Invisible Bhutanese Communities in My Own Backyard

Victoria Headshot

Vic­to­ria Meaney
Program/Policy Fel­low
SAALT

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