Living a world away: A refugee story


Just six months ago, Bir Bahadur and Deo Maya Tamang lived in a ramshackle hut in a refugee camp along Nepal’s eastern border.

No electricity, poor food rations and meager work meant the couple had little hope for their daughter’s future.

Their opportunity for a new life came last spring in the form of a series of thick application packets, security clearances and a few lucky breaks.

The Tamang family is among a growing number of legal refugees relocating to Hampton Roads in search of the American dream, even as the nation continues to struggle from the worst economic downturn since the 1920s.

Just four months after arriving on the Peninsula, Bir Bahadur now has a job. The couple’s daughter, Samichya Tamang, started school Tuesday. The family’s apartment has basic amenities — air conditioning, a refrigerator, separate rooms — that weren’t available to them in the refugee camp.

From the time they landed at Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport in early May, the Tamang family allowed a Daily Press photographer and reporter to follow them as they assimilated to their new surroundings.

As refugees, they have attended English classes and workshops teaching them about nutrition, public transportation and banks.

Helping them become self sufficient within the first five to six months of moving to Hampton Roads is the goal, according to the officials helping to relocate the refugees.

At an inch or two shy of 6 feet tall, Bir Bahadur is tall compared to his fellow countrymen who have moved here. He parts his black hair to the side and he often wears button-up shirts. His handshake is remarkably soft, although he is quick to offer his hand to greet strangers.

Deo Maya often wears long floral-print skirts. She has not taken to English as quickly as her husband and often looks to him to translate dialogue into Nepalese.

Since moving to Hampton Roads, the couple has reconnected with friends and family from the Nepalese refugee camps who have also relocated to Hampton Roads.

Fleeing Bhutan

Bir Bahadur, 31, and Deo Maya, 27, grew up in Bhutan, a mountainous country in south Asia bordered to the north and east by China and to the south and west by Nepal and India. As ethnic Nepalis, they were stripped of their citizenship and forced to leave Bhutan in the mid-1990s by the ethnic majority.

More than 100,000 Bhutanese fled to Nepal where they were shepherded into refugee camps, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Bir Bahadur’s family was first forced to pass through neighboring India on an eight-hour bus ride before they arrived in a camp. Some Bhutanese people made the journey on foot, which took as long as six days, he said.

Bir Bahadur arrived in the United-Nations-controlled camp at age 12 or 13. He finished his education in the camp, met his future wife in the camp and eventually watched his daughter grow up in the camp.

Throughout that period he ate only what the United Nations provided him, and vegetables from small neighborhood gardens. Only worked on jobs available to him within the confines of the camp’s walls.

Sitting in the living room of his two-bedroom apartment in Regency Square Apartments in Newport News, Bir Bahadur says he choose to move his family to the United States to open new opportunities for his 7-year-old daughter Samichya.

With limited job opportunities in Nepal and little chance of returning to his home in Bhutan, Bir Bahadur said he hit a breaking point. The Tamang family applied for, and received, refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an organization that seeks to ensure refugees can find a safe country to reside if they are exiled from their homes.

U.N. intervention

The Tamang family is among the 14 million displaced refugees throughout the world who have been granted refugee status through a series of approvals from the United Nations.

Fewer than 1 percent, however, are ever relocated to safe country, said Karen Kurilko, director of Refugee and Immigration Services, of Catholic Commonwealth Charities, in Newport News.

“There are definitely a lot of people in limbo throughout the world,” she said.

To be considered a refugee, applicants must meet criteria outlined the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 which in part describes such people as “… unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The State Department sets annual caps on the number of refugees from various conflict areas that can relocate into the United States — 76,000 people will be allowed to resettle during the 2012 federal fiscal year, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.

Each refugee approved to enter the country must be sponsored by one of nine resettlement agencies, according to the State Department.

Courtesy : Daily Press

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