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After 16 Years in a Refugee Camp, Bhutanese Find a Home in Chicago

Nov. 24, 2008

Story by Jessica Rosenberg

On a dark October night in 1992, six-year-old Bishnu Khatiwada and his family arrived at their new home: a Nepalese refugee camp. The lack of electricity at the newly established compound made the Himalayan night that much darker.

He remembers the eight-hour bus ride through India and upon their arrival, the sight of a singular gas-burning lamp shining in the blackness. Except for that light, he couldn’t see anything around him — not the tall, scrubby trees surrounding the camp or the snowy peaks in the distance.

Too young to remember his native Bhutan or the tiny country’s sudden shift toward nationalism and the violence that followed, Khatiwada has only distant memories of the day his parents told him it was time to leave home. They didn’t tell him why or where they were going.

Bishnu Khatiwada, left, with his brother Durga and sister Pabrita

“It was like going on an adventure,” remembers the now 22-year-old, his thick accent masking his perfect English.

Khatiwada was the first of his family to arrive to Chicago this March. His parents and siblings followed in July. They are among the 60,000 Bhutanese refugees the United States is offering to resettle within its borders, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But for 16 years Khatiwada and his family lived in Beldagi II, one of Nepal’s seven refugee camps. There are more than 107,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, according to the UNHCR.

“The government virtually expelled the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese,” said Merrill Smith, director of government relations at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “There was mob violence and family’s homes were burned down.”

Landlocked between China and India, Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist country. In the late 1980s, the government took away the citizenship of the rising Hindu minority — the Lhotshampas — in southern Bhutan.

Khatiwada and his family, like other Lhotshampas, are of Nepali descent and were prohibited from practicing their traditional customs, speaking their native languages and attending school. In the early 1990s, amidst the arbitrary imprisonment and torture of protestors, thousands of Bhutanese fled to Nepal.

Sitting cross-legged in his family’s drafty Roger’s Park living room, Khatiwada wears jeans, a gray long-sleeve shirt and a black puffy coat. He chuckles when he says that American students call him “westernized.” He talks about speaking to high school students recently about Bhutanese culture, as he checks his cell phone.

Khatiwada’s mom, Bhima, enters with a tray of creamy, sweet spiced tea. She wears a white, knit winter hat and has a large, golden stud in her thin nose.

Khatiwada and his dad, Tara, comment on the increased amount of coffee they now drink. The loud conversation of the next-door neighbors is audible through the bare, white walls.

“I don’t like Starbucks coffee,” he says, with a wince and a quick head shake, his shiny, black hair falling in wisps over his forehead. “It’s too bitter. That’s why I drink Dunkin’ Donuts. But [Starbucks] hot chocolate… it is so good.”

Despite Khatiwada’s identity as a refugee, he’s like most 22-year-olds. He surfs the web, considers getting his bachelor’s degree, likes to play guitar — especially Bad Company and Brian Adams. He has a job setting up banquet rooms at the Peninsula Hotel.

“He was the quickest [refugee] to find employment,” said Joe Carroll, job developer at Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries. The Uptown center is helping the Khatiwada family resettle.

On average, said Carroll, it takes about three to four months for refugees to find employment. But Khatiwada got his after about a month. Carroll attributes Khatiwada’s high English proficiency as “the main factor” in his speedy placement.

“He was already fluent and had the look; he’s young, good looking, friendly — they liked him,” said Carroll.

But the transition from the refugee camp to Chicago wasn’t easy.

“When he came first here,” said his father Tara, in a soft-spoken voice, “I heard that he was scared.”

Carrol met Khatiwada at the airport the day he arrived. Interfaith assists refugees in the resettlement process by finding affordable apartments and filling them with basic furniture and food. But more importantly, they serve as a friendly face for refugees who arrive on their own.

“He was very quiet at first,” said Carroll. “He used to come to the office every day and hang out… he didn’t have the community he was used to. He was the only Bhutanese we had.”

The family decided together that Khatiwada would come to Chicago on his own while the rest of them finalized paperwork in Nepal, said Tara Khatiwada. They decided Khatiwada’s brother, Durga, 20, and his sister Pabrita, 17, were too young.

He knew he had to get a job right away, said Carroll. He was “very good about thinking about responsibility… he knew he had to be the bread winner.”

“Being a refugee is not good,” said Khatiwada. But, he said, with his straight, white teeth beaming, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to start a new life in my new home.”

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