What do we do? Sublime Hopes of Elderly Bhutanese in America.


“What do I do? I cannot speak English. I am 56 years old. I cannot go to work, I cannot do anything. I want to work. I want to do what I have been doing all my life. I want to be active. But all I do is stay at home. I have to keep quiet, because I cannot speak English”. This is one of the major issues faced by the elderly Bhutanese refugees resettled in the United States.

Since 2008 about 57,000 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the United States. These refugees evicted from Bhutan, lived in the 7 refugee camps in south-eastern Nepal for a minimum of 18 years;  20 years , for those who arrived in the United States in the last year or so. Along with the young and the middle aged, also came the elderly parents and grandparents, who are above the age of 65.

On a recent trip to Ohio, I met an old lady, Narmaya Dhimal, who is  now 102 years old; she was 98 when she left the refugee camps and boarded the flight/s (Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi to London, London to New York and New York to North Carolina) to the United States.

These elderly men and women were all landowners and farmers in Bhutan. ”I had 7 acres of land in Bhutan, I had orange orchards, I had cardamom fields. I had paddy fields. I sold about 80,000 oranges every year” said Mr. Dhimal ( Narmaya’s youngest son). Some of them were dairy farmers and had cattle, producing milk and milk products. They had their own houses on their land and had a comfortable life. We had our temples and our priests. Our children went to school and learned Nepali language and culture. Then everything changed.

In 1985, the Bhutanese Government enacted a stringent citizenship law and reordered arbitrary census of the people living in southern districts of Bhutan. There were allegations of illegal migration from Nepal and neighboring areas of India, to take advantage of the free education, health and other government benefits in Bhutan. The truth actually was that the Bhutanese government was formulating policy of Gross National Happiness since 1970s, and one of the pillars of GNH is Cultural Preservation. Also known as “One Nation, One People” policy, it insisted on Bhutanization or Drukpa acculturation of southern non-drukpa population. When asked if they knew anything about the GNH, the elderly, and even those who had lived in Bhutan for at least 15-20 years of their lives, said that they had knew nothing about it.

After the pro-democracy movement in 1990,  police and army started coming to make inquiries, which turned into harassment and then torture to oust the people from Bhutan. Schools were closed, teaching of Nepali language was banned, Nepali books were burned,  and they were told to practice the drukpa culture if they wanted to live in Bhutan. They also had to wear the Bhutanese national dress ( called gho and kira) as soon as they stepped out of their homes. Peaceful protests became a cause for serious retaliation by the government. By the end of  1990 they started leaving Bhutan in groups and arriving in Nepal where refugee camps were established. They lived in the refugee camps for over 18 years.

Elderly Bhutanese  honored
Elderly Bhutanese being honored after resettlement

Resettlement in America has not been easy. While the young and middle aged have their own problems of adjustment, life has been one big vacuum for the elderly. Most of them never went to school. They don’t know how to read and write. They never had the habit of studying. The first thing they have to do in America is go to the ESL classes and learn how to read, write and speak basic English. One gentleman told me,”  I go to my ESL classes and learn English. And then I come home and forget what I learned. My brain is not a computer and it cannot retain anything, especially a foreign language”.

If they are above the age of 65 they are eligible for SSI or Supplemental Security Income for their survival along with Medicaid benefits. But they have to acquire US citizenship within 7 years of their arrival in the United States, or they will lose the SSI benefits. This has started becoming a subject of concern for the elderly as well as their children. In order to take the citizenship test, they have to learn the 100 questions about U.S. government, history and constitution and know basic reading and writing  English. “There is no way that they can pass the test”, said Tara Dhungana.  Tara works for ‘Community Refugee and Immigration Services’ in Columbus, Ohio, as Employment Counselor, helping immigrants and refugees attain employment and self-sufficiency in the long run. His wife, who is a teaching assistant and training to be a teacher, has been trying to tutor his parents and other elderly members in the family for their citizenship tests. But there is always a gap in the learning process; they forget soon.

Learning about America and her history is difficult; learning about it in a foreign language, almost impossible. They have citizenship classes, but for these Nepali speaking people learning English is the bigger of the evils. If they lose their SSI benefits they fear they would fall burden on their families and their children. They don’t know how that would play out since their children are also struggling to make ends meet and survive. Mr. Dhimal told me, “I cannot sleep at night anymore thinking about the future. I feel I have entered a dark cave and I cannot find any light”.

Other issues are also interfering with the easy resettlement that they had hoped for. A major one is the generational difference. The adult children go to work and the grandchildren go the school. Even though the families are very close knit and the parents are trying very hard to educate their kids about their own religion, language, culture and traditions, the kids are getting acculturated in the American life and learning English and American customs very fast. This is causing differences with their grandparents and they seem to be losing patience with their lack of knowledge about things American. They are trying but there will come a time when they will feel that they are better and smarter than their grandparents. They will exclude them from their lives.

Being cloistered at home, they are also thinking more: about their past, about their life in America and about the future. And the future seems like a blur. They are getting depressed and becoming sick. Some of them already had a lot of ailments living in the camps. Even with better medical facilities in America caring for the people over 65, they still live with the fears for the future. And there has been a lot of talk  about the suicide rate of  Bhutanese refugees in America. What is the reason? Will it be the elderly next? In the next two or three years, it will be seen how this issue might emerge. And if we can, we have to help them get over their fears.  A community center for the elderly is an ideal solution. There are some areas in the country, where they have been resettled, that community or recreational centers for the elderly are yet to be established.

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Resettled women from Bhutan

Third country resettlement is the last option as a solution to a protracted refugee crisis. The other two being repatriation and host country settlement. The first two solutions failed in the case of  Bhutanese refugees, as Bhutan refused to take them back and Nepal did not have enough resources to accommodate another 110,000 Bhutanese refugees. United States and other foreign countries stepped in to offer third country resettlement, and the US has resettled almost 57,000 refugees so far in different cities of the country. The US government through the different resettlement agencies in the country are giving them as much help  as possible to get settled in the US. But the issues faced by the elderly are getting lost in the struggle to keep the process going efficiently.  Our system rates success by numbers, how many resettled, how many have jobs, how many have attended the ESL classes, how many are going to school and how many are graduating. The elderly are among the numbers getting resettled, attending ESL classes and also refugees living in America. The question is, how? And what can be done to solve the issues they are facing in America? How can their fears be allayed? How can they too live the American dream and feel wanted, safe and secure  for their life in this country?

My Kudos  to the 102 year old Narmaya Dhimal, who willingly came to the United States to live rest of her life with all the members of her immediate and extended family that chose resettlement in America, instead of dying alone in the refugee camps in Nepal. She gives us hope; hope for all the elderly that they will make it. But a big effort and more policy options are to be in place.

The author is an Associate Professor of History at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas and can be reached at [email protected].