Refugees from Bhutan face strange new world of Maryland suburbs

December 17, 2011

As traffic whizzed past them, a group of tiny Asian women in long bright skirts and plastic sandals walked single file along the edge of East-West Highway in Riverdale, headed for the Megamart. Deomaya Dharjmer, 49, led the way, cheerfully determined to conquer her alien new world.

Barely a year ago, she and her friends were living in bamboo and thatch huts in Nepal, waiting for someone to decide their fate. For 18 years, they had languished in crowded U.N. camps, where 100,000 mostly Hindu refugees of Nepalese descent had been driven from next-door Bhutan by a Buddhist regime.

Now, these village women, whisked 10,000 miles west by international refu­gee agencies, are among about 300 Bhutanese starting life anew in an apartment complex in Prince George’s County.

When they arrived, some as recently as two weeks ago, nothing seemed remotely familiar. The weather was colder. No one spoke their language. Unlike other refu­gee groups in the area, such as Ethiopians or Iraqis, there was no exile community to receive them and few who could translate for them. Tradition had taught the women to be shy and submissive. Here, they needed to be the opposite.

“Ishtraw-berry. Co-ren,” Dharjmer said slowly, examining each sign in the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket and trying to sound out the words.

She searched for familiar items she could cook for her family, like bitter melon and chilies, and struggled to recall her numbers from English class. Was the price sticker on that box of mushrooms $1.94, or $1.49?

Merengue music filled the market, and the air conditioning was strong.

“English cold, Nepal hot,” Dharjmer said with a shiver. A Mexican grocery clerk politely greeted the group of women in Spanish, and they all giggled. At the checkout stand, Dharjmer carefully counted the change in her palm. “Four four-eight,” she said with a satisfied nod and headed for the exit, trailed by her companions.

The successful shopping excursion was another quiet milestone in the odyssey of these Bhutanese refugees, who are among 60,000 being resettled in communities across the country.­ The first few arrived in the Baltimore-Washington area in mid-2008, but many came from Nepal within the last year.

Prince George’s is one of several dozen resettlement locations nationwide, chosen where affordable housing is available and officials are willing to participate. The county has accepted refugees from many lands, but the Bhutanese are the largest new group.

According to both the newcomers and the nonprofit agencies charged with guiding their entry into America, it has been an extremely daunting endeavor. The Bhutanese, who came from one of the most isolated countries on Earth and spent nearly a generation in stateless stagnation, have arrived with far fewer tools than most to navigate modern Western society.

“At first, they seemed to need a lot of help in almost every aspect of life,” said Hanako Kubori, an official with the nonprofit International Rescue Committee in Silver Spring. Most of the elderly were illiterate. Most women had never worked. Most children had been born and raised in confined camps.

The greatest shock was the realization that, after nearly two decades of depending on the international charity, each family had to fend for itself. As soon as six months of U.N. financial assistance ended, they were responsible for rent and utilities. In most cases, this meant starting near the bottom­, at fast-paced, low-wage jobs, where only minimum communication is necessary.

Deomaya Dharjmer’s husband and son, 27, both work the night shift at a fruit-packing plant in Maryland, one of three that employ many Bhutanese. Her husband, who speaks no English, relies on sign language as he sorts boxes of peppers and apples for $8.50 an hour. Both men must wear winter jackets, boots and gloves in the chilly factory. Five days a week, a van picks them up at 1 p.m. Often, they do not return until late at night, long after everyone else is asleep.

“Here we only work to exist,” said Leela, the son, with a hint of bitterness. He said he is grateful to be in a country where he is free to express his views, but that his English is not yet good enough to do so.

In Nepal, Leela used to repair radios and TV sets, and his dream is to become an electrician or technician. He also would like to visit the skyscrapers of New York. But for now, daily life revolves around paying the bills.­ “It is not a full life,” he said, “but maybe that will come later.”

The barriers of language and culture are especially intimidating for the oldest Bhutanese, most of whom were illiterate farmers in their homeland. Some, fearful of venturing out and embarrassed to attempt English, spend all day in isolated apartments, waiting for the young people to come home. Yet, others have proved surprisingly adventuresome.

One recent morning, a dozen Bhutanese grandparents met at a bus stop on East-West Highway and boarded the F-4 bus to the New Carrollton Public Library, wherethey had been attending free English classes. After just a few weeks, they had the routine down pat. For two hours, they gamely sounded out food and animal names from a picture book and listened to a lecture on dental hygiene. Five minutes before the return bus was due, they gathered up their workbooks and scurried for the road.

“Namaste,” the diminutive senior citizens said to the uniformed bus driver as they boarded, pressing their palms together in the traditional Hindu greeting.

“Namaste,” he responded aimiably.

While their elders reminisce about village life and dip a tentative toe into suburban America, Riverdale’s Bhutanese youths are toggling furiously between two worlds. More than 50 are enrolled in public schools, where the younger kids soak up English like sponges with help from English for Speakers of Other Languages classes. Volunteer tutors visit families in the evenings to review the childrens’ homework and help adults practice life skills, such as making change with paper coins.

The youngsters have quickly taken advantage of American computer culture, using it as a lifeline to scattered friends and a bond with their native culture. Almost every Bhutanese high school student is on Facebook, keeping up with cousins and former camp mates, who have been relocated to Arizona or New Hampshire. On the Web, they can connect with all things Bhutanese and Nepalese — as long as the Comcast bill gets paid.

Deepak Ganga, a 20-year-old senior at Parkdale High School, spent his first 19 years in a Nepalese ­camp. When not doing his geometry homework, he cruises favorite Web sites with his friends. One recent evening, they checked out a concert by a hot singer in Nepal, advertisements for video cameras, and an activist site featuring a brutal reenactment of torture scenes in a Bhutan prison.

“It makes me sad to see that, but I was only 6 months old when I left Bhutan,” said Ganga with an apologetic shrug. He is eager to maintain contact with the hermetic homeland that drove away his family and shuns the West. “I have Facebook friends in Georgia and Canada and Katmandu and Bhutan, too,” he said. “We are in touch all the time.”

A few community ­leaders try to keep up the drumbeat of dissidence, repeating tales from the 1980s when Bhutan’s ruling regime, of Buddhist and Tibetan ethnic origins, forced ethnic Nepalese residents to conform or flee. Their customs were banned and their citizenship revoked if they could not pass certain tests. Several older men in Riverdale are partly crippled from what they said were prison beatings in Bhutan.

“The regime tried to homogenize the country, and when it failed, they excluded us,” said Narayan Sharma, 41, one of the few college-educated refugees in Riverdale, who speaks flawless English and wears crisp business suits. “It was a subtle form of cultural extermination.”

Yet, mostAmericans have barely heard of their tiny Himalayan homeland or of the refugees’ plight. Although Bhutan’s rulers still keep a tight rein on citizens and foreign tourists, they tout their system as a modern, trouble-free democracy. Its guiding concept is called “Gross National Happiness.”

For most refugees, the next generation’s future is what matters most. Their highest dream is that their children will make it in America. Their greatest fear is that they will lose their traditional Nepalese values in a fast-paced society where work and consumerism seem to overpower spiritual and family ties.

“In Nepal, our community life is in the temples and monasteries, but here there is no place or time to worship,” said Mukhti Raj, 35, a security guard. “Things are more

individual and material, and parents who don’t speak English have less authority. Our kids have migrated twice at a sensitive age. How can we protect them here?”

But there are moments when the pull of American culture seems to weaken and the roots of Nepalese culture seem to deepen. On one recent evening, half a dozen Bhutanese families squeezed into an apartment decorated with paper flowers and twinkling lights. Deomaya Dharjmer and her nieces were there. So were Deepak Ganga and his friends.

The occasion was the birthday of a tiny girl named Sabina. The air was thick with spicy cooking smells, the elders had donned their traditional dress, and everyone chatted in Nepali. Sabina, following Nepalese tradition, dipped her thumb in a saucer of red-dyed rice and solemnly pressed it to the forehead of each guest.

“We don’t know what is good or bad in America yet, but at least we are together,” said Puspa Ghataney, 36, Sabina’s dad. “Everything here is different from the past. My parents will probably never learn to read, but my little girl is a U.S. citizen, and my son already knows more about computers than I do. They will grow up in a place where we finally have hope.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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