Posted on July 20, 2009

The Bhutanese Journey: From Refugees to Pioneers

Globe and Mail (Toronto), July 18, 2009

When the days in the refugee camp seemed to last forever, Bhim Lal Kattel prayed to the gods to let his family return home to Bhutan.

Nearly two decades passed. His children grew and his mother aged. Mr. Kattel gave up his dream of reclaiming his family’s farm in southern Bhutan. The grinding boredom at the Goldhap refugee camp in the nearby Himalayan country of Nepal sapped his spirit.

So, at age 37, with an anxious heart, he decided to take his family to a strange, cold land on the other side of the globe.

Mr. Kattel arrived at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday afternoon, his eyes shining with excitement and fatigue. Despite the warm July weather, his wife, Bishnu Maya, and three children, Prakash, 14, Menuka, 12, and Ganesh, 8, were clad in thick sweaters. His 73-year-old mother was pushed through the international gates in a wheelchair.

This week, as Ottawa issued strict visa requirements for Czech and Mexican visitors, citing a raft of bogus refugee claimants from the two countries, the Kattels were part of another unfolding Canadian refugee saga. Five thousand Bhutanese refugees will be arriving in Canada over the next five years–one of the largest government-sponsored resettlement efforts in recent years.

Earlier, as the plane began its descent over B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Mr. Kattel stared down at the Coast Mountains and thought the landscape reminded him a little of Bhutan’s rugged countryside.

“I was thinking, ‘This is going to be my family’s home,'” Mr. Kattel said.

“Bhutan didn’t want us. Nepal didn’t want us,” Mr. Kattel said, moments after his family arrived at a temporary immigrant shelter in downtown Vancouver. “There is no way to go back now. This is what’s best for my family.”

Seven Western countries agreed to accept the Bhutanese after years of talks between Bhutan and Nepal ended in stalemate. Most–about 60,000–will go to the United States. Many of the Kattels’ friends and relatives have plane tickets to places like Dallas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix. Mr. Kattel wishes more of his friends were going to B.C.

In Canada, the Bhutanese are to be settled in nearly 30 communities from Newfoundland to B.C. Eventually, about 900 refugees–including the Kattels–will move to Coquitlam, just outside Vancouver.

It’s a daunting prospect for the suburban community, and for the country as a whole.

Unlike most immigrants and refugees, the government-sponsored Bhutanese will be landing in Canada without the safety net of already-established countrymen to greet them and ease the culture shock. The Nepalese and Bhutanese community in Canada is tiny.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart compared the Bhutanese refugees to Wild West pioneers, landing in a strange country with little English, few job skills and even fewer relatives and friends. Many of the younger refugees were born and raised in a camp.

Mr. Stewart said he was in awe of their courage. “I can’t imagine, having spent my entire life in a camp, to get on a plane and fly to a new country. I want them to feel welcomed.”

In fact, city officials, community groups and residents in Coquitlam have laid out the welcome mat for the refugees from a little-known land. The local school board and the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. have set up a summer camp for the kids to polish their English and learn basic computer skills. Host families have come forward to help the refugees with basic tasks such as shopping and learning transit routes. Community meetings held in the spring to discuss the refugees’ arrival were overflowing.

The Kattels are the third Bhutanese family to arrive in British Columbia.

Mr. Stewart said he is determined to ensure the Bhutanese–especially the elderly–don’t drift into isolation. “We’re going to do what it takes to give them every chance to succeed.”

They face a raft of challenges. Most of the adults come from farming backgrounds and have only a high-school education. Some have spent their entire adult lives in a refugee camp and have no work experience. Mr. Kattel worked five years as a security guard in India, where he learned halting but understandable English.

But the biggest shock is sure to be cultural. The Bhutanese are moving from a near-primitive rural setting to a fast-paced modern city. Light switches, flush toilets, refrigerators–even chilled food and drinks–are as foreign as cellphones and computers.

The Kattels’ plane trip to Vancouver took 19 hours, but the family’s journey began 17 years ago when more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were driven out of the small Himalayan kingdom. The refugees fled to Nepal and spent nearly two decades in camps in the country’s humid, snake-infested lowlands, miles from the tourist-trammelled mountain trails.

When a worker from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees came to the camp, asking who was interested in moving to a new country for permanent resettlement, Mr. Kattel thought of his children’s future and raised his hand.

Nearly two years after that encounter, the family boarded a plane in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and began their long journey to Canada. As the plane’s wheels lifted from the tarmac, Mr. Kattel felt thrilled and homesick at the same time. Menuka cried from London to Vancouver, telling her mother she already missed her friends.

On Thursday afternoon, as their jet-lagged children slumped onto beds and sofas, Mr. Kattel and his wife listened intently as a Nepali-speaking counsellor showed the couple how to flush a toilet and run a shower. In the kitchen, he pointed to the stove and explained how the electric elements worked. Ms. Kattel, who cooked meals at the camp over a fire stove in the family’s hut, had never operated an oven.

Later that evening, the two other Bhutanese refugees paid the family a welcome visit. One, Saha Bahadur Diyali, took Mr. Kattel to a grocery store, where they bought rice, vegetables and fruit. Back at the shelter, Mr. Diyali, who arrived in May, filled Mr. Kattel’s head with advice on life in the Canadian suburbs.

“We decided that we aren’t many Bhutanese here, so we’ll have to stick together,” Mr. Kattel said.