The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Griego: Thankful for having come this far

By Tina Griego
Denver Post Columnist

Deg Adhikari, formerly of Sector C/2, hut No. 55, Beldangi-II camp, Nepal, moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Aurora two months ago. The building is just off East Colfax Avenue, and from his front window, he can look out upon men walking down the sidewalk drinking beer. He has been told it is not safe to go out at night.

The apartment is furnished in this way: a dingy love seat, a tiny kitchen table, a computer not connected to the Internet, a rug upon which he and two roommates place shoes. The walls are bare but for a large Denver map, held by electrical tape.

He studies this map often, the grids and curving roads that make up the city's skeleton. He has learned Broadway divides east from west and Ellsworth Avenue, south from north. He has learned that when describing his location to someone he should begin by naming the nearest intersection and a helpful landmark. He comes from a place that does not have traffic signals.

He has yet to explore the city. It overwhelms him. He rides the bus to scheduled appointments with case managers or to class on American work culture or for English lessons, though, in fact, Adhikari's English is excellent. He also speaks Nepali, Hindi and Dzongkha. When he finishes his appointments, he returns to his apartment and closes the door behind him. Even that simple act feels strange. He has been raised to believe that a neighbor who always closes the door is a bad neighbor. He makes rice for supper. Rice and lentils, the food of the refugee camp.

At night, he lies in bed and wonders what the future will bring.

Adhikari, who is 26, brought with him two small, tattered photo albums. He looks at the pictures when he cannot sleep. There are his school friends. There are his mother and father and his brothers and sisters. They sit on straw mats on the floor of their hut. The walls were bamboo, but the family covered them with newspapers. The roof was plastic, opaque, as if the sky were perpetually overcast, which it was not.

How green the refugee camp is, people say when looking at the pictures. True, the land was very pretty, though you cannot eat pretty.

It is not quite right to say he misses the camp, but it is all he knew. He was 8 years old when his parents fled Bhutan for Nepal with him and his brothers and sisters. He spent 18 years in the camps. He finished all 10 grades of school and received permission to leave the grounds to finish grades 11 and 12. He was always bright. The Catholics helped him get into college in Darjeeling, India. In three years, he had his bachelor's degree in chemistry. He brought that with him, too.

His family remains in the camp. They are waiting for their visas. He did not cry on the day he left them, "but my heart was crying inside."

Adhikari flew from Kathmandu to Delhi to Brussels to New Jersey to Denver. On the way from the airport to his apartment, he looked out at the plains and the mountains, and he imagined it looked like Darjeeling.

Adhikari knew no one in Colorado. He was simply told that it was where he would be going. When he arrived, he was so happy. He is happy, still, but he is also anxious. He worries about finding a job. He worries about money. He has deadlines by which he must be employed, by which he must repay the $1,416 he borrowed to get here. "I thought I would get a good job, but here it is two months, and I have no work."

Adhikari took a two-week course for refugees on finding work in America. He did not know what a resume was. He could not believe that one was supposed to look the boss in the eye. His classmates included a fellow Bhutanese refugee, several Iraqis and a few Africans, including Nowerina Nakayiza from Uganda.

Nakayiza, who is 25, arrived one month ago, joining her mother who has been here 10 years. "I don't how to say it," she says, "but seeing my mother again, it was the best moment. I missed her motherly love."

They graduated from their work course last Friday. It was a joyful afternoon. The Ugandans danced; the American staff sang, "This land is your land, this land is my land." Adhikari accepted his certificate of completion and, beaming, raised it above his head. "It is a new life," he said. "I am trying to adapt myself."

Someone tried to explain Thanksgiving to him. "From what I know," he recounted, "it is ancient history of when people starting coming to America. Many people died, and sometimes the harvest was not good, and so at the end of the year, they all got together to give thanks to God. Thanks for the harvest, and thanks for those who survived."

This is how this Bhutanese refugee understands Thanksgiving, as the holiday celebrated by grateful survivors. Of which Adhikari is one.

Tina Griego writes Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reach her at 303-954-2699 or

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