Life in a Bhutanese Refugee Camp

Bhutanese feat2
© Lopita Nath

Is This My Shangri-La?

Life in a Bhutanese Refugee Camp

 
SAN ANTONIO – It sounds like a plot from a Bradbury or Orwell novel: Create a government that measures its citizen’s Gross National Happiness. Anything that doesn’t conform to the measurements set by the government is removed from society.
 
This is the reality of Bhutan and what Lopita Nath, associate professor and chair of history at the University of the Incarnate Word, discovered in her work with Bhutanese refugees. Photos from her research trips are on display in "Is This My Shangri-La? Life in a Bhutanese Refugee Camp," Feb. 1 – Apr. 20 at the Institute of Texan Cultures.
 
In the 1990s, the Bhutanese government implemented a Gross National Happiness index, an idea first articulated in 1972. A factor of that index was the preservation of culture, leading to a nationalist ideal of "One Nation, One People," what Nath labeled as "Exclusive Nationalism." When the GNH standards were coupled with a new census, minorities that did not conform to the nationalized standards of language, religion, dress and etiquette -- lifelong Bhutanese citizens – became illegal immigrants overnight.
 
Nath told the story of Nirmalaya Dhamal, whom she befriended during her work. Nath got to visit Nirmalaya, shortly before her death at age 102, in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus was one of the areas designated as a resettlement destination when the United States became involved in the Bhutanese humanitarian crisis in 2008. The exodus of refugees, however, began in the early 1990s as the minority Lhotshampa people began leaving Bhutan. The stream of refugees, fleeing government harassment, arrived in Nepal, their ancestral homeland, where refugee camps were established. They would wait for years to learn their status, and if they were to be either repatriated, or resettled.
 
Nirmalaya left Bhutan at age 77, with a full life already behind her, in the only homeland she ever knew. She arrived in the U.S. in 2008 at age 97, meaning she spent 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal, before resettlement. Nath said the woman’s sons asked her if she wanted to resettle and if she was able to make the journey. She walked under her own power to the bus waiting to take the family to the airport.
 
To Nirmalaya, her family had become her only home. Nath says this sense of community is common among the Lhotshampas and is one of the factors that gave the community and its culture such resilience.
 
Nath also met Ganesh Ghimire, whose family was harassed by census officials and declared illegal immigrants. He returned home from high school in Northern Bhutan and left the country along with them, making their way to the camps in Nepal. Ganesh was determined to make a life for himself and voluntarily left the camps to get an education. He was accepted to North Bengal University in Darjeeling, India and completed his law degree.
 
Ties to his community brought him back to the camp. Upon his return and with the assistance of the Caritas relief organization of Nepal, Ganesh began a series of literacy programs and a formal school system. The Bhutanese Government had shut down the Lhotshampa schools and Ganesh and his friends were determined to see the children get an education. Literacy, for young and old, was another step toward preparing for integration into adopted home countries.
 
Ganesh came to the U.S. in 2009 and arrived in San Antonio. He worked as a case worker with the Catholic Charities, moved to Columbus, Ohio in 2012, and became an interpreter with Ohio’s public health system. He is a homeowner and a father, also looking after elderly parents. He has two brothers still living in San Antonio.
 
"This is a story of human spirit and its endurance," said Nath. "The story of the Bhutanese refugees renews our faith in ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.’ And it is a precautionary story, warning governments and decision makers of the consequences of taking ideas too far and becoming too ingrained in its citizens’ lives."
 
The Institute of Texan Cultures is located on the UTSA HemisFair Park Campus, 801 E. César E. Chávez Blvd., a short distance from the Alamo and the River Walk. Regular hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults (ages 12-64); $7 for seniors (ages 65+); $6 for children (ages 3-11); free with membership, UTSA or Alamo Colleges identification. For more information, call 210-458-2300 or visit TexanCultures.com.
 
 

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