Family portrait of Bhutan Nepalis in USA


Bhutan, a tiny country wedged between China and India, is often described as the last Shangri-La. The country’s guiding principle is Gross National Happiness as opposed to the universal measurement of Gross National Product. In 2008, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, abdicated the throne to his 30-year-old Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, adopting “constitutional monarchy” and “parliamentary democracy”. To a casual observer, it is tempting to believe a new egalitarian era has dawned in Bhutan.

But beneath the facade lies a different narrative. In order to preserve its Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist culture and identity, the country expelled or forced to leave nearly one fifth of its population. In one of the world’s least known episodes of what many scholars believe was an “ethnic cleansing,” the Nepali-origin, mainly Hindu Bhutanese fled their homeland in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Odaris, whose stories are chronicled below, were one of thousands of families who fled the Himalayan kingdom. They also became one of the first families to be resettled in the United States after the country started to resettle 60,000 refugees (seven western countries followed suit) in late 2007. By the end of 2010, 40,000 of them have been resettled in those countries, with 38,000 in several cities and communities across the US.

Photo Courtesy: Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette

I met the Odaris, by far the most gregarious people, in April 2008 in Pittsburgh where I was working at a local daily as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow. I wrote a number of stories about their adjustment to life in the US for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as for my home publication in Nepal. What follows is a series of personal history of four members out of the nine-member Odari family based on the interviews conducted over the phone.

Bhawani Prasad Odari, 53 (father)

There was no option but to leave. So I sold my cattle, left my foodstuffs and the house right there. I and my wife managed to carry our Bhutanese citizenship certificates and some belongings. All I had was three thousand rupees.

My grandfather used to tell me about the trip to Bhutan. He was 51 years old when he migrated from Panchthar (eastern hills of Nepal). In 1945, he along with wife, his four sons and two daughters trekked for 16 days to reach Bhutan. He was fleeing the persecution from ethnic Limbus who claimed that Brahmins like him were outsiders.

In Bhutan, they cleared the forest and settled at Kabachche village in Chirang district. My father, at 22, had already married a woman in Nepal. But my stepmother had eloped. So, he married another woman the year he arrived in Bhutan. I was told that my mother was 11 when she got married to my father. Her family had moved to Bhutan several decades before our grandparents did. I was born on September 30, 1957 at Kabachche as the first son of Khadga Prasad Odari and Padma Odari.

My family was hardworking and relied on subsistent farming for livelihood. As a child, I used to work as a cowherd. When I became adult, I worked as a farmhand. The paddy farming and harvest season were especially busy occasions. Education for a family like ours was beyond our means. The rich people would send their kids for education in India.

We had orange and lemon orchards. We used to grow corn, wheat, lentil, cardamom. But the farming was primitive—we relied on oxen for tilling the land. My grandfather, who died in 1996, was an adept carpenter. He had built a beautiful mud and stone house with thatched roof in our 14 acres land.

I married when I was 12. I didn’t know anything—it was on my father’s insistence. My wife Lachhchhi Devi was a year younger than me. My in-laws are Kaderiyas from Chirang, one of 20 districts in Bhutan. I had not met or seen her before the marriage. The marriage—in a traditional Nepali Hindu way—was a colorful and elaborate ceremony. Damai musicians played several musical instruments. I rode on a horse and dozens of jantis (the procession that accompanies the groom) followed. Feast had been prepared and a makeshift oblation was constructed for the ceremony. The invitees, dressed in their best clothes, jostled to get a glimpse of the bride and the groom. The priest recited mantras from Hindu scriptures. I and my bride circled the fire seven times and received blessings from relatives in the day-long ceremony.

My first child Man Maya was born in 1979, ten years after my marriage. The rest –three daughters and three sons – were also born in Bhutan. In 1983, I separated from my father after the anshabanda – the property we had was divided among us brothers. I was entitled a cow, a horse, and a pair of oxen. I, along with my wife and two daughters moved down south to Sarbhang district. I bought four acres land. I rented another four acres for paddy farming. I would travel to Siliguri in West Bengal to sell the produce.

I was happy with what I had and didn’t care or know much about larger happenings. But in early 1990, I heard that college students had begun protests against the government after it withdrew Nepali curricula from schools. Several students were arrested; others arrived in our village and instigated us to participate in protests. I didn’t take part in the protests but common people like me were caught in between. If we participated in the protests organized by political parties like Bhutan People’s Party, we were targeted by the government. If we didn’t, the cadres of the political parties wouldn’t spare us. People talked about beatings, torture, rape and murder perpetrated by the Royal Bhutan Army. There were rumors of Hindu temples being dismantled. Amidst all this, I received the message that my father, mother and my brothers’ families were fleeing the country. They were traveling via my place on their way to India. There was no option but to leave. So I sold my cattle, left my foodstuffs and the house right there. I and my wife managed to carry our Bhutanese citizenship certificates and some belongings. All I had was three thousand rupees.

We left Bhutan on March 14, 1992. In three hours, we arrived at the Indian border. We heard that the refugees were sheltered in Morigaon, Assam. There, over a dozen refugee families were sheltered under tarpaulin-roofed shacks. Life there was miserable because there wasn’t enough food to eat. A few Indian-Nepalis had extended their helping hands but that wasn’t sufficient. The Indian government had turned a blind eye on our predicament.

We further heard that refugees were flocking to Nepal. A few days later, we too left for Nepal. After registering in Kakarbhitta’s UNHCR office as refugees from Bhutan, we moved further west. We got off on the banks of Mai River in Jhapa. It was just a barren land. We erected bamboo huts. Hundreds of children died from a sudden outbreak of dysentery. I attended to some 14 funerals a day. I myself traveled to Siliguri to fetch medicines for my children. This was the lowest moment in the camp. I had run out of my resources and energy.

But succor came in late 1992 when the UNHCR took charge of the camps. We shifted to Beldangi camp where we were allocated a double space because one hut was for up to eight members. With the materials provided by UNHCR, we constructed a small wattle and daub hut.

Photo Courtesy: Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette

I still remember the first day in the hut. The dusk fell as we busied ourselves in arranging our belongings. We couldn’t cook food. So we took beaten rice as the meal for the night. It was far better than the congested and grimy settlement of Mai. I had to worry about not only my kids (then aged 10, 9, 7, 6, 4, 3, and 2) but also my ageing parents.

But sitting idle in the camps was not a solution. So I requested an “out pass” (that allowed refugees to leave camp for a week) from UNHCR and left for India. I started a small trade: I would buy clothes, spices, tea powder and vegetables in India and sell them to fellow refugees. But I had to bribe Nepali police at the Indo-Nepal border. Nevertheless, it helped raise my kids and pay for their stationery and clothes.

As my kids grew up and became adults, we faced another problem: the food was never enough to fill their hungry bellies. Initially, we were entitled 52 kg of rice as rations for fifteen days. But a couple of years later, it was reduced to 50 kg. We had to buy additional 15 to 20 kg. But we were doing much better than other refugees, thanks to my small business.

I was working on a farm when I got the news about moving to America. IOM (International Organization for Migration that facilitates refugees’ travel and screening for resettlement) had called on us. The next day, I along with my family went to IOM office in Damak. Altogether, 360 refugees were summoned. After interviews and health checkups, my family left the camps on April 20, 2008.

I wasn’t feeling well when we (my wife and four children) landed in New York. It was the first time I was flying, that too for many hours. We were expecting that our three children, who had arrived in the US three weeks before, would be waiting for us at the airport in New York. Instead, we were directed to the departure. We boarded another plane to Pittsburgh. I was ill with fever and cough. I felt a little at ease after meeting my children at the Pittsburgh airport. We headed to Prospect Park (in suburban Pittsburgh).

Topographically, Pittsburgh appeared to be akin to my native Bhutan. Coming from the rundown refugee camps in the dusty plains, it immediately attracted me. But I was also worried that I didn’t speak English. While traveling in India, I used to communicate in rudimentary Hindi and was aware of the significance of local language in a foreign land.

Nowadays, I’m working along with my children and other fellow refugees at Quality Driven Copack, a frozen food packing factory. I regularly visit the local Hindu temple in Monroeville, a half-an-hour drive from my apartment. We were expelled from Bhutan for observing our tradition and culture. We would like to exercise our freedom in America.

Yani Maya Odari, 26 (2nd eldest daughter)

I would go to the nearby forest to collect grass for the goats. This was where I was oftentimes caught by the forest authorities.

My earliest memory of the refugee camp is that of the first day in Beldangi where the UNHCR had allocated spaces to refugees to construct their huts. I remember my parents and other refugees clearing the dense forest and cutting bamboos. I neither have any recollection of Bhutan nor that of the first camp on the banks of Kankai Mai River. I was six when my family left Bhutan. My most pleasant and saddest moments are of  the refugee camps where I spent most of my childhood.

As we settled in the bamboo hut, life seemed a little better. We had a space, albeit too small to call our own. A year later, I started to attend school which was exclusively for refugees kids. The teachers were also refugees who had studied in Bhutan. We were provided with free education up to grade 10.

My typical day started at 3:30 am. I studied my course books till 4:30. Then I would take the plastic buckets to the water tap. We had to queue up in order to fill the water because it was only in the wee hours the water tap ran. In dim kerosene lamps (no electricity in the camps), I would study and do homework till daybreak.

At the crack of dawn, I would again head off to the public tap. There, I would fill water into my buckets and also take bath. At 7:30 am, I would take breakfast and leave for school. I would return home at around 4 pm. Then I would either do my homework or again fetch water. We had a small grocery store in a bamboo hut, run by my parents. I would take turns to allow my mother to leave for cooking at home.

Even though it was illegal, we used to domesticate goats. For Dashain festival, we reared one big khasi, a he-goat. We would make sure that our relatives, who would come to receive tika and blessing, were able to relish the much awaited masu-bhat.

I would go to the nearby forest to collect grass for the goats. This was where I was oftentimes caught by the forest authorities. Sometimes they would confiscate my wicker basket, at other times they would beat us mercilessly. To avoid them, we would hide the grass in a bag. On several occasions, I was beaten and was once detained for a few hours. We weren’t allowed to cut grass—it was only for the locals.

I don’t think I would to go to Nepal or Bhutan for good. Even though I’m identified as Bhutanese, I relate to Nepal because I grew up there. Someday I would like to return to Nepal and meet my relatives and Nepali friends.

But at the moment, I want to focus on my career. I had to leave Nepal without completing my college education. Therefore, I’m exploring opportunities to train myself. I would like to be a nurse and work in a hospital.

In my spare time, I watch Nepali television serials. I also listen to BBC Nepali Service to keep abreast of events in Nepal. Some members of our extended family are still living in camps. I’m worried about them and wish they would be resettled in the US as soon as possible. After the first four months in their designated location in the US, they can migrate to Pittsburgh. Indeed, many have done so. I think this is because of better job opportunities and good weather here.

While enjoying a decent life here, I often remember the spring season we spent in the camps when storms wreaked havoc. We would often grab a part of the roof lest the storm blow it away. In retrospect, it sounds funny but it was really a hard time maintaining our lives in the squalid camps.

Man Maya Odari, 29 (eldest daughter)

I first heard of third-country resettlement in 2003. I was at school when the UNHCR officials arrived in Beldangi and distributed pamphlets which talked about three options for refugees: repatriation, resettlement, and local integration.

I have only some fragments of memory of Bhutan because I was 10 when we left the country. And I was two when I was separated from my parents: I was brought up by my maternal grandmother until age seven. I remember going to local school to study at the kindergarten.

Elder sisters from my village would help me cross the river that would overflow in monsoon. The mountain roads would make it difficult for me to walk. At school, we were provided free lunch that consisted of powder milk and salty sardines. There are several pleasant memories. Our school used to organize cultural programs, and my senior schoolmates used to take me along, often carrying me on their back. They would also buy me chocolates.

In the autumn of 1991, my father came to take me along to Sarbhang, the southern plains where our family was relocated, from the hills. It was during Dashain. So I readily agreed to go with him. But more than that, it was the fear of eviction that led to my reunion with my siblings.

I don’t remember much about Sarbhang. We had rented an army man’s house. Six months after my arrival, my paternal grandfather, grandmother and uncles’ families left their homes and made it to our place. We had already received the news of their arrival. All I heard from my relatives was “We aren’t allowed to stay in Bhutan.” Our house in Sarbhang was near the Indo-Bhutan border. We crossed the border and entered Assam in Northeast India. Later, my maternal grandfather’s family joined us at Morigaon in Assam.

Two days after we arrived in Assam, we stayed in a house for five days. Then we boarded a bus. We traveled for a day and night and arrived in Maidhar (the bank of Kankai Mai River in Jhapa). My first impression of that place was that of a desert-like barren land. It was spring and I was feeling very hot. We were allocated a place on the riverbank along with hundreds of refugees. Many refugees who came from the hills could not cope with the humidity. As a result, several refugee kids died.

Fortunately, we had relatives in Jhapa. They came to see us. Realizing the harsh situation we were in, they took three of us (me, my younger sister Yani Maya, and my father’s sister who traveled with us to Nepal) to live with them for the time being. At Panchgachhi in Jhapa, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an Odari Chowk, named after our kinfolk. We were cared for properly, were given dairy products that reminded us of our life in Bhutan. But our parents and my siblings had to rely on rations provided by the locals.

Two months later, we heard that the refugees were being relocated to seven different places across Jhapa and Morang districts. We joined our parents in Maidhar and left for Beldangi where refugees were sequestered in a godown-like place. Fellow refugees were scrambling to find out their belongings. We stayed there for four days. During that time, we cooked food on a makeshift hearth on the meadows.

Six months later, I started to go to school. But the school was on open grounds. We were given secondhand books donated by local students. One class consisted of 20 to 25 students. Our batch completed the whole session taking classes on the open field. The next year, I was admitted to the second grade. Then, Panchawati Secondary School with bamboo huts was built. I studied in this school up to grade eight. I completed grade nine and ten from Tri-Ratna School. As I had an attachment with my maternal uncle’s family since my childhood, I would go to visit them at Khudunabari, another camp 10 km away. After school, I enrolled at Global College in Damak, the nearest town from the camp.

I first heard of third-country resettlement in 2003. I was at school when the UNHCR officials arrived in Beldangi and distributed pamphlets which talked about three options for refugees: repatriation, resettlement, and local integration. After reading them, the refugees expressed their desire according to their preferences. Immediately after, a census was undertaken jointly by Nepal government and UNHCR.

From the very beginning, I knew our family would opt for resettlement. We saw that Bhutan wasn’t interested to repatriate us. On several occasions, my fellow refugees struggled for returning home but all in vain. Some of them had even made it to Phuentsholing (a border Bhutanese town) but they were sent back to India. The option of local integration was also not attractive for us because we didn’t have any land in Nepal. So we asked ourselves, “If you have to work for a living, why don’t you work in a country where there’s better working environment?” This is how we chose third-country resettlement. But we were never sure we would come to the US.

My younger sister Yani Maya, younger brother Dilli Prasad, and I arrived in Pittsburgh on April 9, 2008. As the eldest daughter, I was particularly worried about my parents and siblings. I was wondering whether they would join us or not. I requested John Miller, the director at Catholic Charities (that is resettling Bhutanese refugees in Pittsburgh) to facilitate our parents’ relocation to Pittsburgh. He was kind enough to show us the file of our parents. He even asked us to look for an apartment.

When I was shown a three-bedroom apartment a few blocks away from ours, I was elated. We waited for our parents, two sisters and two brothers. April 29, 2008, the day they arrived in Pittsburgh is one of my happiest days.

Even though I had studied in English medium school in the refugee camp, it took me a month to understand the American accent. Now it’s been two years and I can fairly understand it. But at times, it’s still tough to comprehend those who talk very fast.

Dilli Prasad Odari, 23 (eldest son)

I was struck by the frankness and kindness of Americans. But their accent turned out to be almost incomprehensible. I was at a loss when they spoke to me. But nowadays, things have changed.

I was learning to drive when I got the news of moving to America. I remember the exact date: March 15, 2008. The UNHCR and IOM had started to accept applications for the resettlement in six western countries, including America. As soon as the word got out about the resettlement, we had applied for it. From our family, I and my two elder sisters were flying together. We three were summoned to the UNHCR office and were told that we would leave the camps on April 4, 2008.

Many in the refugee camps were skeptical about this offer. But I was hoping that it would come true. I knew I’d have to drive my own car once I was settled in America. So I started to take driving lessons at Nembang Driving Center in Damak.

I started meeting my friends because I knew I had only two weeks to go. I concentrated on my driving classes. Then very few people had left the camps for third-country resettlement. We lived in the shadow of fear because rumors were fast spreading about how we’ll be again corralled into camps in America. “You’ll be herded like animals,” we were told. On the evening of April 3, we left the camp for Damak. The next morning, we left for Bhadrapur to take a flight to Kathmandu. It was my first trip to the capital city. After staying for three days in a transit center in Kathmandu, we flew to the US on April 7. In a group of 35 refugees, the flight had a whiff of familiarity.

But it didn’t last long. From New York, I and my two sisters boarded a flight to Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania. The first day in Pittsburgh also happened to be my hardest day.

Everything looked strange: tall buildings, cars everywhere and people looked very confident, well-dressed and clean. We didn’t know a single soul. “Where have we arrived?” we asked each other. We felt sad and lonely. I wondered how I would cope in an alien world.

We visited the office of Catholic Charities that helped us resettle. We were provided with food stamps and bus tickets. They paid rent for our three-bedroom apartment. We had to go to its downtown office for paperwork. I requested the officials at the Charities to make sure our parents joined us in Pittsburgh. Twenty days later, they arrived here. I was very happy to see my parents at the airport.

I was struck by the frankness and kindness of Americans. But their accent turned out to be almost incomprehensible. I was at a loss when they spoke to me. But nowadays, things have changed. At Quality Driven Copack, a food packing factory where I worked for over a year, I got to talk to many Americans. The work has given me a new meaning. But it was very difficult in the beginning. I had never worked before. I was hoping to drive a cab. Instead, I’m working with machines in freezing temperatures. But when I receive the salary ($8.25 per hour), I forget the drudgery.

In the apartment I share with my three sisters and a brother, I marvel at the luxury offered in America. You insert a card and operate the washing machines; your clothes are washed in a few minutes. We shop in Chinese markets and big malls like Wal-Mart.

Ever since I arrived in America, I looked forward to one experience that I never had before: snowfall. The year 2009 brought the first snow of my life. It was early January and the TV channels were abuzz with the news of snowfall. I ventured out to find that the road had been blanketed by snow. A couple of boys were skateboarding. As I watched them with amazement, a boy offered me a ride and I instantly accepted. But I was not able to maintain the equilibrium.

On October 7, 2009, I fulfilled my long-cherished dream: I bought a Nisan Maxima car for $15,000. A local American (Robert) taught me how to drive. I learnt it the hard way because in Nepal I was taught left-hand side driving, but here it’s the other way round. On October 20, I drove for 13 hours and arrived in New Hampshire where I met my childhood friend, Upendra Bhattarai.

Life has changed after I bought the car. I’ve made a few American friends with whom I go for fishing. I also obtained a fishing license. Recently, we went to the Erie Lake where I caught five fishes. I brought the fish home and my sisters cooked it. I’m also planning to get a hunting license. I frequently go to parks with my refugee friends. I have my own laptop and I’ve installed Internet connection. We often joke that we drive cars that in Nepal are owned only by ministers and rich people.

In a few years, I’ll buy a house. Instead of working for someone else’s business, I want to start my own. I want to learn about automobile servicing and eventually open up a service center as I’m much interested in this field. And I see that Americans love cars. So it’s going to be a good business.

Deepak Adhikari is a journalist based in Kathmandu and the article has been reproduced from Myrepublica with permission from the writer.