Plaza Voices: Refugees of Shangri-la

Bhutanese refugees in the Beldangi camp, Nepal
Map of South Asia. Bhutan is shown in red.

In April 2014, Smithsonian Magazine featured an article about a group of people you might not know much about: refugees from Bhutan. This small Himalayan kingdom, nestled between Tibet and India, is known by many (if it is known at all), as a sort of modern-day "Shangri-la," a beautiful, fertile land where Gross National Happiness is an official indicator of success.

What you may not know is that, starting in the early 1990s, over 100,000 Bhutanese, most of them Hindus of Nepalese descent, were forced from Bhutan into neighboring Nepal. The political reasons behind this action were complex--there may have been some fear of being absorbed into India if the Hindu population continued to rise--but the government's actions appear stark: citizenship laws changed in the 1980's, making this population (most of whom had been in Bhutan for generations) "illegal immigrants," and they were systematically expelled.

Forced to live in refugee camps in Nepal, but ineligible for Nepalese citizenship, the refugees were in limbo--for two decades. Finally, in 2007, countries around the world began to accept Bhutanese refugees for resettlement. Around 70,000 came to the United states (nearly 3,000 came to Colorado between 2000-2013). 

The refugees faced significant challenges in their new homes. Here in Denver, a spate of violence in 2009 left them feeling targeted and insecure. In Manchester, New Hampshire, the focus of the Smithsonian article, they were the object of vociferous protest via the town's newspaper. And the legacy of their persecution and years in the camps also took its toll. The suicide rate of Bhutanese refugees is higher than both the U.S. average and the international average, prompting a study by the CDC.

However, after years of waiting, many embraced the opportunities afforded by their new home, in spite of the difficulties. "There are two things we tell our young people when they arrive," one man says. "Get a job, whatever level. And go to school." In Manchester, within three years most of the refugees had gotten jobs, were less likely to be on welfare than the Manchester population as a whole, and had children graduating high school at a far greater rate than the native-born population.

In one English class, elderly women who had worked their entire lives as farmers, without ever having the opportunity to become literate, were learning English and asking for homework. Some of them came not knowing how to hold a pencil. Halpern and McKibben write, "They were, in other words, the kind of people that Americans like to imagine themselves to be."

To learn more about the Bhutanese diaspora, look for this documentary (not yet on DVD, check here for screenings) and follow some of the other links below.

Human Rights Watch: Bhutan

Amnesty International: Bhutan

Global Bhutanese Community Colorado

Asian Pacific Development Center

International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan (see also their Facebook page)

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Comments

Looks like a powerful documentary! Hopefully some major community organization (hint, hint) will organize a screening...

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