Refugees From Bhutan Settle in Pittsburgh

Ramit Plushnick-Masti, AP, November 30, 2008

Chitra Prassad Gautam and his family watch in awe as water comes out of the shower head in the bathroom of their new apartment.

“I have a question,” Gautam says, holding up a bottle of shampoo. “Do I put this in my hair before going in the shower or after?”

Gautam, 19, his parents and his two siblings are among the first of about 5,300 ethnic Nepalese refugees from the tiny south Asian country of Bhutan who this year started leaving refugee camps to resettle in the United States. The U.S. has agreed to take in 60,000 of them.

Unlike other, high-profile refugee groups such as Iraqis and Burmese, the ethnic Nepalese have gone largely unnoticed. Since there are no Bhutanese communities in the United States, most are being resettled near cities like Pittsburgh, where housing is affordable and officials hope diverse populations will reinvigorate urban areas hurt by deindustrialization.

Charitable organizations responsible for resettlement get the families apartments, food, Social Security cards and English classes, and help them find jobs. After three months, the families will have to provide for themselves, usually working minimum wage jobs.

Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist constitutional monarchy bordered by China and India. In the early 1990s, the monarchy instituted sweeping legislation that effectively stripped the ethnic Nepalese, a Hindu minority also known as the Lhotsampas, of their citizenship, their right to own property and their ability to get government jobs.

Since then, an estimated 100,000 ethnic Nepalis have fled to refugee camps.

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“I’ve never seen a house like this,” Gautam said when caseworker Molly Ferra took them through the three-bedroom unit, showing them the small kitchen already furnished with bags of rice, tea, hot pepper sauce and a box of pots and pans.

She explained the use of the refrigerator and freezer to Gautam, the only member of the family who speaks English. “Very cold,” Gautam noted of the freezer.

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“Most of us want to return to Bhutan because we love our country and our roots,” D.P. Kafle, a resident of one of the [Nepalese refugee] camps, said in an interview in Nepal. “We are patriotic Bhutanese and there is no way we will go anywhere else.”

However, Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said 55,000 refugees from Bhutan have already signed up for relocation.

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“A computer, will we get a computer?” [Gautaum] asked the caseworker. “I need the Internet to send e-mail to my teacher.”—his U.N.-run school had Internet access.

Ferra told him the family will receive a TV but they will have to purchase their own computer. At the library, she explained, they can access the Internet.

“Yes, the library,” Gautam says grinning. “My teacher told me I can get a card and use for free.”

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