American Dream Becomes Nightmare for Bhutanese Refugees


Before Menuka Poudel left the refugee camp in Nepal where she and her family sheltered for almost two decades after being displaced from Bhutan, the 18-year-old spoke to me about her hopes of pursing her college education and living the American dream.

Just over a year later, on Nov. 30, 2010, she was found by her mother hanging in an apartment in Phoenix Arizona, where her family had moved a month before. They had hoped to begin a new life under a resettlement program for Bhutanese refugees who had fled cultural and religious persecution.

Ms. Poudel, who was still breathing when her mother found her, was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix where she was pronounced dead the following day, according to her family.

The young woman was one of over 30 Bhutanese refugees who have taken their lives in the U.S. since the summer of 2008 when the resettlement program began.

The problem of suicide in the community seems to be worsening: Since the start of Nov. 2013, seven Bhutanese refugees have killed themselves after resettling in the U.S.

In the most recent case, Bal Khulal, who relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, left behind a wife and two children after taking his own life, according to local police.

report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal U.S. government agency, published in Oct. 2012, stated that in the three years to Feb. 2012, the rate of suicides among Bhutanese refugees resettled in America was 20.3 per 100,000 people.

This rate was almost double that among the U.S. general population and exceeded the global suicide rate of 16.0 per 100,000, according to figures from the World Health Organization.

However, it was similar to rates of suicide experienced by Bhutanese refugees in camps before they relocated, the study found.

“Different psychological stressors occur at each stage of the resettlement process,” the study said. Once refugees are relocated, factors such as inability to find work, increased family conflict and symptoms of anxiety, depression and psychological distress are associated with suicidal thoughts, it added.

After resettlement, many young Bhutanese adults seem to find a mismatch between their idea of the American dream and the availability of work and quality of pay in the U.S.

Those working with the Bhutanese community in America say there is a lack of support and provision to deal with the problem.

“Although suicide among the Bhutanese seems like an issue that needs attention, the community does not have the expertise to address it,” said Aaron Acharya, executive director of the Association of Bhutanese in America, Inc., a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.

Tens of thousands of Bhutanese were displaced as a result of ethnic cleansing policy adopted by Bhutan’s government under ‘one nation-one people’ policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Nepali language was banned from schools, and repression of the people of southern Bhutan by the Buddhist elite intensified.

Around 26,000 still live in refugee camps in Nepal, located near the Indian border and less than 300 miles from their home country. Over 13,000 are waiting to migrate from the camps to Western countries through the ongoing resettlement program.

As of Oct. 2013, there were around 71,000 Bhutanese refugees living in the U.S., according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Parangkush Subedi, a community volunteer in Philadelphia, in early 2013 started an awareness campaign within the Bhutanese community there and elsewhere focusing on issues of mental health and suicide.

Mr. Subedi says that to tackle the problem properly and highlight the issue among Bhutanese refugees, a U.S.-wide campaign by the organizations responsible for the resettlement program is required because the community in general is a self-contained and introverted culture.

Denise Beehag is director of refugee and employment services at the International Institute of Buffalo, one of the local resettlement agencies in Buffalo, New York where three females and one young man, all of them Bhutanese refugees, took their own lives between Aug. 2010 and Oct. 2013.

There is little discussion about the topic and the rate of suicides among this population at a national level seems staggering, Ms. Beehag said. “Immediate action is what it seems the need of the hour,” she added.

T.P. Mishra is a contributing editor at the Bhutanese refugee-run Bhutan News Service, and a refugee currently living in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Originally published by The Wall Street Journal


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A father, husband, public speaker, and a freelancer, Mr. Mishra returns to this news portal as the Executive Editor after he had served in the same capacity for nearly three years in the recent past. Born in Dagana, Bhutan and raised in the refugee camp in Nepal, Mishra’s entry into journalism began as early as 2002, and he has been volunteering in the area since then.
Mr. Mishra worked as a special correspondent for The Bhutan Reporter (TBR) Monthly for a few years in the early-mid 2000s. Later, he became Editor at the same newspaper, and also served as the Chief Editor of TBR for two years. He is one of the founder members of Bhutan News Service (BNS), where he started serving as Editor (2006-2009), and later Chief Editor (2009-2011).
Mr. Mishra also served as one of the main hosts of the radio program, Saranarthi Sarokar (translates to ‘Refugee Concern’ in English) in one of the local FM stations in Kathmandu, Nepal from 2007 through 2009. As a host of the program, he interviewed dozens of high-profile Nepalese and Bhutanese politicians, academicians, social and community leaders, including foreign diplomats then based in Kathmandu and Jhapa, Nepal.
Aside from his reporting work while in Kathmandu, Mr. Mishra also got involved in other philanthropic work, and helped needy refugees. Mr. Mishra led two donation campaigns through the lobby in Kathmandu among fellow Bhutanese refugees and supported fire victims in the refugee camp in the eastern part of the country. Mr. Mishra also directly assisted dozens of sick patients with various illnesses from the refugee camps in Jhapa to get their appropriate treatment in Kathmandu-based hospitals at a discounted rate and/or free of cost.
Mr. Mishra has appeared in various national, regional and international publications including the Wall Street Journal, Aljazeera America, Explore Parts Unknown, Global Post, Himal Southasian, among dozens of other media outlets with articles aimed at advocating the Bhutanese refugee issue. The New York Times, BBC, Guardian Weekly, among many others have featured Mishra’s work. Mr. Mishra has also written articles extensively reflecting the state of ‘freedom of speech & expression in Bhutan.’
Mr. Mishra is also the author of a handbook called Becoming a Journalist in Exile.
Mr. Mishra is the recipient of two awards—one by the Bhutan Press Union (2006), and the other by the Organization of Bhutanese Communities in America (2011) for his contributions in the related field. Founder President of the Bhutan Chapter of the Third World Media Network (2006-2012), Mishra has also represented Bhutan in various regional and national-level trainings and seminars on media freedom while during his stay in Nepal.
Mr. Mishra holds his first Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the Purbanchal University in Nepal, and the second Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.