Bhutanese brothers overcome adversity

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On the first day of school, Ram Siwakoti eagerly selected an open seat in the front of the classroom.

“Well, good!,” thought Jacqueline Freni, an English and ESOL teacher at Clarkston High School who recently retired. “I remember thinking, ‘someone seems anxious to get going here.’ As a teacher, you are thrilled to death when you have kids who want to learn.”

This was the fall of 2009, and Ram, a newly arrived refugee, had no time to lose. The teenage boy with a pile of black hair and big brown eyes grew up in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal. Now 17, and already a junior, he had one goal: go to college. Even while studying on dusty floors with old shared books, Ram seized on education as the ticket to a better life.

Ram (left) with his brother (Picture courtesy: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Ram (left) with his brother Lina
(Picture courtesy: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

So here in Clarkston, Ram selected that desk closest to his teacher and sought out her advice. Freni told him he needed to improve his English, sharpen his writing skills and prepare for the SAT.

“He was bound and determined,” said Freni. “And as his teacher, I was going to help him. When you have a student so eager to learn, it’s exciting.”

Freni remembered one day arriving at school with a voice message left for her at 6 a.m. Ram wanted to get her thoughts on a writing question. Almost immediately, Freni became more than a teacher. She was a mentor, a confidante. She used some of her own money to buy English-Nepali dictionaries.

One day, she stayed after school to help him pronounce the word, “ask,” which he was pronouncing “ash.”

Others helped, too.

Dr. Ravi Sharma, a local oncologist who has long reached out to Bhutanese refugees with everything from mentoring to free medical care, also helped organize free SAT-preparation classes. Ram enrolled in the weekend class.

Meanwhile, Ram’s younger brother, Lila, who was 14 when they arrived here, also wanted to go to college.

Ram was just nine months old when his family and 100,000 other people were expelled from their native Bhutan, a monarchy wedged between India and Chinese-ruled Tibet. (Lila was born in the refugee camp).

The Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people who left Nepal during the 1800s in search of better farmland. They settled in what is now southern Bhutan and became known as Lhotshampas, or “People of the South.”

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king worried that the largely Hindu Lhotshampas population could put the traditional Druk Buddhist culture in the minority. So he barred the speaking of Nepali in schools, required Druk dress and stripped citizenship for many Lhotsampas. Tens of thousands were either expelled or fled the country.

They were forced to live refugee camps in eastern Nepal. They lived in huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs. There was poor medical care, a perpetual shortage of food, and no toilets.

But Ram says the worst of it may have been something else.

“One of the most terrible aspects I think was creating a generation of dreamless and sad people,” he said. “But not everyone was dreamless and sad.”

Ram said he always believed better days are yet to come.

“While living in a refugee camp, we had nothing to cherish on other than a future that was so unknown,” he said. “So I think living in the refugee camp made me yearn for a better future and eventually programmed my mind and brain with that concept what happens today, it is not going to be permanent. Life will always move on.”

In 2011, Ram received a highly competitive Gates Millennium scholarship, which pays for tuition, room-and-board and other college expenses. He also got accepted to Georgia Institute of Technology. He is now a junior at Georgia Tech. Earlier this year, younger brother Lila also won a coveted Gates scholarship. He’s a freshman at Oglethorpe University.

“When we left Nepal, we thought we would be mostly on our own and most of us were scared, but the level of support we received when we came here made our adjustment a lot easier and it surprised us a lot,” said Ram, at his parents’ modest apartment in Clarkston where Ram and his brother spend many weekends.

Sharma said Ram and Lila have lived through dark days in the refugee camp. He said they are both self-motivated and are fortunate to have parents (who both work at poultry plants) who have made education a priority.

“The [Bhutanese] community has a lot of trauma and heartbreak,” said Sharma. “With Ram and Lila, there is this resilience and optimism, and human spirit if you want to call it … Nature has this way of creating people who can come out of all the adversity and then shine through.”

The United States launched a program to resettle tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees languishing in refugee camps in Nepal. The refugees, almost all ethnic Nepalis from southern Bhutan, are unable to return to Bhutan or settle permanently in Nepal. Metro Atlanta emerged as a top destination, welcoming about 4,800 Bhutanese refugees since early 2008, according to the Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Editor’s note: The story was first appeared in  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. BNS has reproduced this with kind permissions from the author and the paper.