The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Immigrant Voices: After 20 years in a refugee camp, Bhutanese man seeks home in Portland

Mani Bharati (second from right) sits with his family, from left, Bipana Bharati, Dibya, 10, and Monika, 12; in their Southeast Portland apartment. They also have a son, Deoraj, 17. (Mike Lloyd/ The Oregonian)
Kelly House, The OregonianBy Kelly House, The Oregonian 
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on June 16, 2013 at 9:00 AM, updated June 16, 2013 at 11:13 PM
Editor's note: This series explores the diversity of Oregon's immigrant population through first-person stories of immigrants from throughout the world. All are in the U.S. legally.
Mani Bharati, who speaks Nepali, spoke through a translator. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
I moved to Portland in 2009, after 20 years living in a refugee tent camp in Nepal.
My family are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who immigrated to Bhutan generations ago. The government recruited my great-grandfather and many other Nepalis to help build Southern Bhutan's infrastructure and farm the land. They granted us citizenship. But when the work was done in the 1980s, they kicked us out.
Those who stayed were illegally imprisoned, forced to wear traditional Northern Bhutanese dress and forbidden from practicing our Hindu religion or speaking Nepali in schools. Women were raped and houses were burned to the ground.

About Bhutan
Area:14,824 square miles, north of India and east of Nepal in South Central Asia
Population: 722,000
Immigration facts: Bhutan has experienced a refugee crisis since the early 1990s, when the country's government revoked citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Nepali-speaking Southern Bhutanese residents and ejected them from the country. Facing discrimination, false imprisonment, violence and property destruction, more than 100,000 fled to Nepal, where they have lived in tent camps for more than two decades. Despite numerous international attempts to settle the crisis, the refugees continue to live in exile. In 2008, the U.S. agreed to absorb 60,000 refugees from the tent camps, leading to an influx of Southern Bhutanese immigrants in Portland and other cities. According to Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization estimates, more than 200 Bhutanese refugees have arrived in Portland since 2011, with many more arriving in prior years. The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Bhutan.
GS.21BHUT117-03.jpgView full size
I was 15 when my family left, fearing we would be the next to experience the suffering we saw our neighbors endure. We drove by car into Nepal, but many others weren't so fortunate. They had to walk miles and miles through the jungle to escape. When we got there, the Nepalese government wouldn't give us citizenship, but they gave us bamboo sticks. We covered them with straw and tarps to make our houses, which caved in every time it rained hard.
They gave us some rice and potatoes, but it wasn't enough to live on. I had to work to buy extra food, but my sick father needed someone to look after him. My brother suggested an arranged marriage, and Bipana and I were wed. When we had children -- our son is now 17 and our two daughters are 12 and 10 -- food became scarcer.
Life in the camp was hard, but I was nervous to come to America, too. My wife has asthma and my daughter has seizures. I was worried they wouldn't get the care they needed in America.
We stayed with my brother for the first few days, then Catholic volunteers helped us find an apartment and showed us around Portland. They took us to the waterfalls. My kids enrolled in the David Douglas School District and I tried to find a job, but it was difficult. Every employer's first question is "Can you speak English?"
Each time I get rejected, I wonder how I will feed my kids or pay the rent. Right now, my wife is working part-time as a hotel housekeeper. All of her money goes straight to rent, and paying back the International Organization for Migration, which paid for our plane tickets to America. I am taking language classes at Portland Community College, but my kids have learned faster than me. They have good teachers at school.
The health care here is better than in Nepal, too.
When I moved here, my brother helped me get involved in Grow Portland, a program that helps refugee immigrants get on their feet through farming. For $750, I rent a one-acre plot in Southeast Portland and sell my goods at the Portland Farmers Market. I farmed in Nepal, but I am learning a lot about American consumers. If the turnip or the cucumber is too big, they won't buy it. It's a struggle. I don't think I'll make more than $1,500 for the season.

Immigrant Voices: Oregon immigrants tell their stories about why they came to America (video)Immigrant Voices is a series that tells the stories of immigrants to America and to Oregon. They are Moima Doe from Liberia, Lilya Yevseyeva from Russia and Mani Bharati from Bhutan.
When I first moved here, I was scared. It is much different from Nepal. I didn't even know how to use the crosswalks on the streets or how to take the bus.
Now, I am used to it, but I still have a lot to learn.
Friends have told me I would have an easier time finding a job in other states, but we can't afford to move and my kids like it here.
My disabled daughter begs me to get the nice decorations she sees when she goes to other people's homes. I try to make her happy by decorating the house with teddy bears and streamers on the ceiling. She doesn't understand why we don't have anything.
I hope someday we will. It is hard to imagine going back home because Bhutan is still in unrest. In the meantime, I am working to learn English so I can apply for citizenship. I will also think about my kids and what they want to do. If our future is good over here, we will stay.
--Kelly House

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