The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Saturday, October 12, 2013

From Bhutan to Minnesota, their journey is not over

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Bandana Pyakurel, 17, and her cousin Phul Maya Khatiwada, play with Khatiwada's 6-month-old daughter, Ruby. Bandana's brother, Prakash, looks on. They are part of a small Bhutanese community that has resettled in an apartment complex on St. Paul's North End. (MPR Photo/Laura Yuen).

A new group of refugees is arriving in Minnesota. They're coming from Bhutan, a tiny Asian country wedged between China and India. Tens of thousands are expected to resettle in the United States over the next several years.

About 150 of those exiles have been quietly starting their new lives in the Twin Cities. But their journey is far from over.

St. Paul, Minn. — A bundled-up Mangala Sharma is shivering on a doorstep in St. Paul. About a dozen Bhutanese families have settled into a cluster of brick apartment buildings on the city's North End, and Sharma is paying them a visit.

"Today is such a cold day," she said, waiting to be buzzed in. "It's hard on refugees, too."

Right now, the group of Bhutanese in Minnesota is so small that you might as well think of it as one big extended family, even if they're not all related.

Since last spring, Sharma has helped bring many of her relatives and in-laws to the Twin Cities from refugee camps in South Asia. Bhutan threw out ethnic Nepalese in the early 1990s, claiming they were there illegally.

These new Minnesotans represent just a sliver of one of the largest resettlement programs now under way. The United States has offered to take 60,000 Bhutanese refugees, who have lived in camps for nearly two decades. Experts say the relocation slots could be filled within five years.

Like family

Inside an apartment, husband and wife Parashar and Phul Maya Khatiwada say only one thing is missing from their lives.

"We feel everything is good, but we not get any jobs," said Parashar. "We searched everywhere, with many companies, but we (did) not get any jobs."

It's a plight that many resettlement agencies acknowledge: The Bhutanese are coming here with dreams of becoming self-sufficient, and with relatively strong English skills to boot. But the disastrous state of the U.S. economy has kept many of them at home, hungering for work.

The Khatiwadas are afraid what will happen next month, when some of the cash assistance they receive is likely to run out.
"They don't have income, so everything they have received is from the people of Minnesota."
- Bhutanese community leader Mangala Sharma

But Phul Maya Khatiwada says they have a lot to be thankful for. "They are wonderful," she said. "They help me so much."

"They" are the generous strangers who have all but adopted her as a sister.

In fact, one of those early helpers, Maureen Shealer, arrives at the apartment, along with her mom, two sisters and a niece. They're here to celebrate Phul Maya's 24th birthday -- over momo dumplings and pizza.

Shealer, a kindergarten teacher, befriended the Khatiwadas while working at the World Relief resettlement agency last summer. One of her tasks was taking a very pregnant Phul Maya to prenatal check-ups shortly after she arrived in Minnesota.

"We had a connection right away," Shealer said. "She calls me if she needs me, and I call her if I need her. We're just like normal friends."

In fact, Shealer was the one who held Phul Maya as the expecting mother wept after learning that her baby would be born with spinal bifida.

Today, that baby is now a bubbly six-month-old named Ruby. Phul Maya Khatiwada said if her daughter were born in the camp, both infant and mother probably wouldn't have survived.

Volunteers with resettlement agencies in Minnesota have been crucial to refugees like Khatiwada, Sharma said.

"They took her to the hospital, they brought food, diapers, toothpaste, and all this furniture you see here," Sharma said. "They don't have income, so everything they have received is from the people of Minnesota."

Sharma, who spent several years living in Atlanta before moving to the Twin Cities suburb of Lauderdale, has emerged as a community leader here. But even she has lived in Minnesota for less than two years.
"I can't think of another country where people know less about the situation that the refugees left."
- UNHCR settlement officer Larry Yungk

Sharma is helping plan the first-ever "Bhutan Day" next month to call attention to some common challenges. The event, scheduled for Feb. 28, will also celebrate their culture and offer everything from yoga lessons to advice on how to survive Minnesota winters.

About 7,000 to 8,000 Bhutanese refugees are scattered across the United States, from Georgia to Idaho. So far, not one city has emerged as a magnet for the community, but that could change with secondary migrations.

Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said he sympathizes with the Bhutanese refugees because their community is so small, and their story hasn't been widely told.

"I can't think of another country where people know less about the situation that the refugees left," Yungk said. "What people know about Bhutan is a utopia, Shangri-la, kind of thing. But I don't think people look at it as a country where one-sixth of the population was ethnically cleansed."

While the Bhutanese government has in recent years begun to allow outside influences such as TV and the Internet, the nation remains largely insular. The Buddhist kingdom even has an official quotient measuring quality of life, called the "Gross National Happiness." The country's unfettered Himalayan views have attracted vacationing celebrities and other well-heeled tourists.

The contrast in climate here in Minnesota has presented problems for some Bhutanese refugees. Elderly individuals who speak no English say they feel isolated in their apartments.

Even 37-year-old Parmananda Khatiwoda, who also works at World Relief in Richfield, says the weather has been his biggest hurdle.

"I started coming to work on Jan. 2, and I changed three buses, so that's challenging," he said with a laugh. "I've never, ever come across this cold in my life."

Coming to the U.S., he said, has been a long odyssey. Khatiwoda still recalls the humility he felt at the camp in Nepal, as he stood in line for rations of rice and lentils.

"You felt like such a beggar," he said. "People who have a lot of ego or self-respect, it's really difficult. That went on for 17 years."

Worse yet, he said, was the realization that his own government denied him.

"You don't have a country. You want to work. You don't have citizenship," he said.

But he says one day, that will change -- here in his new country.


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