Looking for a Home: A Program on the Bhutanese

A large majority of Americans are pretty much clueless about the refugee ethnic groups that are currently being resettled in our homeland. And there's good reason for that. These men and women often come from small countries and then from even smaller ethnic populations within those countries. We simply never hear about them.

Over the next several months, we'll be sharing profiles of several of the groups that now call Charlotte home. This one was put together by Marybeth, an awesome friend who has chosen to live in the midst of one of these refugee communities.


At a Glance:

  • Country of origin - Bhutan

  • Refugee camp country - Nepal

  • Primary language - Nepali

  • Primary religion(s) - Hindu (some Buddhist, a few Christians)

  • Primary reason for leaving their home country - Ethnic oppression

  • Total number of refugees - Almost 58,000 as of Jan 2012

  • Resettled in Charlotte* - More than 2,200 as of Dec 2012

Bhutan is a small country in south Asia, north of India and Bangladesh and east of Nepal.

Many Americans mistakenly call these people Nepali instead of Bhutanese, and the confusion is understandable.  My neighbors speak Nepali, not Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan). They wear Nepali clothes and practice Nepali cultural customs.  Ask any of them, though, and they will tell you clearly and proudly: they are from Bhutan. Not Nepal.

In the late 1800s, people from Nepal began migrating into the farmland in southern Bhutan.  They didn't have very much contact with the Bhutanese in the north, so they retained their Nepali language, culture and religion.  The cultural differences didn't really cause conflict, though, at least at first, and Bhutan became their home. By the mid-twentieth century, they considered themselves thoroughly Bhutanese—they were simply ethnically Nepali Bhutanese instead of ethnically Bhutanese Bhutanese.

In the 1980s, though, the Bhutanese ruling majority began to feel threatened by the growing number of Nepali-speaking "Lhotsampas" ("People of the South"), and began a campaign of "Bhutanization": they outlawed the Nepali language, instituted dress codes, stripped many of the Nepali-speakers of their citizenship (or refused to recognize that they had ever had it in the first place) and civil rights, and removed them from positions of political and cultural influence.  Protests in the late 1980s and 1990 led to violent encounters between the two groups, and in 1990 tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced to flee the country into Nepal and India.

Since 1990, thousands of Nepali-speakers have been sitting in refugee camps, waiting to be allowed back into Bhutan. If they are ethnically and culturally Nepali, you may ask, why don't they just settle in Nepal?  Two of the simpler reasons in this complex issue:

  1. The Nepali government won't let them integrate (refugees are rarely allowed to leave the camps or hold jobs), and

  2. They don't want to settle in Nepal, because they aren't Nepali.  They're Bhutanese. (Being "American" is a huge part of your identity, right?  This would be roughly like the White House suddenly telling you and all your neighbors that you're not Americans and aren't allowed to live here anymore, because your ancestors came from (we're pretending) Canada a hundred years ago.  Even though Canadians speak English and share some cultural similarities, would you shrug and say "Fine, okay, I'm Canadian now"?)

Unlike many other refugees who know they have left their home countries permanently and are relatively eager to leave camps and resettle, ongoing (yet fruitless) talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan and the UN have left most of the Bhutanese refugees in limbo—with just enough hope that they'll be allowed to return home that they are reluctant to resettle into new countries.  They want to be ready and nearby "when they are allowed back into Bhutan." Many Bhutanese refugees also seem to see third-country resettlement as a political and cultural insult. For them, a return to Bhutan is the only just—and therefore the only acceptable—outcome.

Some of them, of course, are glad to leave the camps for America.  One of my Bhutanese neighbors is my age, and wanted to come—she's excited about learning English and the educational and job opportunities here.  She came, though, with just her aunt. The rest of her family wanted to stay near Bhutan. She doesn't think they'll ever come to join her.

All refugee situations are sad, but something about the Bhutanese story is particularly sad to me.  I think it's the sense of lingering, unrealized hope—it's almost certain that they won't be allowed back into Bhutan, but not certain enough that the hope has really died.  They keep getting told, "maybe soon," which, to me, sounds like the worst place to be. I would rather just be told flat out that I couldn't go back, so I could be free to move on.  Maybe it's my American need for closure.

What I do know?  I know that most of them are farmers (and that they find my lack of agricultural knowledge both appalling and hilarious).  I know that many (although not all) of them are Hindu. I know that many of them have seen and suffered horrible things. I know that many of them find city life overwhelming at times (even though America and Charlotte are usually both "good! [big grin]").  I know that they almost always smile at me and that they love their children and grandchildren.

And I know absolutely for certain from every one of them—limited English or not—that they are Bhutanese.  Not Nepali.



Although I've pieced together this Bhutanese history from several sources, the dates and whatnot above are mostly from Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal, as published by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center (COR Center) in 2007

*A note on resettlement numbers: It's hard to track refugee numbers accurately, because people are often resettled in one city and then quickly move to another city or state to join family, etc. This 2,200 accounts only for those refugees resettled into Charlotte straight from the camps, not those who may have moved here (or away) since.