Bhutan, a small country between China and India, is known to the world as the land of happiness, and the only country in the world to rank gross national happiness above gross domestic product. But what many people don’t know is that, in the early 1990s, one-sixth of its population was forced to leave their homeland under King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s policies of ethnic cleansing.
I was one of those refugees.
In May 1992, I fled Bhutan with my parents and thousands of other Bhutanese citizens to India and eventually to Nepal. We knew nothing about where we were headed, and we left behind almost everything we owned. I took with me only my education transcripts and my dream that, with hard work, I could build a future for myself and my family.
For a long time, we could think only of survival. In the beginning, some 40,000 of us lived on a riverbank in eastern Nepal. Every day, I saw young children die as they succumbed to hunger, diarrhea, malnutrition and cholera. But amid tragedy, there was also hope.
The local Nepalese people united to help us, collecting food and medicine and offering us shelter. I started teaching at a local school and eventually worked as a house servant, washing pots and doing chores. With my first small salary, I bought a new sari for my mother and half a liter of milk. It was nothing compared to what we had left — the lush fields of cardamom and the orange orchards and the livestock we had owned. But it was something. It was a new beginning.
In January 1993, my landlady invited me to watch television in her living room. She turned on the inaugural address of President Bill Clinton. As he talked about freedom and equality, I realized that my people’s cause was also America’s cause. So many people I knew had been imprisoned, tortured, robbed or killed by the Bhutanese government — simply because they were different.
There, in that house that day, I started dreaming an American dream, and I knew that education would be the key. I enrolled in college in western Nepal. At the same time, my brother and I, with the help of some generous local people, started a school that became one of the largest schools in the district and promoted the importance of equal education for girls and boys.
Eventually, I obtained two master’s degrees and began working with Peace Corps volunteers, training English teachers. I was honored by the Nepalese government for my contributions to education, but I was still a refugee; while my life had improved substantially over the 19 years I had lived in Nepal, myself, my parents and my people still lived in the refugee camps.
One night, our camp caught fire. I carried my 93-year-old father and my mother to safety, but everything we had burned to ashes. With no hope of repatriation to Bhutan or local integration, I knew I needed to leave Nepal.
I was resettled under the third country refugee resettlement program in the United States. It was not an easy decision; I had to leave behind my elderly parents, not knowing when or if I would see them again. I fit all my belongings into two small bags and began my new life, committed that I would live every day in the U.S. as if it were a new day.
Today, I am a community resource developer for Bethany Christian Services of Greater Delaware Valley in Jenkintown, Montgomery County. I serve newly arrived unaccompanied refugee youths, providing them with a continuum of care that ranges from meeting them at the airport to arranging for their care with loving families and providing for all their needs, from medical and dental services to education, tutoring, life skills and more.
My 100-year-old father also lives in Pennsylvania. More than 25 years ago, he was thrown out of Bhutan because he looked different and practiced a different faith. Here, however, he was welcomed.
Refugees like myself, my father and those I serve in my job are real people with real stories. They are families and individuals fleeing tragedy in search of a chance at rebuilding their lives.
Through Bethany and other organizations, this country has the infrastructure and resources in place to accept more refugees. But because the refugee cap now stands at a historic low of only 30,000 this year, these resources are not being utilized. I urge you to advocate for a higher refugee ceiling for 2020.
When we lift our voices, we can collectively advance policies that save lives, give a home to the most vulnerable and keep families together. If you want to help refugees in your community, you can become a temporary foster parent for refugee children,engage your church, or volunteer to mentor a refugee in your area.
Every refugee has a story worth listening to. While we may look different, speak different languages or practice different faiths, hardship has bred in us the same hope, determination and work ethic that led to the founding of this beautiful country.
And we come with the same dream — a desire to find a home, to belong.
Madap Sharma lives in Jenkintown.