, while Kamal continued to serve the community at various levels and later joined the refugee-led Human Rights Council of Bhutan.

As her children were growing, Pingala was concerned about their future. When they were old enough to go to school, Pingala and her husband decided to move to India to give them a better education.

But after three years living in Kalimpong, northern India, the Dhitals decided to return to Nepal in 2004.

Life was not easier in India for the Dhitals. “I had an identity crisis in India,” Pingala said. “Over there we were nobody - neither Bhutanese nor Nepalese.”

When they returned to the refugee camp, Pingala started to meet with women living there to discuss alternative and durable solutions to their situation. The women had all the same aspirations - a life outside the camp and a future for their children.

Around the same time, in 2004, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Arthur E. Dewey visited the Beldangi II refugee camp and, for the first time, the option of resettlement by the U.S. government was floated.

The news resonated with hope for Pingala and her family. “Until then, I didn't know there were other ways like third country resettlement to solve refugees' problems,” she said.

She started to see resettlement as a real option, but wanted to be sure that return to Bhutan was no longer conceivable. When she and her husband met with leaders of the Bhutanese refugee community, Pingala wanted an answer to one question: when would the refugees be able to return home safely? No one was able to give an answer.

Bhutanese refugees from a camp in Eastern Nepal fly past Mount Everest en route to resettlement in the USA. @IOM / Kari Collins

“When we left Bhutan we were told the situation would be solved within six months - 14 years later there was still no solution,” Pingala said.

Finally, in 2006, the US announced that it would take 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. Pingala immediately welcomed the announcement. But the offer polarized the refugee community and she started to receive threats from opponents of the resettlement solution, who still believed a return to Bhutan was possible.

“My family started to be targeted and my mother was physically attacked,” she explained. The Dhitals' former house in the camp was also demolished.

In 2006, Pingala was already living in Kathmandu with her husband and children, but her parents and siblings were still in the camp. The threats to her family were one more reason to leave Nepal as soon as possible.

Finally in February 2008, Pingala left with her husband and two children. The Dhitals were the first Bhutanese refugee family to enter the United States. Her parents and siblings followed a few months later.

Pingala is now a job developer for the international relief and development non-profit World Relief in Spokane. Kamal is a case manager for Asian Counseling Referral Service (ACRS) in Seattle.

Their son, Satya, is already making big plans for his future and hopes to get a Masters degree and join the Peace Corps. He would like to eventually work for a UN agency and focus his career on water management.

“I want to give back. Knowing that people are struggling the way my parents did, knowing that there are more people like that out there, doesn't settle well with me,” he said.

The Dhitals are now American citizens and no longer consider themselves as refugees. “I was a refugee, now I am a US citizen. I am a Bhutanese-American,” said Pingala.