Bhutanese Refugees in America: Survival of the fittest


A five year old girl, who belongs to the Bhutanese refugee community, comes back from school and goes out to play in the neighborhood. She lives with her family in a small town in the USA and goes to elementary school. Outgoing and talkative, she enjoys school and has many friends. She is one of the many Bhutanese refugees who have come to America in the hopes of having a better life. Until a few months ago, she didn’t know any English, but after having started going to school, she can speak fluently. One can’t help but smile at how cute her American accent sounds. Her younger brother who is 4 years old and hasn’t started school as yet, tries to imitate his sister as he fumbles with his words. It won’t come as a surprise when he will start speaking English fluently in a few months time.

It is hard to imagine these innocent children living in harsh conditions in the camps in Nepal. From their huts being blazed down by fire, a number of burglaries of what little they possessed, to children and women being susceptible to rape and sexual harassment; they have faced it all in the refugee camps. Thanks to the government of America who accepted her family and thousands of other such families into the country, children like her now have a hope for a brighter future with proper education and proper living conditions provided to them.

Children who come to America at such a young age find it easier to adapt to the American ways of life as compared to their older siblings and much older family members or relatives. Kids in their teens usually start going to school or universities and look for part-time jobs to help their families with the financial burden. Those who had the opportunity to get education in the refugee camps in Nepal or back in Bhutan have a pretty good command over the English language, so it is easier for them to get jobs and communicate with the Americans. For the rest of the refugees who have very little or no knowledge of the language, it is a bit problematic. For instance, at the other end of the country, down south in Dallas, Texas an old couple go to take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes a couple of days every week. At an age when they are slowly getting senile, they struggle with learning new words. At their age, employment is not an issue for them. However, they often reminisce about their relatives and friends who are back in Nepal or Bhutan and miss the lives led before coming to the States.

There are many NGO’s helping them with adjusting to American life. These organizations help them with all aspects of life ranging from finding suitable apartments, helping people get enrolled in schools, colleges or universities and giving them information about financial aid to helping them with health care and medical insurance, finding jobs, giving them food stamps etc. The first few days after their arrival in America, they are given a general orientation by the organizations that helped them come to the States. After that, they are assigned Case Managers who helps each family according to their needs and the families also get a more detailed personal orientation about life in America. What would seem like petty things to an American or those who have some knowledge about America, is a totally new concept for the refugees. Things like how to use the microwave, washing machine, vending machine or dialing 911 in case of an emergency are all new concepts for the refugees and they have to be taught everything from scratch. It is an obvious fact that the younger generation finds it easier to learn all these things as compared to the older generation. Most of the young are fascinated by the American culture and like to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving as much as they like Dashain and Tihar. However, it’s a different story for the elderly. After having lived most of their lives in Nepal and Bhutan, having to adapt to a completely different culture when their lives are almost coming to an end, is quite a daunting task for them. Although they receive the material comforts of life here, they miss their cultural heritage.

This is not to say the refugees aren’t grateful towards the US for accepting them into the country. While children can recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” by heart after having learnt it in schools, older refugees learn about the President, The White House and about all the 50 states of the country at ESL classes. It is quite amazing to see 70+ aged men and women, who had never received any kind of education in their lifetime and with no prior knowledge of the English language or America, being able to respond correctly to questions such as “Who is the President of the United States?” and “Which State do you live in?” It is really heartwarming to see the effort they are putting in to become citizens of the US after being stripped of their citizenships in Bhutan and having lived as refugees in camps in Nepal for over 18 years. While some of them are not able to learn at all, which is absolutely understandable at their age, some do manage to learn the things they are taught.

Even though the Bhutanese refugees are scattered among all the 50 states of the country, they all face similar struggles. The fight for survival continues on a daily basis. But no matter what they go through, they are glad that they finally found a place where they belong, a place that they can call their own. Although they do face many hardships in life, there’s one thing they can be sure of – they will never have to worry about living as refugees ever again.


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