The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) announced the formation of a partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) earlier today, as part of a joint project to serve the medical needs of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. The protracted refugee crisis originated during the 1990’s, when Bhutan forcibly expelled more than 100,000 minority Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa, the majority of whom were Hindus, under the government’s repressive “One Nation, One People” policy.
The initiative arose following a recent fact-finding mission by HAF doctors to UNHCR administered camps in Damak, Nepal, where they conducted a detailed medical assessment on the needs of the refugees. Based on their findings, dental care and mental health emerged as the two areas of greatest concern and required urgent assistance.
“HAF is pleased to be partnering with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in addressing the dental and psychological needs of the Bhutanese refugees,” said Arvind Chandrakantan, M.D., HAF Executive Council Member. “This cooperative venture will go a long way in decreasing the prevalence of major dental disease and psycho-social problems, both of which are widespread amongst the refugee population in Nepal.”
HAF and UNHCR will focus their initial efforts on creating a dental awareness camp in Nepal to train 30 volunteers every year in basic dental hygiene and equip them to assist the larger Bhutanese refugee population. In particular, the trainings will address issues such as oral anatomy, major dental disease, and prevention and treatment of oral problems. Additionally, the practical use of local anesthetics, dental extractions, and proper cleaning methods will be taught during the training sessions.
The project is being funded entirely by HAF and will be facilitated by UNHCR in conjunction with the Asian Medical Doctors Association (AMDA)-Nepal. According to HAF, the initiative is expected to cost $15,000 per year, over a three year period. Furthermore, the Indian American Dental Association (IADA) has agreed to provide logistical and educational support for the program.
Beyond the provision of dental care, HAF is collaborating with UNHCR to sponsor a board certified psychologist to travel to Nepal three times a year, in order to provide psychological assistance to the refugees on a wide range of mental health issues.
“We had long conversations with Dr. Bhampa Rai, one of the Bhutanese leaders, and stayed and ate with his family daily,” said Mihir Meghani, HAF Board member. “Dr. Rai would often talk about how he resigned his position as one of the pre-eminent surgeons in Bhutan to be in exile with his people. He preferred exile with his community to a life of luxury without them.”
The current Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal is estimated at 56,710, after more than 50,000 refugees were resettled in third countries, including the U.S., in recent years. HAF has detailed the plight of the Bhutanese refugees in its annual human rights report.