Invisible Bhutanese Communities in My Own Backyard

Victoria Headshot

Vic­to­ria Meaney
Program/Policy Fel­low

I have lived in the state of Mary­land my entire life. I attend­ed school in Mont­gomery Coun­ty from ele­men­tary through high school, and attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, Col­lege Park in Prince George’s coun­ty. Yet, I still had no idea that there is a sig­nif­i­cant Bhutanese pop­u­la­tion in this state, both in Prince George’s and Bal­ti­more coun­ties – until recent­ly.

On Jan­u­ary 15, 2014, I attend­ed a brief­ing host­ed by the Asian & Pacif­ic Islander Amer­i­can Schol­ar­ship Fund (APIASF), at which the orga­ni­za­tion released a report enti­tled Invis­i­ble New­com­ers: Refugees from Burma/Myanmar and Bhutan in the Unit­ed States. This exten­sive report cov­ered the his­to­ry of refugees from Burma/Myanmar and Bhutan, their migra­tion pat­terns before set­tling in the US, and their set­tle­ment process­es upon arriv­ing in the US.

The report sup­plies an in-depth his­to­ry of how many of the Bhutanese have become refugees. For both refugee groups, polit­i­cal unrest began in their home coun­tries, pre­dom­i­nate­ly because of eth­nic ten­sions. Many Nepalis had migrat­ed to Bhutan, and became known as Lhot­sham­pas, or “Peo­ple from the South.” These Nepali immi­grants were large­ly Hin­du and set­tled in Bud­dhist Bhutan. By 1958, Bhutanese laws had come into effect that pre­vent­ed the Lhot­sham­pas from main­tain­ing cit­i­zen­ship and teach­ing the Nepali lan­guage. In the late 1980s, demon­stra­tions on behalf of human rights and democ­ra­cy had begun, and demon­stra­tors were being arrest­ed and tor­tured. As a result of this per­se­cu­tion, by 1992, more than 100,000 Lhot­sham­pas had fled to Nepal, where the UNHCR had estab­lished refugee camps. It wasn’t until 2007 that refugees began to set­tle in the US, and by 2011 the Bhutanese refugee pop­u­la­tion had risen to 26%. For those that came here, the US was the third coun­try in which refugees have lived – begin­ning in their home coun­tries, then relo­cat­ing to a refugee camp in anoth­er coun­try, and final­ly set­tling in the US.

How­ev­er, upon set­tling in Amer­i­ca, the strug­gle for Bhutanese com­mu­ni­ties has con­tin­ued – they con­tin­ue to face numer­ous bar­ri­ers here as well. For exam­ple, refugees are pro­vid­ed gov­ern­men­tal assis­tance for a lim­it­ed amount of time, such as cash assis­tance for eight months, lim­it­ed access to med­ical ser­vices, Eng­lish lan­guage class­es, and employ­ment sup­port ser­vices. As a result, many Bhutanese have to fig­ure out how to make their lives and homes quick­ly in order to sur­vive. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, for a refugee who comes here with lim­it­ed Eng­lish pro­fi­cien­cy and no pre­vi­ous for­mal edu­ca­tion, over­com­ing these bar­ri­ers is a long-term process. Refugees require the nec­es­sary resources and ser­vices to ful­ly allow them to suc­ceed, but the ser­vices need to real­is­ti­cal­ly address the bar­ri­ers that refugees face, and should be acces­si­ble as they are need­ed. Because two of the main bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ing access to ser­vices and self-suf­fi­cient include lan­guage bar­ri­ers and job train­ing, these areas espe­cial­ly must be devel­oped in order to bet­ter accom­mo­date the needs of refugees.

Orga­ni­za­tions such as the Asso­ci­a­tion of Bhutanese in Amer­i­ca work to help refugees APIASF Bhutanese Reportbecome accus­tomed to liv­ing in Amer­i­ca, but it is not easy. In 2011, the Wash­ing­ton Post wrote a few arti­cles on Bhutanese refugees when they first start­ed migrat­ing to Prince George’s Coun­ty, Mary­land in large groups. They inter­viewed indi­vid­u­als such as Lax­man Dulal and Khar­nan­da Rizal. Dulal, an employ­ee of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Bhutanese in Amer­i­ca works with his wife Maya Mishra to host lessons for refugees to help them learn how to sup­port them­selves in Mary­land. Even for those that do find a job, many of them are the sole providers for their fam­i­lies, which makes it dif­fi­cult to make ends meet. Rizal under­stands this strug­gle, as he start­ed a board­ing school in Nepal almost twen­ty years ago, but is now work­ing at a gas sta­tion and car­ing for three chil­dren in the US, while his wife is still in Nepal.

APIASF has made pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions in order to bet­ter help sup­port refugees com­ing into the US. Some of these rec­om­men­da­tions include:

  • Mod­i­fy­ing and inten­si­fy­ing arrival ori­en­ta­tions and var­i­ous train­ings to more real­is­ti­cal­ly pre­pare refugees for the cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties of US soci­ety
  • Extend­ing the length of time that adult refugees may be sup­port­ed with social ser­vices and Eng­lish lan­guage edu­ca­tion
  • Cre­at­ing self-help orga­ni­za­tions in order for refugees to have access to resources
  • Pro­vid­ing job trainings/development in order to help refugees to find per­ma­nent work posi­tions
  • Pro­vid­ing resources to help par­ents and chil­dren bet­ter under­stand each oth­er dur­ing a dif­fi­cult time such as tran­si­tion

Like all immi­grants, refugee com­mu­ni­ties need a safe­ty net, wel­com­ing com­mu­ni­ties, and access to basic ser­vices and ben­e­fits in order to thrive in our coun­try. As mem­bers of immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, we need to sup­port those that have had to leave their homes in oth­er coun­tries to come here. We need to advo­cate for the bet­ter inte­gra­tion of refugees into US soci­ety through improved access and sup­port ser­vices. How­ev­er, in order to sup­port and advo­cate with these com­mu­ni­ties, we must know they exist, we must under­stand the bar­ri­ers, and we must help cre­ate solu­tions. Every­one deserves the resources and tools nec­es­sary to help them best suc­ceed, so that they are no longer the invis­i­ble com­mu­ni­ties in our back­yards.

Vic­to­ria Meaney
Program/Policy Fel­low
South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er, SAALT

Deepa Iyer, Strategic Advisor

Deepa Iyer Headshot 2013Deepa Iyer, for­mer­ly the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT), Deepa has been a civ­il and immi­grant rights advo­cate for 15 years. An immi­grant who moved to the Unit­ed States when she was twelve, Deepa has devot­ed her pro­fes­sion­al career to research, analy­sis, and advo­ca­cy on issues such as race and race rela­tions, immi­gra­tion, the post 9/11 envi­ron­ment, lan­guage rights and access, cen­sus, polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and vot­ing rights.

Pri­or to her nine-year tenure at SAALT, Deepa served as Legal Direc­tor of the Asian Pacif­ic Amer­i­can Legal Resource Cen­ter; Tri­al Attor­ney at the Civ­il Rights Divi­sion of the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice; and Staff Attor­ney at the Asian Amer­i­can Jus­tice Cen­ter.

Deep­a’s writ­ing has been fea­tured in the New York Times, New Jer­sey Star-Ledger, Detroit Free Press and Huff­in­g­ton Post. She served as guest edi­tor of Field Notes from the 9–11 Moment, an aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal, and was the Exec­u­tive Pro­duc­er of a 26-minute doc­u­men­tary about hate vio­lence which has been screened at col­lege cam­pus­es, con­fer­ences, and film fes­ti­vals.

She cur­rent­ly serves in a con­sult­ing role as SAALT’s Strate­gic Advi­sor, teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, is at work on a book about the chang­ing racial land­scape in Amer­i­ca, and tries to keep up with her 4 year old. Fol­low Deepa @dviyer, vis­it her web­site at, and con­tact her at


Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director

suman_raghunathan_019-_019-__Suman Raghunathan, SAALT’s Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, joined the orga­ni­za­tion in Feb­ru­ary 2014. As Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Suman coor­di­nates SAALT’s over­all efforts to ampli­fy diverse South Asian voic­es advo­cat­ing for pro­gres­sive change in the US. This includes devel­op­ing, togeth­er with SAALT staff and Board of Direc­tors, a vision for the orga­ni­za­tion, work­ing close­ly with SAALT’s stake­hold­ers, and expand­ing the resources nec­es­sary to imple­ment that vision. Suman is a pas­sion­ate and sea­soned immi­grant rights advo­cate with exten­sive expe­ri­ence on the range of issues addressed by SAALT, deep con­nec­tions to South Asian com­mu­ni­ties, and rela­tion­ships with key part­ners in the racial jus­tice and immi­grant rights move­ments. She has long­stand­ing expe­ri­ence in lead­ing non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, hav­ing first served as Inter­im Exec­u­tive Direc­tor and then as a long-time mem­ber of the Board of Direc­tors of Chhaya Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, one of SAALT’s com­mu­ni­ty part­ners.

The daugh­ter of Indi­an immi­grants, Suman has a keen under­stand­ing of the issues affect­ing South Asian and oth­er immi­grants in the Unit­ed States. She has deep expe­ri­ence con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing and coor­di­nat­ing mul­ti­fac­eted and mul­ti-issue cam­paigns that span numer­ous pro­pos­als and stake­hold­ers, and assem­bling the coali­tions crit­i­cal to advanc­ing them. Through her work at orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, Pro­gres­sive States Net­work, and the New York Immi­gra­tion Coali­tion, Suman has devel­oped exper­tise on pol­i­cy issues, direct­ed immi­grant lead­er­ship devel­op­ment pro­grams, launched new­com­er civic engage­ment cam­paigns, and imple­ment­ed capac­i­ty-build­ing and advo­ca­cy cam­paigns.  Suman has been quot­ed numer­ous times in The New York Times and has appeared on the ‘PBS New­sHour’ and MSNBC’s ‘Up with Chris Hayes’ as well as Nation­al Pub­lic Radio, Al Jazeera Eng­lish, and Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Reporting’s Coun­ter­SPIN;  her Op-Eds have appeared in The Nation, The Mia­mi Her­ald, Sacra­men­to Bee, and The Hill, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions.  Suman is also the recip­i­ent of numer­ous awards, includ­ing the 2015 Civ­il Rights Award for SAALT’s work on hate vio­lence from Brook­lyn Dis­trict Attor­ney Ken Thomp­son, and a 2014 Open Soci­ety Foun­da­tion New Exec­u­tives Fund award.

To reach Suman, please e‑mail her at