“For the sake of identity, I would say Bhutan,” says Dulal, who is tall and wears his American T-shirt and jeans comfortably. “In fact, it is a big challenge for us to say, ‘Who am I?’ ”
Dulal came to the United States four years ago. He and his family were some of the first refugees from Bhutan to be resettled in Riverdale in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, by the International Rescue Committee. The original exodus from his home country followed what Dulal describes as an “ethnic cleansing,” perpetrated by a Buddhist regime intent on driving out Hindu citizens.
Dulal says his own father, a literate businessman and leader in their small agricultural town in Bhutan, was taken to prison for nine months and tortured.
“The government wanted to know what is going on in this community,” Dulal says of the reasons for his father’s torture. “He was released under terms that he would leave the country in seven days.”
Bhutan is small, roughly the size of Maryland itself, and nestled between China, India and Nepal. Close to third of the country’s population resettled in refugee camps in Nepal in the early 1990s, where many of them spent the next 20 years. Starting in 2008, 50,000 refugees were resettled in the United States from the camps, with about 75 families settling in the same gated apartment complex, Parkvew Gardens, in Riverdale.
Dulal, who went to college in India and speaks English well, is an employee of the Association of Bhutanese in America. It’s his job to ensure that the refugees, many of whom speak minimal English, learn how to use the bus system and know where to go to buy groceries
“People don’t have a sense of much responsibility,” he says. “They have dependency syndrome. People have been living in these camps for so many years—it takes them a couple of years to get rid of those syndromes.”
Dulal, who lives elsewhere, says that he makes a trip to Parkview Gardens almost every day. On Sunday mornings, he and his wife, Maya Mishra, teach some of the older refugees, who range from middle-aged to elderly, how to speak English.
‘My name is…’
It’s raining steadily on this particular Sunday morning, and because of this, Mishra says that many of the students may not come today. Nevertheless, she and Dulal pull folding chairs from a stack resting against the wall and set them up in neat rows facing the front of the room, where a small whiteboard is propped up on a folding table.
The class is held in a small community room in the apartment complex, so the students don’t have far to travel. One by one, they trickle in, folding their hands together and murmuring “Namaste” by way of greeting. One woman carries her notebook and pencil in a crumpled, plastic McDonald’s bag. All are dressed in brightly colored traditional clothing, punctuated, here and there, by a few too-big sport coats and bomber jackets.