The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
Click over the map to know the differences

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Journey from Camp to Skycrappers

COPIED FROM:  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The People
Life in the Camps
The Story
A Night in the Camp


People who were forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence.
Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.

PEOPLEHira Darjee, 30, outside his hut in the Beldangi refugee camp. He is waiting to resettle in Pittsburgh. He was 6 when he left his remote village in Bhutan, and recalls excitement, not trauma, in the expulsion: "I had never seen a truck before."

From left, sisters Bhim Maya Poudyel, 30, holding her sonPrashant, Sapuna Bhattarai, 12, Hari Bhattarai, 22, and Dilu Bhattarai, 25, stand outside a family friend's house during a Hindu wedding celebration in Carrick in May.

Chandra Khadka and his wife, Januki Bhattari, both 19, sit outside their hut on a hot day in early July. They will likely arrive in Pittsburgh before the year is out. "My mother told me to stay safe and come to the USA soon. I replied that it's not in my hands, so don't worry if I'm late," he said.

Ganga Ram Khanal, 28, had a date to leave the refugee camp and move to Erie in early 2010, but Ganga was addicted to alcohol and wasn't able to immigrate. His family stayed behind to wait for him and the guilt of having delayed their process weighs on him.

Family matriarchBishnu Maya Poudel, 68, lives with her son, Kul Poudel, and his young family in Carrick. Tears come to her eyes when she thinks of her daughter, Surja Maya, who remains in Nepal - her process complicated by her son's struggles with alcoholism.

Hari Maya Baswa, 30, and her son Rojan, 1, sit outside her hut in early July. She recently applied for third-country resettlement after being counseled that the application period was closing June 30. Her case is complicated by her alcohol addiction and the fact that she is the second wife to an Indian man, whom she married at age 13.

Purnawati Timsina, 81, has no desire to be resettled in a third country or leave the Sanischare refugee camp. "All my beloved died here and I will die here too," she said.

Dhan Darjee, 22, stands on the Roberto Clemente Bridge during a walking tour of Downtown with friends in August. Dhan's brother Hira remains in the refugee camp with his wife. "Seeing his photo makes me miss him, yeah, but, what can I do? Wait and see what the future has," he said.

Khagendra Prasad Timsina, 54, is a Hindu priest. He represents an older generation that is apprehensive about third-country resettlement. "We don't have any skill of working because we haven't worked for 20 years plus. We don't have the language, so what [will we] do there," he said. He also worries that he would never again see Bhutan or his family there. "It's finished after going to the U.S. ... I don't when we would meet again."

Kamala Biswa, 19, sits in her neighbor's home in Bildangi II, one of the remaining Bhutanese refugee camps in eastern Nepal, near the Indian border. Kamala, a shy girl, is immigrating to Akron, Ohio.

CAMPSDay breaks over Sanischare in early July, when the punishing rains of Monsoon season when dangerous batter the bamboo-and-thatch huts of the refugee camps.

A small boy walks along the muddy paths between huts in the Sanischare refugee camp.

Huts are marked with their location. This is the home of Hira and Momta Darjee - Sector D4, Hut 20.

Hira Darjee, 30, on a day in early July when temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees. Most refugees do not have electricity; a few have solar-powered fans. Hira hopes he can come to Ohio or Western Pennsylvania soon. "I want to see how this snow falls," he said.

Resettlement has brought new rituals to the camps. Refugees scan lists of hut numbers posted on bulletin boards around the camps by the International Organization for Migration to identify families who have advanced one step closer to traveling to the "Third Country."

Dr. Bhampa Raitreats Devi Maya Bhattaria, a refugee from the Beldangi camp. Dr. Rai does not charge refugees for visits. He believes strongly in repatriation. In his book "Bhutan and its Agonized People" he writes, "The third country resettlement program for Bhutanese looked attractive especially to young ones and to the ignorant Bhutanese who did not understand the value of nation and nationality."

Refugees cook
over mud ovens with firewood
that they collect.

Prabesh Ray, 5, lives with his mother, Chandra Wati Siwakoti. They are waiting on her divorce proceedings to immigrate to the Pittsburgh area. Prabesh shows academic promise. "My son's school here is not bad but due to third country resettlement, every month teachers keep changing," she says. "Due to discontinuity of teachers, students are facing a problem."

Cell phone charging stations do the job for refugees living without electricity.

Januki Bhattarai, 19, cleans her home in the Beldangi refugee camp during a hot day in July. She and her husband, Chandra Khadka, hope to arrive in Pittsburgh before their first child is born in October.

Sandals fill the pathway as people, mostly women, gather for a Christian church service at the Sanischare refugee camp. Christianity has spread in the camps and Pittsburgh has several worship sites that conduct services in Nepali.

A young girl waits in line for fabric rations that will be made into new school uniforms.

The sun sets over the Mai River in eastern Nepal. Bhutanese refugees first settled on the river banks, where conditions were terrible. There was little clean water and people died from disease and dehydration before the UN stepped in with aid.

LeavingDuring a monsoon rain in early July, friends, family and neighbors pour out of the Sanischare refugee camp to see loved ones off. Three times a week, buses pull out of the camps full of refugees bound for Kathmandu, then new lives in America.

Dambar Kumari Dhungel, 31, (left) waves goodbye to her husband and friends as she pulls out of the Sanischare refugee camp for the last time July 11.

Those not bound for third countries watch as fellow refugees leave the camps for the last time. Many who have yet to resettle said the delay of their own immigration coupled with having so many loved ones leave makes them feel depressed and lonely.

Purna Bahadur Gurung shows an information sheet from the International Organization for Migration to prepare for departure for the United States. He and his family will relocate to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Jyoty Kharel, 16, on a bus to get to her final medical examination -- the last step in the immigration process -- the day before she resettles in Atlanta.

Each refugee is allowed only a small amount of personal possessions for the move across the world. One duffle bag per person is the usual, although some travel with even less.

Buddhi Maya Raisignals a "good-bye" to her family as they leave for the United States. Ms. Rai said she was happy to see her family start a new life, though she will miss them.

Smile Devan, 33, a Nepali citizen, says his final goodbyes to his daughter, Rina Shah, 7, before she, her brother and mother leave the refugee camp for the United States. Smile does not know when he will see his two children again since he is not eligible to resettle.

PITTSBURGHAgit Tamang Bomjan, 27, grabs a bag off the carousel for a newly arrived refugee family at the Pittsburgh International Airport. "Now we are here. Adapting American traditions is our duty," he said.

Bikram Gurung, 17, gets his first glimpse of Pittsburgh through the window of a church van as it pulls away from the airport.

Nir Neopaney, 25, gardens at the Mount Oliver Borough Community Garden. Nir and her husband Krishna Prasia, 27, came to the United States three years ago and moved to Pittsburgh from Erie about 1 1/2 years ago. "We came to Pittsburgh because there are job opportunities," Krishna said.

Kawal Poudel drinks traditional Nepali tea at a family home in Carrick.

Bhutanese men conduct a traditional marriage ceremony on the third floor of a home in Carrick.

Bhim Maya Poudyel, 30, cleans the nonsmoking section of Rivers Casino.

Tara Devi Rai and her sons Kashan, 9, (right) and Krashal, 3, take their first bus ride in Pittsburgh, from Mount Oliver to the Social Security office Downtown, less than 48 hours after arriving from Nepal.

Pragyn Poudyel, 7, plays in her back yard in Carrick. Pragyn left the refugee camps when she was 3 and has no memory of them. She often responds to her mother's requests, given in Nepali, in English.

Service coordinatorSharon Bogdan, left, and developmental therapist Hillary Thomas, right, during an in-home visit withPrashant Poudyel, 1, in a troubled Carrick housing complex deemed unsafe by Allegheny County. Prashant has had regular checks since a blood test indicated exposure to lead-based paint in the complex, where several refugee families live.

Kala Siwakoti cries asRup Pokhrel leads a group therapy session at the Gorkhali grocery store in Carrick. Ms. Siwakoti was crying for the family in Bhutan she'll likely never see again, Mr. Pokhrel said. Many refugees suffer from depression. "We can solve problems by crying. Crying is not a problem, we cry even when we are born," he said.

Bhim Maya Poudyel(center) blows up balloons for Apson Thapa, 3, (left) andPerika Poudel, 4, before a family birthday party at her apartment in Carrick. Bhim said that birthdays go without celebration in Nepal. "The kids learn about birthday parties in school," she said.
Moriah Balingit
Julia Rendleman

SANISCHARE, Nepal — In the dusty courtyard of his hut, Ganga Ram Khanal folds his fragile frame to sit on a low stool. His face hangs with sadness as he recounts the story of the time he almost came to America.

It was late March 2010 when he got word of his “travel date,” the day he would get to leave behind the sweltering refugee camp in eastern Nepal.

His new home would be a place he could scarcely pronounce, Erie, which in his accented English sounds like “Eee-dee.” He knew nothing about the Pennsylvania city except that it would be cold there. To prepare himself, his parents and his brother for their new life, he borrowed 100,000 Nepali rupees (about $1,000) from friends, relatives and neighbors and went on a shopping spree: for himself, a canvas jacket with a fake fur lining; for his father, a pinstripe suit; for his mother, kitchen utensils and a pressure cooker; for all, a large duffel bag to hold the new belongings.

A few days before he was supposed to leave, the International Organization for Migration told him that his trip was cancelled. Ganga, 28, said he’s never received any official explanation, but his parents believe it has something to do with an incident long before the travel was arranged in which he slapped a young student he was tutoring and a fight ensued. Like many young men in the camp, he was an alcoholic, a problem that he sought treatment for earlier this year.

Now the suit is gray with dust and its jacket eaten through by rats. His relatives — including many of his mother’s 16 siblings — have already departed for the United States and are now living in Pittsburgh. His uncle Kul Poudel lives in a comfortable rented house in Pittsburgh with his mother, Ganga’s grandmother. When they speak, he tells Ganga that America is great, that if you work hard, you can buy your own car.

He hears that in the United States, there’s no dust, no smoke and that he can get a steady job. Like many refugees, who are technically barred from working outside the camps, he had once been consigned to work as a day hire on a construction site, hauling heavy bags of concrete up a mountainside.

Ganga and his family live in a torturous limbo. Though his brother and parents are eligible for relocation, they’ve resolved to stay in the camps until their eldest son is approved. Another cousin, 19-year-old Chandra Khadka, is due to depart next, bound for Pittsburgh with his wife.

They’re part of a community of exiled Lhotshampas that shrinks by the week, each departing bus a reminder that someday the camp will close. They are among the 25,000 or so ethnic Nepalis who are awaiting relocation in the United States and in seven other western countries. It’s the largest active relocation effort in the world. Nearly all of the 108,000 refugees who fled Bhutan have settled in “Third Countries” or are scheduled to do so.

Fleeing in the night

They left Bhutan in the early 1990s, driven by fear of a crackdown by the government. They abandoned homes and farms on sprawling tracts of land, where they had grown oranges, cardamom, rice and lentils for generations.

Devi Maya Timsina and her husband, Khagendra, fled on a pitch-black night carrying little more than their four children. The youngest were naked — there was no time to dress them.

“It was so horrible,” she says. Her father had been beaten by the police and forced to sign an agreement to leave the country. Her neighbors had disappeared and word had spread that they had been killed by the police. “I couldn’t think [about] what to do and what not to do.”

The journey of the exiled Lhotshampas, ethnic Nepalis who had settled in the south of the tiny nation of Bhutan, would bring them first to India and then to rural eastern Nepal, where scores died along the Mai River from illnesses wrought by heat, exhaustion and unclean water. Devi Maya and her family took shelter under a bridge there and she prayed she would survive to protect her children.

Soon after, official camps were established, growing to accommodate more than 100,000 people. In 2008, the United Nations Refugee Agency began an ambitious relocation effort after several attempts to repatriate them to Bhutan failed.

As a result of the resettlement effort, more than 77,000 have come to the United States as of May of this year. Between 2008 and 2012, more than 6,000 were sent to live in Pennsylvania with the help of social service agencies — the most of any state during that time period, according to a report by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund.

It’s how Devi Maya’s son-in-law, Pralad Mishra, came to live in Greentree. It’s why Ganga’s uncle Kul Poudel, who was 9 when he walked shoeless from his village to the Indian border, ended up flipping burgers at a restaurant in Robinson.

For every refugee who has made his home here directly from Nepal, many more have migrated here from other American cities for many of the same reasons immigrants landed here a century ago: a robust job market and a tight-knit community. They hear that Pittsburgh, with its verdant hillsides, looks like southern Bhutan.

It’s difficult to count these “second-wave” migrants, but Jaime M. Turek, refugee resettlement case manager with the Northern Area Multi-Service Center of Allegheny County, estimated that there are more than 5,000 combined first- and second-wave migrants living in the city and its suburbs, and that about 70 percent of that is secondary migration. That means the region has one of the largest concentrations of Bhutanese in the nation.

But as they build a community here, their minds are in eastern Nepal, where many of their relatives still languish. The camps there continue to shrink and those who remain grow more desperate, especially as the resettlement program comes to a close. The deadline to apply for resettlement passed on June 30 and nearly all of the remaining refugees applied. But the process of getting resettled can be long and convoluted and filled with delays, adding to the daily angst of living in the camps.

Most will eventually be relocated to other countries, but some will not qualify and will be left behind, their fate in the hands of a government that has long demonstrated ambivalence about their presence.

Ekmani Nepal, the chief district officer who oversees the region where the camps are located, said it’s unclear what will happen to those who are left behind.

“The … government has not made any decisions so far on this regard. There need to be special decisions by government in this case,” he said. “It has to be done from political level. So we can't say anything now.”

New challenges

Kul Poudel lives in a home right off of Brownsville Road up a steep set of steps with a worn wooden porch.

Kul moved there in June with his pregnant wife, daughter and mother. He started his life in Pittsburgh in a townhouse in Carrick that was one of the few places that would take a refugee without a credit history or a job. Occasionally, his townhouse had no water and a pool of putrid sewage showed up in front of his house, along with an open pit that went unsealed for months.

The townhouses were eventually shuttered by the Allegheny County Health Department and Kul and his family were once again forced into tight quarters. He hauled his stuff up a broken set of concrete steps to his brother’s two-bedroom apartment in a complex owned by the same man. Eight people occupied the small space with its own problems: no smoke alarms, broken windows, broken screens and peeling paint with lead in it that showed up in his young nephew’s blood. The complex housed dozens of refugees, many from extended families.

But Kul told no one in Nepal about these problems, unwilling to burden any of his depressed relatives with news of struggles in the Third Country. And his problems seemed trivial compared to theirs.

That’s true of many refugees who struggle to find jobs and to adjust to a new culture, language and climate. Older refugees, who did not benefit from an education in the camps, are often illiterate.

Many grapple with depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. Without the ability to work or own land, relying on UN food rations for survival, some refugees feel helpless or worthless. With the majority of refugees now resettled, loneliness seems to exacerbate those feelings.

“My friends understood me, understood my feelings. They’ve all left to the U.S.,” Ganga said.

Ganga was treated at Happy Nepal, a rehabilitation facility. Bimal Gurung, a counselor there, has seen first-hand how poverty, the delay of resettlement and feelings of inferiority have created drug and alcohol dependency among refugees.

Bimal, himself a former addict, has not seen his family since fleeing Bhutan. “I started drinking because I had to leave my country and leave my family,” he said.

Now that he is clean, and seeks to help others.

Suicide has become an alarming problem in the Bhutanese community, both in the camps and abroad, where the rates are above the U.S. average.

Hanging on to the culture

For those who remember Bhutan and still feel closely tied to it, the move to the United States provokes ambivalence. Many had hoped to return to their homes and for a time it appeared they would. A dozen years ago, the camp began issuing special identification cards to prepare refugees to be repatriated. But that effort failed, along with 17 others.

There was a time, too, when sentiments about the homeland sharply divided the camps, resulting in sporadic violence between those who had given up hope and were ready to relocate and those who were still agitating to go back to Bhutan. But most now are resigned to going to the “Third Country,” because the refugee life offers few options for them or their children.

“By staying here, we wait for five kilograms of rice every 15 days and one kilogram of salt every 15 days … and that will not help our future,” said Ganga’s mother, Surja Maya.

Devi Maya Timsina is among those who wishes she could return, and grows anxious about the possibility of moving so far from her homeland, even though there’s little possibility of her being able to safely go back to Bhutan. At least here in eastern Nepal, she can hold onto her language and her culture and blend easily with the outside world. At least here, her husband’s relatives from Bhutan can visit, slipping across two porous borders.

“That’s the big dilemma,” she says. “We see no chance to getting back to Bhutan.”

She’s moving for her children, who desperately want out of the refugee life, which provides few options.

Those who left Bhutan represented nearly all of the Lhotshampas in Bhutan. So when Devi Maya and other refugees worry about losing their culture, worry that their children will abandon their language and their strict religious traditions, they are worrying about the fate of an entire culture.

Kul, who has almost no memory of Bhutan, nonetheless shares this sentiment. He held his daughter out of preschool so she would learn Nepali at home, but 4-year-old Perika is adept at the family’s tablet computer, swiping through cooking videos and cartoons in English on YouTube.

“Keeping our culture alive is the most important thing. Let the children learn the culture of this country but don’t let them forget their own culture too,” he says. “Even in my own family, I need a translator. My mother speaks no English and [the] kids only want to speak English.”

Devi Maya is worried, too, if she will be prepared for this new world. What if she can’t get a job and make money? What if she can’t pay the rent and the landlord kicks her family out? She wonders aloud if she’ll once again find herself homeless, stateless and living under a bridge.

A tough decision for a family

After sunset, the camps are engulfed in darkness, save a few battery-powered lights. The Khanals hang one from the wall in a bedroom, where its harsh rays cast shadows around the room.

Seated in a chair illuminated by the weak light, Ganga’s face appears longer than normal. Away from his parents, he does not speak hopefully about the future. His hunched posture is that of a man resigned.

In rough English, he sums up the dilemma that weighs heavily on him: “If I not go, they not go.”

And when he told them that he’ll be OK in Nepal without them, “they wept a lot.”

Ganga is caught in this in-between world and is holding his family here with him. It’s apparent that the guilt is wearing on him.

“Our minds are already in the U.S.,” Ganga said in July, “but we don’t know when we’ll get to go.”


Weekly departures

Life in the refugee camps is defined by certain rituals: the bimonthly distribution of rice, lentils and other rations; the early morning queues at the taps, which are turned on just twice a day; and the leave-taking alongside white migration buses that pull away three mornings a week.

Once a week, the International Organization for Migration posts lists of hut numbers on bulletin boards around the Sanischare and Beldangi camps. They indicate which families have advanced one step closer to traveling to the Third Country. Refugees come by on bicycles or on foot, scanning the lists for their hut numbers.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, International Organization for Migration buses painted in stark white roll into the camps to carry away those who have been selected for resettlement. The travelers are often dressed in their best Western-style clothes, purchased specially for the occasion.

Jyoty Kharel, a 16-year-old bound for Atlanta, donned stylish skinny pants and red platform shoes, matching the red-stained rice pasted to her forehead — a Hindu tradition that’s meant to bring health and good luck. Pura Singh Tamang, 19, wore lace-up boots — while nearly every occupant of the camps goes barefoot or wears flimsy sandals. He was headed for Erie with his 16-year-old sister, who appeared frozen by anxiety, her face betraying deep trepidation.

“I am happy and sad at the same time. I am happy because I’m going to a good country, but I am sad because I’m leaving many friends,” he said.

Padam Poudyel, Kul Poudel’s brother, wrote of this day in his diary, a notebook that contains a rough sketch of his life: a timeline of his employment, his birth date, sketches by his daughter, the phone numbers of doctors, a page with words and their definitions: swindle, gullible, con artist, swindler.

At the bottom of one page, he wrote “Friday, 11th February” and drew a box around it. Underneath, he told the story of his leaving the Beldangi camp.

“Meeting and departure is the law of nature,” the entry starts, in neat handwriting. “It was very difficult to resist the tear of departure. I’ll never forget the appearance of my mother at that time .. her eyes were shining with tears of love and hope. Her feeble hands were waving a last goodbye.”

“I wept and left Beldangi.”
Brothers living on two continents wait to be reunited.

From the sweltering camps in eastern Nepal, Hira Darjee sometimes video chats with his little brother Dhan, who lives in an apartment in Greentree.

Dhan, 22, gives Hira, 30, glimpses of his new life through virtual tours of his apartment.

He’ll say “This is my room. This is my furniture,” gesturing to each. He’ll show off his refrigerator and dining room table.

And then, half-mockingly, he’ll ask “Do you have these things?”

It’s an interaction that both uplifts and depresses Hira, one of many Lhotshampa refugees stuck in limbo.

His home is a two-room hut in the camp, walls made from tightly woven bamboo that are plastered on the inside with posters of sultry Bollywood stars. The floors are made of pressed mud, the roof of thatch. It’s crowded and noisy. In July, it’s oppressively hot and the air is thick with smells from uncovered latrines, livestock and burning wood, used for cooking.

In Hira’s home, the only electricity comes from a small solar panel perched on the roof, a technology that’s considered a luxury in the camps mostly devoid of electricity. In the afternoon, it powers a tiny fan. The furniture is low-slung stools and stiff beds softened only by blankets. Food is cooked with wood on crude stoves built into the mud floor over wood fires, filling the air with smoke.

When he calls his little brother, Dhan pleads with him, “Please come soon.”

And Hira wants to come, badly. He tried to apply in 2012 with the U.N. but he was told that he needed a refugee identification card, which he lacked because he had moved out of the camps to find work in India when they were issued and so didn’t qualify. He and his wife finally got identification cards, and earlier this year their photos were taken for travel documents. But he has no idea where his application stands now and when he inquires, officials tell him to be patient.

“What do we do? We have to wait … we have to wait the process,” he says.

He shrugs, frustrated. Hira speaks English, has two years of post-high school education and runs a construction crew — making him better equipped to handle the frustrations of bureaucracy. Like most remaining in the camps who have seen off multiple friends and relatives, he’s intimately familiar with the process, which involves approval by the U.N. and then a referral to the International Organization for Migration, which handles medical screenings, cultural orientations and legal documents. There’s also an interview with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But even he can’t figure out what’s holding up his application.

“Future, we don’t know,” he says. “We don’t know what is their procedure. We don’t know how they go.”

Many refugees are like Hira, anxious to leave the camps even though it means they’ll be further from their homeland, and further from the possibility of ever being repatriated from Bhutan. Because for those in Hira’s generation, Bhutan is a faint and distant memory.

Hira recalls his parents taking him to a market occasionally. And he remembers, too, a giant truck rumbling into his village one day, bigger than any that he’d seen before. He remembers being thrilled to get to ride in the bed of the truck. As a 6-year-old, he had no idea that as the truck pulled away, it would be the last time he would ever see Bhutan.
Mixed marriages

She was 17 and “not much smarter” when a man ten years her senior asked her to marry him, and threatened to have her arrested if she did not say yes.

Chandra Siwakoti was then a Bhutanese refugee living and working illegally in a school in western Nepal, far from the United Nations-run refugee camps where she is technically required to reside. The man, Gangaram Raya, was the principal of her school and a Nepali citizen.

Her marriage to the man would make it easier for her to live outside the camps, an uncomfortably cramped settlement of bamboo huts in rural eastern Nepal where electricity and running water is sparse. But now, it’s exactly what’s keeping her there.

Five years after her husband disappeared, Chandra now lives with her five-year-old son in a small hut in Beldangi, one of only two camps that remain after a massive resettlement effort moved families from this dusty corner of Nepal to the United States and seven other countries. Chandra is the only member of her family who remains because her marriage to a Nepali man makes her ineligible to be resettled.

“Being a single woman, it’s difficult to stay in the camps alone,” she said. The huts, crude structures of bamboo, do not lock, and sometimes she has nightmares about people breaking in.

Chandra is one of hundreds of women in “mixed marriages.” Other women, who still live with their Nepali husbands, face agonizing choices about whether to leave them to join their families in the United States or to stay in deeply impoverished nation of Nepal.

And as the camps rapidly shrink, they may be one of the groups left behind in a country where they may never obtain full citizenship. Without citizenship, they cannot open bank accounts, own land or avail themselves of government services.

Of the 25,000 or so who remain in the camps, nearly all have applied for resettlement. But some -- because of criminal records or health problems -- may be rejected. Others refuse to leave because they want to be repatriated to Bhutan -- or because they’d rather remain in Nepal.

That’s the case for Purnawati Timsina, who at 81 has been in the camps for 25 years. She lives alone, caring for a neighbor’s infant son, who hung half-naked in the doorway of her home while she squatted on the front porch on a sweltering afternoon in July.

“All my beloved ones, they died here, and I will also die here,” she said, her crackling voice conveying adamance. “I won’t go anywhere. I want to die here.”

Nepal has yet to say whether it will let those who remain become Nepali citizens or what will happen to those in the camps when the camps close.

For those who want to go, but can’t, the reasons behind ineligibility can be confusing. Some women reported their applications were simply delayed without explanation, but after several inquiries, they learned it was because of their mixed marriages.

The United Nations’ own rules prohibit those who have access to local citizenship from being resettled. Under Nepali law, refugee women who marry Nepali men can apply for citizenship. But a spokeswoman for the United Nations Refugee Agency in Kathmandu said she doesn’t know of any refugee woman who’s successfully obtained citizenship.

Devi Niraula, an attorney who represents refugee women, said that local Village Development Councils have repeatedly denied refugee women citizenship, either because they don’t know the law or because they don’t want refugees to become citizens.

“Legally, they have the right to citizenship,” she said. “In some cases, the VDC doesn’t understand the legal cases.”

Ms. Niraula said some women lie about their refugee status to obtain citizenship. That, too, can be problematic.

Hari Phuyel, a Kathmandu-based civil right attorney, said he represented a woman who was thrown in jail on treason charges for lying about her refugee status when she obtained citizenship. The charges were eventually dismissed when Mr. Phuyel successfully argued that her husband had advised her to lie.

If local government agencies were surreptitiously denying people citizenship, it would not be without precedent, Mr. Phuyel said. Local governments are notorious for making up their own rules about who’s eligible.

Ekmani Nepal, chief officer of one of the districts where the camps are located, refuted that his office had denied citizenship to refugees and said that it happens “quite often.” That ran counter to what many advocates and U.N. officials said.

In Nepal, where patriarchal laws mean citizenship can only be conveyed through men, refugee men are not facing the same dilemma. In fact, refugee men who marry Nepali women are able to take their spouses and children with them. The marriage, though, can spell lengthy delays for the resettlement process. Frustrated families and husbands lay the blame at the feet of the woman with citizenship, leading to a rise in domestic violence against Nepali women married to refugee men, Ms. Diraula said.

Chandra is now seeking a one-party divorce because she cannot find her husband. In the meantime, the U.N. has refused to refer her case to the International Organization for Migration. She desperately wants to join her brother in Pittsburgh, where her son, an exceptionally talented boy, can learn English and where she can get treatment for a nerve condition that occasionally robs her hands and legs of feeling.

And she worries what will happen when the camps close.

“We are the left ones,” she said. “It’s out of our hands.”


We arrived in the smoke- and dust-choked camps in the late afternoon while the sun was still burning hot. We were quickly escorted to the Khanal household, a square bamboo hut split into a crude kitchen and three bedrooms, for our overnight stay. We were told to stay inside to avoid camp security.

“We are always happy to have you here,” Dhan Khanel, the lanky patriarch of this household, told us.

By this point, photojournalist Julia Rendleman, Nepal-based journalist Pradeep Bashyal and I had been to the camps a handful of times, our visits pervaded with anxiety that camp security -- which has grown lax over the camp’s two-decade existence -- would suddenly decide we weren’t welcome. Technically, refugees are not allowed outside the camp and visitors are not allowed in without notifying camp security, which is staffed with Nepali law enforcement.

But the camp’s borders are now somewhat porous. A spokeswoman for the United Nations Refugee Agency later told me that authorities turn a blind eye and allow refugees to come and go largely as they please. Many pick up crowded buses that run into the main city, Damak, where they work day jobs -- another practice that is technically illegal under camp rules.

Still, spending the night was a different story. We had been warned about increased crime in recent years --There had been warnings about thefts and vague allusions to assaults on women. So when we arrived that afternoon, we were a bit on edge.

We spent the first part of the evening tucked away in the hut, worrying that camp security on their rounds would see a not-so-inconspicuous pair lugging camera gear. But as the sun drew closer to the horizon, we were told it was OK to venture out.

Ganga, Dhan’s son, a 29-year-old who has few memories of life before the camp, took us on a tour. We ventured perhaps a quarter-mile from the camp -- past gawking spectators who were playing or doing chores outside -- and to a barbed wire fence that marked the camp’s edge, the main road visible just past the boundary. A small set of steps had been constructed so anyone could easily traverse it.

Ganga then showed us the camp’s soccer field with its bamboo posts. Soccer provides a welcome distraction to refugees, who spectate inter-camp games. He led us back to his hut -- winding down a path where bare spots of earth marked where huts had once stood. It was another reminder that the camp was shrinking -- and quickly -- with every departing bus full of refugees bound for the United States or other “Third Countries.”

There is very little electricity in the camp, so nightfall ends most activities. Back at the Khanal hut, Julia and I crouched on a stiff bamboo bed in the sole room with a battery-operated light. The walls -- made of woven bamboo -- had been plastered with newsprint dipped in homemade glue, a sort of “wallpaper” meant to seal out the bugs and the noise.

But the huts are so tightly cramped that neighbors become intimately familiar with each other’s business. One refugee told me he was tired of the noise and the yelling. And indeed, in the Khanel house, we could hear a woman straining over English words during a lesson, her voice carried out of her own hut and across a narrow footpath. Outside, the family’s goats -- housed in a bamboo shed -- were bleating.

Inside the tiny room, we got a stream of visitors: a man heading to Kent, Wash., a family headed to Tennessee, which they called “Tennesees.” Sometimes we chatted about the maladies in the camp: the drug use and the lack of employment options, since refugees are technically barred from working. Sometimes we sat silently.

After a particularly long bout of silence, Pradeep switched on BBC Radio Nepal on his phone, a global news broadcast delivered in Nepali.

“Radio,” one refugee told me. “Our best friend.”

In the outside world -- where there are no limits on our abilities to leave our homes, where we have electricity so our lives aren’t dictated by the rising and falling of the sun, where we have televisions and computers and myriads of devices to make us feel busy -- it’s easy to underestimate the power of boredom. But sitting there in the half-lit room, I started to understand it a little.

Boredom breeds frustration. It breeds loneliness. According to the refugees I spoke to, it makes the allure of drugs and alcohol all the more powerful. It doesn’t just exist in the darkness of night. It pervades the faces of refugees on hot afternoons as they sit outside in the afternoons fanning themselves.

Given that all but a few thousand refugees have applied to be resettled in other countries -- joining scores who have already left -- the camp sometimes feels like a giant waiting room. They’re waiting for their next ration of food, for the afternoon hour on weekdays when information is posted about their resettlement status, for the day they’ll be called up to head overseas to the Third Country.

After the guests had left, the Khanal mother came in to say she was so happy we were there, that she considered us “like sisters.” I lay down on one of the beds shoved up against the wall, but had difficulty sleeping, wary about the bugs or mice that could be lurking there. There was also the noise: a baby crying in the distance and then an eerie chorus of howling from the stray dogs that roam the camp.

I scarcely slept before we were awakened again to go watch the World Cup match between Germany and Brazil. It was raining hard outside, but the hut’s miraculously constructed roof sprung no leaks. We wandered through the deafening downpour in the dark, our path illuminated by a small flashlight, to Ganga’s aunt’s home, who possessed a rare television in the camp.

We huddled around the screen in the room -- a sort of enclosed porch -- and groggily tried to focus on the game, a historic shutout for the Germans. Giant spiders loomed overhead, though, and I crouched on a small bed to stay out of their orbit. Mosquitos nibbled at my feet -- the bug spray had been washed away.

A cockroach scurried across the packed mud floor, narrowly escaping the swift smack of a flip-flop. Another one -- whose body stretched at least the length of my palm -- teetered around in the homemade cabinet near the television. When I pointed at it, one of the spectators craned his neck, saw the behemoth and said, “cockroach.” It was futile to try to kill them all.

I slept maybe a couple of hours -- my slumber pervaded by the constant anxiety of the critters that the refugees have learned to live harmoniously with -- before I awoke again. At 5 a.m., the rain had stopped and we climbed out of the hut to watch people line up for water. We then climbed atop a water tower near the camp’s edge.

I wearily took stock of this place that so many have called home. From up high, it became apparent how vast the camp was.

Back in Pittsburgh, word had spread among our sources in the refugee communities about the pair of Pittsburgh journalists who spent the night in the camps. We were asked “How was it?”

I told them it was difficult, and awkwardly tried to convey that I could not imagine what it was like for them. The refugees who came from Bhutan hailed from a variety of backgrounds, but in their previous life, they were at least free to earn their living, own land and grow crops. Many lived in rural villages far from neighbors, so while they may not have had modern homes, they had the luxury of space.

“You spent one night there,” Jiwan Siwakoti said. “We spent 18 years.”


Story: Moriah BalingitMoriah Balingit was a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for more than six years, where she covered Pittsburgh City Hall and wrote a series of stories about decrepit housing conditions for Bhutanese refugees in the spring. She finished her tenure at the newspaper reporting this story from Nepal. She now lives in Washington D.C., where she is earning a master's degree in public affairs journalism from American University and working as a graduate student fellow at The Washington Post.

Photography: Julia RendlemanJulia Rendleman is a staff photographer at the Post-Gazette. She worked in south Louisiana, southern Indiana and southern Illinois before coming to Pittsburgh in 2012. She earned a political science degree from Loyola University New Orleans in 2002 and a master's degree in new media from Southern Illinois University in 2010.

This story was made possible by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Lead Editor: Lillian Thomas Design: Dan Marsula Photo Editors: Andy Starnes, Jim Mendenhall, Steve Mellon Implementation: Laura Malt Schneiderman Social Media: Mila Sanina Mobile Editor: Michael Pound Translations: Pradeep Bashyal