Nestled between India and China, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan seems an unlikely starting point for large-scale ethnic displacement. But since the early 90s more than 100,000 members of the Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese population have been living in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, evicted from Bhutan for their pro-democratic activities. This year almost 5,000 Bhutanese refugees will leave their camps for resettlement in the US, according to a report by the UNHCR. Kishor Pradhan, who has been in exile since 1990, hopes to become one of them
It was in 1986, while I was in high school, that I first felt discriminated against because of my ethnicity. I was a Lhotshampa, which meant I was from the south of the country and spoke Nepalese. My other ethnic Nepalese friends and I wanted to celebrate Dashain, the biggest Hindu festival, so we bunked class. When the school principal berated us for our behaviour we apologised to him – little did I know that far greater repression was yet to come.
After finishing school I went to college in eastern Bhutan. At that time it was the only higher education institute in the nation. I wanted to take science but couldn’t because I had only scored 59%. So I studied commerce.
After Zangley Dukpa (now minister of health) became the college principal, the atmosphere became tense. He introduced stringent rules that were intended to repress my minority Nepali-speaking community. He closed down our Nepali Literary Association, which organised recitals of Nepali poems. We were required to wear the national dress (called Gho, a knee-length robe tightened at the waist by a belt) instead of our ethnic Daura Suruwal, a long double-breasted garment flowing below the waist, worn with trousers.
Then in 1989 Principal Dukpa issued an order that prohibited Lhotshampa students from celebrating Dashain. We saw this as discrimination and decided to celebrate anyway. A debate ensued and the security forces were summoned. Our photos were taken, and later the security forces came to our hostel and arrested my classmates.
When I heard that Lhotshampa people were being arrested and tortured, I left for my home in southern Bhutan. When I got there I found that the area had already become a hotbed of peaceful pro-democratic protest. Soon I was told that the security forces were searching for me, and in February 1990 I left for India. I walked for two hours to Kulkule and from there I rode a bus to Jayagaon in West Bengal, India. In Jayagaon I met a lot of Bhutanese refugees. As the crackdown continued in Bhutan, the number of refugees grew.
In the Indian border town of Garganda, refugees were being relocated to temporary camps. Various refugee forums were established there. I joined a group of like-minded refugee youths and in 1990 we formed the People’s Forum for Human Rights. Some of the refugee leaders went to eastern Nepal looking for a place to shelter the refugees. Nepal, which doesn’t share a border with Bhutan, was generous and provided us with land on the bank of the Mai River in the south of the country. I shuttled between India and Nepal, transporting the refugees – mostly children, elderly people and women.
We were able to draw the attention of non-profit organisations and donor agencies. Caritas Nepal, Oxfam and Lutheran World Service were the first to help us. Then, towards the end of 1991, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started to manage the camps. To this day, my fellow countrymen still live in these seven sprawling camps.
I was registered in one of the camps, but my desire to learn and explore kept leading me to the outside world. I won a scholarship to a college in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. It felt like my dream had come true when I was accepted to study science. After two years I won another scholarship to study for a bachelor’s degree in Calcutta, India.
In 1999, I married my long-time sweetheart, who was also a refugee. We left for Kathmandu, where I taught accounting in a number of schools. I wanted to teach because I didn’t like depending on the rations provided by the World Food Programme.
Life was good in Kathmandu, but the homelessness, lack of identity and the bitter past always came back to haunt me. Again, I and a few other professional Lhotshampas banded together to form an organisation – this time it was the Bhutanese Refugee Youth Forum.
In 2005 we were invited to attend a UN conference in New York, so I and one other member of our forum flew to the US. While we were there we met others from Bhutan who had sought refuge in America. They advised us to seek asylum. It sounded convincing. After all, the 15 rounds of talks between Nepal and Bhutan had failed to bring any hope to the 100,000-plus refugees languishing in camps in Nepal.
A year after I applied for asylum I was interviewed by the US Department of Homeland Security. But I have not been given asylum and no one has contacted me to tell my why. I have done several odd jobs while I’ve been here. For the past couple of years I have been working in New York, in software quality assurance. But every year I have to renew my employment authorisation card and life is still in limbo.
I am happy that the US has offered to resettle 70,000 Bhutanese refugees. Many of them are still trickling into the cities and communities of the US. I just hope that I will be granted the right to stay here – and I hope my wife and nine-year-old daughter will be able to join me. I hope that eventually we will have a place to call home.
• Kishor Pradhan was speaking to Deepak Adhikari. For more information on the plight of the Bhutanese refugees visit the UNCHR website.