A refugee from Bhutan vanishes from her new life

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 15, 2011

They came to America looking for hope, after fleeing persecution in their native Bhutan. They came after enduring 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where the family of seven shared a cramped bamboo hut with a plastic roof that rattled in the wind and a dirt floor that muddied in the rains.

They thought they were leaving despair behind when they were resettled into a Prince George’s County apartment complex with a security gate and swimming pool less than a year ago.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Now one of them is missing.

Abi Maya Sarki, 24, vanished July 25 after working the night shift at a Riverdale Park McDonald’s, where she knew enough McEnglish to navigate her way through Quarter Pounders and meal-deal menus.

“She was nice and a hard worker. So we hired two more people from her country,” an assistant manager told me.

Four workers gasped when I walked in this week and showed them Abi’s picture. They were certain that I was coming with bad news.

There was no drama surrounding her work life. No one knew of a boyfriend or rowdy group of friends or a stalker. The woman with exquisite cheekbones, cappuccino skin and waist-long hair straight as silk threads was quiet and unassuming.

“Nothing. All of a sudden, she was just gone,” the manager said.

County police are investigating, although they haven’t found any evidence of foul play.

After she finished work, Abi slept and then made half of the family’s meal in the morning — just the rice. One of her four siblings — two sisters and two brothers — or her mother would finish the rest. They’d make the vegetables with turmeric or chili or cardamom, a fragrant, spicy mix that wafts through the apartment building.

There are about 50 Bhutanese refugee families in the Parkview Gardens Apartments in Riverdale.

Most of them are Lhotshampas, who fled Bhutan after thousands were imprisoned and tortured by the government, according to Amnesty International.

Abi and her siblings were very young when their family escaped. Her youngest brother, who goes to high school in Greenbelt, was born in the camps.

Here they have been plunged into a strange world of ATMs, SmarTrip cards, mobile phones, apartment contracts and McGriddle specials. In the United States, few people have heard of Bhutan.

“Abi was starting to have some regrets about coming to America,” Bhin Maya Sarki, her mother, told me this week through an interpreter, Laxman Dulal.

Bhin has been curled up in their apartment since Abi went missing, taking medication to fight the overwhelming fear that she brought her family to a place more dangerous than the one she fled. Her husband died just seven months before they came to this country.

“Abi was happy when we got here but became a little depressed when she realized how tough life can be here,” Bhin told me.

The other children all put in hours working at a food-prep facility in Savage, where they prepare the macaroni salad that you buy at a grocery store deli. But with her navy blue uniform and regular schedule at McDonald’s, Abi was the primary breadwinner for the family.

The morning she was last seen, she was supposed to be heading to an appointment that she had made with her refugee case manager at the International Rescue Committee. She had her mobile phone with her but left behind her bank card, identity card and papers, purse, favorite clothes and about $800.

From that phone, she called her case manager and canceled the appointment. Then she called her sister, Oma, 21, and ostensibly lied, telling her that she was safely at the rescue committee’s office in Silver Spring.

And that was it.

“It was like she was freeing herself up that day to do something that, maybe, her family didn’t know about,” said Dulal, who has been an advocate for the family.

Since then, her phone has not been used. Her credit cards and the $1,000 in her Bank of America checking account haven’t been touched.

“We can’t imagine where she is. If she’s in a room where someone is holding her, where she can’t get to a phone,” Oma said with help from Dulal. “We just don’t know.”

Her family was horrified when a Prince George’s police detective came by to collect some of Abi’s clothing a couple of days ago.

But Cpl. Evan Baxter, a department spokesman, said it’s a standard, precautionary measure to have DNA samples read in case a Jane Doe is found and they want to run tests. So far, there is no evidence that the DNA will be needed.

“The detective is still pursuing any and all leads to the fullest,” Baxter said. “But right now, all of the signs are pointing the detective to believe that the missing person left all on her own.”

Bhin doesn’t believe her daughter would just leave them. “We had a good relationship, genuine,” she said.

Abi’s disappearance is huge news in the Bhutanese community.

“Even people in the camps in Nepal are hearing about this,” Dulal told me. “They are wondering about coming to America. This place where a woman can just disappear.”

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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