The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Bhutan struggle to adjust to Canada

Most immigrants find established communities to ease their transition to Canada, but others, like the Kattels, must find their own way

Bhutanese journey: Refugees to pioneers
Family's journey to Canada started years ago

Vancouver — From Saturday's Globe and Mail

On a hot, sunny day last July, three fully clothed kids waded into the surf off Vancouver's Spanish Banks beach, squealing as the cold sea water rose above their knees. Born and raised in a Nepalese refugee camp, Prakash, 14, Menuka, 12, and Ganesh, 8, had arrived in Canada 10 days earlier. They had never seen an ocean.

They didn't own swimsuits and didn't seem to care. Their mother, Bishnu Maya Kattel, followed behind, laughing as she gathered the folds of her sari around her thighs.

The family – also including the children's father, Bhim Lal, and grandmother, Pabi Maya – had been in the country just over a week, when, out of the blue, a Nepalese-Canadian cultural group invited the Kattels to its annual picnic.

“The day of the picnic, it was the first time I felt okay,” Ms. Kattel recalled recently during an interview with a Nepalese translator. “I thought: ‘I'm not the only lonely person here. There are other people like me in Canada.'”

But there aren't that many. About 5,000 Bhutanese refugees are expected to arrive in Canada over the next five years in one of the largest government-sponsored refugee programs in recent memory. Approximately 150 were expected to come to British Columbia this year, but so far only 28 have arrived.

And the Bhutanese face other challenges. Unlike most immigrants and refugees, the government-sponsored Bhutanese don't have the safety net of an already established community to ease their culture shock and offer support. That lack of a support group has prompted questions about how they will assimilate in their new country. Their backgrounds don't lend themselves to easy adaptation. They have spent 17 years in refugee camps and most of the adults have never held full-time jobs.

And, in the future, far more of these high-need refugees are expected to arrive in the country. Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was amended seven years ago to give a higher priority to refugees in need of immediate protection. That group tends to include people fleeing war, famine and displacement. Many arrive in Canada with post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical needs. In short, they aren't people in a position to apply for jobs tomorrow.

John Lehmann/Globe and MailBishnu Maya Kattel, left along with her daughter Menuka, 12, ride the SkyTrain in Vancouver.
So how have the Kattels navigated their transition from refugee camp dwellers to West Coast suburbanites? Their first months in Canada have seen both triumphs and setbacks, frustration and serendipity.

The Globe and Mail first interviewed the Kattel family last June in the teeming Goldhap refugee camp in eastern Nepal, two weeks before they departed for Canada. They knew little about their new country except that it was freezing cold. The first thing Mr. Kattel asked a Canadian visitor was: Are there jobs in British Columbia?

When the family of six arrived at Vancouver Airport in July, they were wild-eyed and jet-lagged. Despite a July heat wave they were clad in thick woollen sweaters. For the next three months, the Globe tracked the family's progress in B.C., after they moved into their new apartment in the suburban of municipality of Coquitlam.

The children found the transition particularly difficult. They were shocked at how hard school was. Eight-year-old Ganesh cried every day for the first week, telling his mother he couldn't understand a word the teachers said to him.

The family lives on social assistance – paid by the federal government for one year – and money is tight. They go to endless lengths to cut household costs. Internet and cable are luxuries beyond their means. They get food from the food bank and go to Value Village for winter clothes. At night, they sit in the dark rather than waste electricity.

Mr. Kattel's thin résumé weighs on his mind. Next July, the federal-funded monthly welfare cheques will stop. By then, he will need to find full-time work. He has already applied to enroll in a trades training program.

“I'm all alone in this. It all comes down to me. I have to find a job and support this family. There is a lot of pressure on me. I will do whatever it takes.”

But the Kattels still consider themselves fortunate.

They're amazed their apartment has running water, plus plumbing and electricity. In Nepal, Menuka rose at dawn every morning to fetch water and Ms. Kattel cooked meals in a fire pit in the corner of their bamboo hut.

And, for the first time in 17 years, Mr. Kattel possesses a document – in the form of his Canadian permanent residence card – that gives him the right to work.

For Mr. Kattel, that stamp of status has meant the world. After years as an outcast in Nepal, he had braced for more struggles in Canada. He thought he would have to fight to enroll his children in school. Instead, a Nepali-speaking counsellor from the Coquitlam school board helped enroll all three children in school. Last August, just days after they moved into their apartment, a counsellor from the Vancouver-based Immigrant Services Society helped sign the kids up for a summer camp for immigrant kids.

John Lehmann/Globe and MailMenuka Kattel , 12, rides the Wave Swinger at Vancouver's PNE in Vancouver.
Mr. Kattel was floored. “They came and found us and took our kids to summer camp,” Mr. Kattel said. “I never expected the government would treat us like regular citizens, giving us respect. In Nepal we weren't given the same rights.”

The Kattels' journey to Canada actually began in the early 1990s when the former king of Bhutan expelled more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese from the small Himalayan country. The expelled Bhutanese fled to Nepal, where they were corralled into refugee camps on the eastern border with India. After years of talks between Bhutan and Nepal ended in stalemate, seven Western nations agreed to accept the Bhutanese. Most – about 60,000 – will go to the United States.

The family has also been able to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

In fact, from the day the Nepalese cultural group invited the refugees to its beach picnic, scores of other people – from school counsellors to local volunteers – have knocked on the Kattels' door, offering help.

Their greatest support so far has come from an unlikely couple – two health-care professionals – who live in nearby Port Moody. Brian Wolfe and Pauline Sheppard saw a newspaper ad last spring looking for Canadians to sponsor Bhutanese families. The couple, who once lived abroad in Asia, remembered the culture shock and loneliness of the ex-pat life and signed up to sponsor the Kattels.

Since July, they have spent hours helping the family navigate Canadian life, taking them sightseeing, grocery shopping and translating the never-ending letters the children bring home from school. They visit two or three times a week and rarely arrive empty-handed. The Kattel apartment is now equipped with a television set, computer, DVD player and mountain bike. Prakash told his dad that he believes the family now lives better than the prime minister of Nepal.

“We will never forget what [Mr. Wolfe and Ms. Sheppard] have done for us,” Mr. Kattel said.

For his part, Mr. Wolfe said meeting the Kattels has been humbling. Watching the kids blossom has been a joy.

“They have these rich personal lives,” Mr. Wolfe said. “And you see what our culture is missing. They are not materialistic people. You see what we have given up for materialistic things.”

Despite their worries, the Kattels are grateful for the help they received. And now they are in the position to offer some help in return. Last weekend, Mr. Kattel gathered his brood, boarded the SkyTrain and brought them to the same downtown hostel where his family spent their first two weeks in Canada. Another Bhutanese family from Nepal had just arrived in Vancouver and the Kattels had come to offer advice and support. “This is our culture. We help each other.”

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