Covering Bhutanese Refugees in America

Saturday blog: A reporter’s notebook


Bhutanese siblings Dilli Prasad Odari, 20, Man Maya Odari, 25, Yani Maya Odari, 22, stand in the doorway of their Pittsburgh apartment. Pic by Andy Starnes/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Deepak Adhikari

On the chilly winter mornings in Kathmandu, I would nurture a dream. It was not an American Dream per se. But it was in many ways related to America and somehow connected with American Dream. I was gearing up for my maiden tour to America to participate on Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships. And, an interesting development was taking place with a beat I was attached to in Nepal. I had covered the Bhutanese refugee issue for my magazine, writing cover story, visiting the camps and talking to the refugees, watching closely Bhutan’s elections.

The offer for resettlement from US and six other western countries- Canada, Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway-to resettle nearly one hundred thousand of them (US alone 60,000), had triggered a rift among refugees (those favoring and opting for third country resettlement and opposing it).

Sipping tea in a dusty roadside cafe near my office in downtown Kathmandu, I would talk with T P Mishra, an editor at the Bhutan News Service, about covering the refugees even in the US. When I was preparing for my maiden voyage to US in early March, the first batch of Bhutanese refugees had already left Nepal. I was flying on March 12, 2008. At that time, the dream seemed farfetched.

Little did I know that a group of about 25 Bhutanese refugees will be my co-passengers. As I was queuing up on the immigration at the Tribhuvan International Airport for the evening Dragon Air flight to Hong Kong, I heard an official say: “Refugees this line please.” When I turned my head toward the source of the voice, I saw more than two dozen nicely dressed men, women and children making a beeline. After furnishing with the information required by the immigration official, I headed to the last security checking at the airport. The refugees were sitting there in a row of chairs; excited about their new life but a little worried about the journey.

I watched their every move. A white man and a Nepali guy were briefing them on their flights. I sat near them, projecting an image of a relaxed passenger while suppressing my journalistic instincts. As any reporter trying to figure out the best person among many in a group to talk to, I was looking out for such a reliable person. And that is how I struck a conversation with Tika Ram Chhetri, a Bhutanese refugee heading for New Zealand (All of them were flying to New Zealand after a seven hour transit in Hong Kong). I asked Tika Ram, a former teacher, about his destination, his expectations and how he felt about the resettlement, after those 17 tough years in the camps.

Then came the shouting from the Nepali lad. First he scolded Tika Ram: Why are you speaking to him? I have told you not to speak to strangers. Don’t do it next time. Now it was my turn: Who are you? I said: I’m a passenger. There was no way I could have revealed my identity because I knew very well how International Organization for Migration (IOM) that was screening and transporting the refugees, was keeping mum about any information on resettlement. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps they wanted to promote a culture of secrecy that pervades these organizations.

Nevertheless, I was able to note down his email address (He communicated with me from Auckland, New Zealand). In Washington, DC, just before departing for our respective newsrooms, I showed a list of potential story ideas to Samuel Siringi, a Fellow from Kenya. “They are good story ideas. But see how you can relate issues of Nepal and Bhutan to your host city–Pittsburgh–if the ideas are to be accepted,” he had said, sounding authoritative and a little disappointing to me.

I did not give up. I kept on pursuing for the Bhutanese even in Pittsburgh. When I discussed the issue with a Nepali friend in Pittsburgh, he remarked that he had heard of their arrival in Pittsburgh. He turned his laptop on, signed in a gmail account and showed me that Catholic Charities, a resettlement agency in Pittsburgh, had contacted the Nepali community in Pittsburgh, looking for translators. Lo and behold, I got the contacts! I returned to my apartment, realizing that my dream was coming true.

But I had to wait for a month before I would be allowed to meet three young Bhutanese—Yani Maya Odari, Man Maya Oadri and Dilli Oadri (see pic) who hadn’t seen a Nepali in a month or so. Later, they would dwell upon how difficult it was for them to live in an alien surrounding, feeling cut off from their loved ones. I wrote the story for the Post-Gazette for which I received several responses, from Nepal, at the Post-Gazette newsroom and from Nepalis in US.

Recently, I wrote a follow up piece for which, among others, I am thankful to Thomas Huang, an Ethics and Diversity Fellow at Poynter Institute. Tom was the coach for me in our mid-term seminar at the Poynter. He went through my pieces and suggested to me ways to improve my reporting and writing. He taught me a technique called “fly on the wall” in which the reporter, like a fly on the wall, observes the character and takes notes. Some journalists call the technique immersion journalism.

Tom has remarked that on that part, I have succeeded but there’s a long was to go. I need to write more precisely. Tom in his email says: “You know how to report by observation now. The next step is to be even more precise. I don’t mean that you should write more sentences — I mean that you should choose the more precise words.” I am grateful to him for being such a great mentor.

On a lighter note, recently I received a memento from David Shribman, executive editor of the Post-Gazette. It is a slightly large laminated copy of the front page of Post-Gazette’s magazine section that had my Bhutanese story. I was among a dozen journalists (many of them interns) commemorated for their work this summer. David remarked he learned a lot about Nepal from me. I was stunned and embarrassed!

Deepak Adhikari, a UWB blogger and Nepal Weekly reporter is working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow.

Related links:

1. Voices of Exile: Bhutanese Refugees

2. From Bhutan to the Bronx

3. Bhutanese refugees make St. Louis home

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18 thoughts on “Covering Bhutanese Refugees in America”

  1. From one point of view, settling the refugees to some third countries will solve the refugee problem to some extent. But what about the unlucky ones who did not have the luck to go to these countries. Who is going to take responsibility?

    The only best solution would be, settling them to where they belong, i.e., their homeland Bhutan. By this, I don’t oppose them being settled to some third country.

    Deepak ji, work well done.

    Cheers.

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  2. Nepal should have provided its land (just like Kind Mahendra provided border land for Burmese refugees when they were thrown out from Burma) for Bhutanese refugees after all they speak Nepali language and look nepali. If Nepal had dealt with this issues tactfully then there wouldn’t be a problem presently Nepalese people are facing this “Ek Madesh Ek Pradesh”. But what can we do,…all the nepalese have to board in Foreign country and we are short of population. The Madeshi population is growing,,,,that would be a very big problem in near future.

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  3. King Mahendra welcomed all the Nepalese from Burma and helped them to resettle in Nepal. He told them to spend sweat in Nepal instead of blood in the foreign land. Whereas Nepalese from Bhutan were used as political football and cash cow by the politicians from Nepal. They suffered a lot in Nepal and I am happy for them that they are going to make their lives better in the foreign country again.

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  4. The only two people were beneficiary – INDIA and “Made” (businessmen in Nepal) and thirdly, Nepali government. Losers were local nepali people from surroundings.

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  5. I was talking about the monetary assistant received from UNHCR , WFP, and other developed countries. Eventhough the funds were available to help Nepalese Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal, these refugees were forced to live like animals. Most of the money went elsewhere.

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  6. id,

    that’s something else. yes, that’s true, many nepalese people used Bhutanese names in order to get a status and remain in foreign countries like Belgium, Germany, UK, Portugal etc.etc.

    And that happened because we all are hungry because of instability government.

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  7. Very nice piece of writing. Being a Bhutanese, I do feel sympathy for these poor people. I am relieved the issue is being resolved.

    “The U.S. has offered to resettle 60,000 … Six other nations — Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, New Zealand and Denmark — have offered to resettle 10,000 each.” CNN

    The number offered in the re-settlement is higher than the current population of the camps.

    If everything goes smoothly without interference from the communist party in Nepal, every single Nepali refugee will have a new home.

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  8. Hi Drukstylz,
    Thank you for your comment on Deepak’s article specially being a Bhutanese. And on your comment, there is my small comment that Bhutanese refugees were not poor when they were in Bhutan. They were forced to become poor. And, other, they are not Nepali refugees. They are Bhutanese refugees.

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  9. Hmmm..very strange. Those people don’t really look like Bhutanese at all. Everyone know Bhutanese looks like Thai, Chinese and Burmese, Not like the dark looking people up there. heheh… I guess they did a good job of fooling all those white people.

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  10. Hey Ap Jaybom,

    Yeah real Bhutanese should look like Tibetans because your ancestors came from Tibet.. Southern Bhutanese should not look like Tibetans either because South Bhutan has always been inhabited by people of Nepalese ethnicity.

    Tell me how is an American supposed to look like ???

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  11. not always.. priti dear. The first wave of Nepali migrants where brought over in the 50s to clear the jungle. Their decendants still remail in Bhutan today and prosper with the other Bhutanese groups.

    However, starting in the 1980s, southern Bhutan started getting swamped by illegal migrants from Nepal. This group however was different. Having lived most of their Nepal in Nepal, they were used anarchaic and corrupt ways.They tried to bring corrupt and anarchaic ways of holding protest rallys every day. They were more interested in raising their hands and shouting hollow slogans rather than working the land making a decent living.

    Thanks to some strong willed Bhutanese official, these savages were driven out never to be let in again.

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  12. Victims of circumstances always remain victimized. Bhutanese refugees are fresh sweet carcasses and the the vultures all over the world gather around them to get a delicious lump out of it. Many feel it but only a few have sense because they are as if non living. A few may understand what I mean but the ones who really have the sense of understanding will not let it go without being understood. Innocents came here with a great hope and their hopes have turned out to be just fishy dreams. All their faces have networks of various frustrations and because of these many decided to submit their lives to the cruel jaws of the evil death. The persons from whom we expected a lot because they are our bones and blood turned out to be just nothing but the dangerous parasites just sucking the frozen blood of the dead carcasses.
    Anyway we need to live because the parasites have to survive because of us.

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  13. Hey aap jaybom? Your name seems fantastic and the truth that you try to reflect seems very fascinating. Where did you learn the history? Are you the lecturer in Sherubtse? I think you need to give this lecture to some of the world”s renowned universities. You seem like that chick which has been hatched out of the foul egg. I am sorry if I am too harsh. Ask that rogue who is in the grave Why who took nepali to Bhutan? Don’t let him enjoy the sleep in the hell.

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