Invisible Bhutanese Communities in My Own Backyard

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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