In fall of 2019, I initiated a multi-year project called the “Nation of Sanctuary.” This project documents the histories of refugees resettled in the United States. Working on the project led me to North Carolina where I was interested in learning more about the work of refugee resettlement workers at the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency (CRRA).
In North Carolina I met the executive director Marsha Hirsch and one of her staff members Thakur Mishra, both of whom shared their knowledge and experience about working with refugee communities. I was especially interested in learning about new groups of refugees who have been resettled in North Carolina, such as the Bhutanese. Having learned that Mishra immigrated to the United States from Bhutan as a refugee, I arranged an extended meeting with him to hear his story.
In a two-hour long oral history interview, Mishra shared his powerful story of how he, as a child, was evicted from Bhutan along with his family in the early 1990s. He also recalled his experience as a journalist while living in a refugee camp in Nepal and provided a window into the everyday challenges that refugees in Nepal faced, experiences that are often not seen or heard by the public . A day after our interview, Mishra invited me to his home to show me a collection of photos, videos, and things that he thought might be of interest to the Smithsonian Institution.
The materials collected by Mishra over the years were astounding because they captured a rich history of migration, resettlement, and exile. It was evident that Mishra was passionate about archiving the stories and experiences of his community. What struck me after our meeting is that despite the sizable communities of Bhutanese who have settled in the United States their stories and their history of migration are unfamiliar to many people.
As a curator of Asian Pacific American History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), I’ve had a longstanding interest in documenting the histories of various Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) groups. I am committed to bringing greater visibility to the Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas and representing the rich diversity of AAPI communities as inclusively as possible, especially groups that remain marginalized and underrepresented in the museum. I often consult and partner with community members when possible so that they may determine how their stories are told and shared with the public.
In 2021, in consultation with Mishra, I applied for a grant with the support of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center and received funding to start an oral history project titled “The Bhutanese Oral History Project.” This project has three goals. The first is to create a space at the museum for members of the Bhutanese diaspora in the United States to share their stories and experiences in their own words on a national stage. The second goal is to engage community members through the process of co-curating and co-creating a collection of objects that could be used for public programs and future exhibitions. The third goal is to create educational resources for the Bhutanese communities so that they can share their stories with current youth and the future generation. Having immigrated to the United States as a refugee at two years old from Vietnam, I could understand and relate to the importance of sharing stories across generations and how young people are often shielded from their parents’ stories of migration.
I understood that such lofty goals required the partnership of Bhutanese community members who could direct, serve as consultants, and ultimately grow and sustain the project. To implement it, I brought aboard Mishra to serve as a community liaison and a consultant. His passion, experience, and deep knowledge of the Bhutanese diaspora has been crucial to every aspect of this project. I had not expected that the meeting with Mishra would grow into a year-long collaboration that has involved the generous contributions of numerous community members from across the diaspora.
During our first phase of the pilot project, we successfully collected 23 oral history interviews, of which 9 are female and 13 are male narrators. Thus far, our method of identifying participants has been based on Mishra’s contacts in Charlotte, North Carolina and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and whether participants were willing to share their time and stories with us. Before beginning any form of documentation, Mishra had preliminary dialogues with potential participants to explain the project and its goals and to ensure that people were comfortable with–and most importantly, consented to—sharing their stories.
While we categorize these dialogues as “interviews,” Mishra and I approached them as conversations in which we posed questions to guide the participant in telling their stories. Each narrator has been treated as an expert of their own experience, and I was there to create a space to facilitate their storytelling. The format of a semi-structured conversation is designed to respect and allow individuals to delve deeply into specific moments they want to elaborate on, while ensuring that we’re able to capture the breadth and dynamism of their life story.
Mishra and I have made a conscientious effort to include narrators from diverse backgrounds and age groups, with our youngest participant aged 21 and our oldest at age 91. Depending on the preference of the narrators, the interviews have been conducted in English and Nepali, with Mishra conducting the Nepali oral histories while I conducted the ones in English.
Additionally, Mishra and I recognize that gender is an important consideration in the interview process. As men, we are sensitive to how both men and women interact with us, and we are aware of the limits and privileges that our position as men affords us. Our goal in the future is to enlist a woman to conduct interviews and include more women and gender non-binary individuals as narrators.
Currently, we are in the process of transcribing and translating the interviews that have been collected. We will be hiring a native Nepali speaker who is able to understand different dialects and the history and geography of Bhutan to transcribe the interviews. The objective is to deposit the oral histories at the NMAH’s Archives Center where they will be stored and made available to the public for research and educational purposes.
In addition to the oral histories, narrators have also donated three-dimensional objects to the museum to accompany their stories. These objects include clothing and objects used in refugee camps, immigration documents, and personal photos, among other things. Together, these deeply personal objects will provide a visual history of the experiences of displacement, migration, and resettlement that words cannot always communicate.
Our goal for the future is to continue collecting more oral histories to develop a richer documentation of the multi-faced dimensions of the Bhutanese experience and to involve more community members to assist in co-curating the collection at the NMAH. I am most grateful for all the commitment and effort that has been contributed by narrators and those who have facilitated meetings and assisted with this project. I hope that readers and many more members of the Bhutanese diaspora will continue sharing their stories with NMAH and the public.
Dr. Sam Vong is the project director of the Bhutanese Refugee Oral History Project at the Smithsonian’s NMAH. He received his Ph.D. in History at Yale University. Prior to working at the Smithsonian, he was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Editor’s note — This piece has been simultaneously published here and at the Bhutan Jagaran monthly.