Safe at last: Bhutanese refugees find new home in Charlotte

Hari Chamlagai is pictured with some of his friends and fellow refugees: Kiran Koirala, Susanna Pradhan and Yjwal Pradhan. (Chris Lux, Catholic News Herald)
Hari Chamlagai is pictured with some of his friends and fellow refugees: Kiran Koirala, Susanna Pradhan and Yjwal Pradhan. (Chris Lux, Catholic News Herald)


Hari Chamlagai will probably never forget what it was like when he arrived in Charlotte. "I came here on March 17, 2009, with my family. It was 8 or 9 o'clock at night," he recalls with specific detail. "When we came to the airport, we get out from the airplane – everything was amazing."

Having lived in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal since he was 3, Chamlagai was under the impression that all Americans lived in areas of "big tall buildings like New York City." As Ashir Haji-Mohamed, the case manager from the Charlotte Diocese's Catholic Social Services Refugee Resettlement Office, drove him and his family to their new home, Chamlagai was certain Ashir "was going to take me to one of the tallest buildings here, in downtown. And when I saw downtown it was night, and it was very beautiful." But to his dismay, he was not to live in a skyscraper – the van driver kept going.

Though Chamlagai was disappointed he would not get to live in the skyscrapers he saw in the movies in Nepal, he now takes pride in being able to "see the tallest building from my apartment."

A lot of suffering back then

Chamlagai is one of thousands of Bhutanese refugees who have been resettled in the U.S. When he was 3, his family left the small south Asian country of Bhutan and moved to nearby Nepal, into a refugee camp run by the United Nations. When the Bhutanese refugees first arrived, malnutrition and disease were common. Chamlagai vaguely remembers the beginning when "many people died. One of my brothers died at that time because no food, no shelter, no medication ... There was a lot of suffering back then."

The camps consisted of bamboo huts, and "the space was same size for all families." Each family, regardless of size, was given the same size plot, then given the bamboo and materials to build their own hut. "It is like this," he explains. "When they start, they consider one family. For example, my brother was already married when we came to Nepal so he got a different hut and I was with my father, mother and brother and sister. And when my other brother got married, we don't get another house. We have to stay in the same house. So we are living (as) two families in one house."

The refugees had no electricity. Camp dwellers cooked with small kerosene stoves, provided with rice every 15 days and vegetables once a week.

They also had no running water. Camp dwellers had to fetch water from taps, and water was available for only about two hours each morning, at noon and in the late afternoon. Each water tap was shared by 100 families.

Bhutan's refugees, a persecuted minority

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, nearly one-fifth of Bhutan's population fled the country, complaining of persecution by the Bhutanese government. In what many people believe was an ethnic cleansing, the people of Nepali origin, mainly Hindu Bhutanese, were forced to flee their homeland because of "One Country, One People" – a policy of the predominantly Buddhist absolute monarchy in the name of preserving its Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist identity, which was criticized by international human rights groups.

This meant that everyone – regardless of their ethnicity, religion or locale – had to speak the primary northern Bhutanese dialect, wear the customary northern Bhutanese clothes and practice the predominant traditions.

Tens of thousands of ethnic minorities including Chamlagai's family found relief in camps across the border in Nepal set up by the UN's High Commission for Refugees, which has been unsuccessful in negotiating with the Bhutanese government in resolving the conflict and allowing the refugees to return home.

The camps, which were set up as a temporary solution two decades ago, are now overcrowded, lack electricity and plumbing, and restrict residents from moving freely and finding work. So the U.N. is working to resettle the refugees in countries such as U.S.

“A completely different world”

Just like Chamlagai, 17-year-old Yjwal Pradhan and his 13-year-old sister Susanna relocated to Charlotte in 2009 from another refugee camp in Nepal.

They are part of a generation born in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal. They lived, played and studied growing up in a camp, and though they left their camps occasionally, they never truly experienced life outside – until they moved to Charlotte.

When they arrived, they faced "a completely different world," Yjwal Pradhan says.

The plane ride from Nepal was trying: a 15-hour trip with four connecting flights. It was their first time on a plane, which was exciting yet scary.

Susanna Pradhan recalls, "I thought that America didn't exist. I thought that those people who came to America, they just disappeared."

“Everything's new”

As refugees arrive at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport from all over the world, a case worker from Catholic Social Services' Refugee Resettlement Office is there to greet them. Usually the incoming families don't have much with them – they step off the plane bewildered, disoriented, tired and unable to speak much English. Many of the planes arrive in the middle of the night.

Chamlagai remembers being very concerned about where his family was going, what they would eat and where they would work.

"We did not know where to go. We were told that somebody would come and pick us up from an agency. And we were given a bag where it is written 'IOM' ('International Organization for Migration') and somebody from the agency will recognize us, and we were given one badge which says 'I don't speak English' and has information about us. It was very scary."

The case worker comforts them and takes them to a simple apartment already furnished for them (from donations by people across the Diocese of Charlotte). Beds and sheets, dishes, tables, couches and more are there.

Chamlagai recalls, "When we get inside the apartment it was night time and there was already one Bhutanese family resettled [that] the case worker asked to prepare food for us so that the food was ready." After a long flight with unfamiliar food, it was a great comfort to find a meal they were accustomed to, "our food to eat."

That night his family showered and experienced a new standard of living.

"We have never used electricity, never used the kind of stove that we have here. Never used, never seen! And door, lock system, the restrooms, the air-conditioning – everything's new. Refrigerator, we never used refrigerator. And bed, we had bamboo beds (in the camp), and when I sleep for the first time on the bed that we have I felt very nice that time. It felt very good. And the room was full of furniture. We had one kitchen table, chairs, TV...first time I had TV."

But the case workers don't just drop them off into a new place to live. They support them for months afterwards – providing help with social services, health care referrals, Social Security cards, job leads and more. They help them navigate a grocery store, learn what insurance is for, get the kids settled into local schools, and find English language classes.

After Chamlagai had taken English classes, he began to worry about employment. "I was worried about jobs, at that time we did not know that CSS was going to help us to get the job. The CSS caseworkers told us that they are responsible for finding us jobs. I felt very secure at that time. Before I was feeling unsecure about jobs, where to go, what to do. There were different kinds of worries in the mind, but after they told me that I stopped worrying. Linda Campbell (with CSSRRO) found me a job in a warehouse, (a) distribution center."

Six months after working in the warehouse, Chamlagai learned how to put together a resume and applied for a job opening at the Refugee Resettlement Office. After a few interviews, he was offered the job.

Now – coming full circle from his experience in the camps to coming to America – Chamlagai helps other Bhutanese refugees settle into Charlotte, their adopted home.

Printed with permission from the Catholic News Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.

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