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American Dream Becomes Nightmare for Bhutanese Refugees

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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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