The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Refugees adjusting to new life in US


PITTSBURGH, USA, April 30 - For 17 years, the Odari family was among more than 107,000 Bhutanese refugees in camps scattered over the southeastern plains of Nepal, hoping to return to their rightful place: Bhutan.
The nine-member family shared a small hut with thatched roof and dirt floor with no electricity, running water, toilet or kitchen. They lived on sparse rations of rice, lentils, vegetables, salt, sugar and oil distributed twice a month by United Nations agencies, but the food was never enough to fill their hungry bellies.

Then on April 9, three members of the Odari family arrived in Pittsburgh to start a new life.

"We were having a tough time in the refugee camp. We're happy to be here," said a beaming Man Maya, 25, who is living with her younger sister, Yani Maya, 22, and brother, Dilli Prasad, 20, in an apartment at Prospect Park in Whitehall.

Last night, their elderly parents, two more brothers -- one 24 and disabled and another 17, and two other sisters, 21 and 25, were expected to arrive here to join them.

The family's relocation is being assisted by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Man Maya was only 9 when she was forced to leave Bhutan with her parents and other family members. They were among the 120,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese -- mostly Hindu and Buddhist -- who were evicted from Bhutan in the late 1980s and early '90s when the Bhutanese rulers forced them to wear traditional dress, required that they speak the Dzongkha language and deprived many of citizenship. Protests against the stringent rules resulted in the mass exodus of tens of thousands to neighboring India.

India, in turn, forced most of them to enter Nepal, which does not share a border with Bhutan.

The Odaris lived in a Beldangi refugee camp -- one of seven camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In some camps, many children died from the lack of health care and the scorching climate in the plains.

"At times, there were 14 funerals a day," said Kishor Pradhan, a board member at Association of Bhutanese in America. Mr. Pradhan, who has been living north of Pittsburgh in New Castle for nine months, sought refugee status in the United States three years ago.

The United States has offered to resettle 60,000 of the 107,000 of the refugees. Six other countries -- Australia, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Denmark -- have offered to resettle the rest.

"After 17 years of suffering, the day has come for the Bhutanese to start fresh," said Mr. Pradhan, a senior quality analyst at Coventry Healthcare in Cranberry. "There is now a ray of hope for the refugees because numerous attempts to repatriate to Bhutan have failed."

The International Organization for Migration is screening and transporting the refugees. The United States plans to resettle 10,000 by the end of 2008, many going to New York, Maryland, Arizona, Missouri, Illinois and other places.

Dilli Prasad Odari said all of his family decided to resettle in the United States. "In camps we had to rely on UNHCR for our daily needs. But here we can live on our own, and it's also good for future generation," he said. Some of his other relatives have been resettled in Texas.

The family is gradually becoming accustomed to their new surroundings in the Whitehall area in the South Hills.

They are taking English classes in the mornings. They received health screenings shortly after their arrival. They also received food assistance to shop at Wal-Mart.

Even though he's 20, Mr. Odari last attended 10th grade in the refugee camp and hopes to further his education here. He likes to compare Pittsburgh with Ilam, a city in the eastern highland of Nepal that has similar topography. A lover of Nepali music, he has brought a collection of the Nepali lyrics. "But I'm dying to listen Nepali songs," he said.

Man Maya, a high school graduate, said it's hard to keep connected with her loved ones across the ocean. "It's hard to make phone calls to Nepal," she said.

Yani Maya is a little worried about finding work. "I hope we'll be able to work after four months," she said.

"They seem happy and are feeling good about being here," said John Miller, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities. His organization is resettling a total of 170 refugees in 2008.

Catholic Charities also provides core services such as applying for Social Security cards, medical screening, enrollment in English language training, employment counseling and orientation to the refugees. According to Mr. Miller, Catholic Charities provides its services for five years after they arrive. Catholic Charities in Pittsburgh also has helped resettle Vietnamese, Burmese, Sudanese, Somalian, Burundian, Iraqi, Meskhetian Turks (from the former Soviet Union) and Haitian refugees.

"Each refugee group has a different set of challenges," Mr. Miller said. "They have struggles but they also have emotional and psychological issues."

Mr. Odari hopes more Bhutanese will be resettled in Pittsburgh. "It feels good to be here but I'm also missing my friends in Nepal," he said, adding that he is developing friendships with young Burmese refugees in the neighborhood.
He's learning the bus routes of the city and has learned how to follow maps to visit places.

On a recent afternoon, when he saw a deer in the nearby woods, he was thrilled.
Eventually he hopes to return for a visit to Nepal to see the place where he said he has spent "some of the hardest times of my life."

Courtesy : Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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