Life in the Bhutanese Refugee Camps by Bishnu Subba

BishnuSubbasphoto1Bishnu Subba


Cast out from the world’s happiest country

The Himalayan country of Bhutan, about a third the size of Ohio, is often called the world’s “Last Shangri-La.” Almost completely mountainous, this scenically breathtaking land encompasses tropical rainforests in the south, broad valleys and forested hills in the center and the great Himalayas to the north, making it perhaps the most isolated and undeveloped country in the world. It is the only country that measures GNH (Gross National Happiness) for its 2.5 million people, ranking first among all Asian countries in “happiness” and eighth overall in the world.

But this narrative didn’t ring true for the Lhotshampas or “people from the south.” The Lhotshampas arrived in Bhutan around 1890, but as they grew in numbers, they were perceived as a threat to the ethnic purity. The Lhotshampas who were indigenous to Bhutan practiced Hinduism and spoke Nepali, a religion and culture different from the ruling class of Buddhists who speak Dzongkha. The Lhotshampas were expelled from Bhutan starting in 1991, with more than 100,000 Bhutanese ending up in refugee camps in Nepal.



Starting in the late ‘80s, Bhutan’s “One Nation, One People” policy went into effect, expelling all Lhotshampas from the country. Human rights violations took place in the past decades filled with tyranny, torture and even ethnic cleansing. The Lhotshampas became increasingly victimized by police forces raiding their homes, often displacing them at gunpoint in the middle of the night and torturing and jailing anyone who resists.

In 2008, after decades in limbo, a master plan for resettlement of the Lhotshampas began. The UN Refugee Agency established seven camps in Nepal to accommodate more than 100,000 of these refugees. Third-country resettlement was the only option.

Since then, over 80,000 refugees have been resettled to eight different countries. The vast majority, more than 66,000, have resettled in the United States according to the International Organization for Migration. Currently, as many as 400 refugees leave Nepal each week, bound for a new life in a new country. Of the original seven camps, only two remain today.



On the march through the jungles

No one knows the long suffering history of the Bhutanese Lhotshampas better than Bishnu Subba, a member of the community who came to Akron with his extended family in 2010. He is a case worker for ASIA Services, Inc. and president of the Bhutan Community Association of Akron.

“We were proud and prosperous farmers in a beautiful and peaceful land,” Subba said. “We grew rice and maize and raised buffalo, cows, chickens and sheep on land we owned until something horrible happened.”



Subba was 18 when his family was forced out of their village after life-threatening maneuvers by the government police. “We had to leave everything behind. We had cows, oxen, land … but all of that, we had to abandon in Bhutan. His family fled with only the clothes on their backs and a few small satchels of food. With his wife at his side and their two young children strapped to their backs, they marched on foot for three days to cross India’s border.

The journey was treacherous. Dirt roads led through deep, mosquito-infested jungles, empty except for wild animals like elephants, tigers and venomous snakes and marauding army vehicles. Every time an army truck raced along the road, they had to run and hide in the bushes, fearing for their lives.

Subba thought they could find a safe haven in India, but they were not welcome. They were told that India would not accept any Bhutanese because the two governments were at odds. They had no choice but to leave the country and walk for another day to Nepal.



When they first arrived in Nepal, they stayed overnight in a temple in a jungle clearing. The next day, they had no choice but to set up a small, temporary bamboo hut with a leaky thatched roof in the middle of the jungle. During the height of frequent intense storms, they had to hold up the poles for fear of the hut blowing down. It was three months before they could leave the jungle to relocate to safer, permanent housing inside the refugee camps.

During this time, Subba caught dysentery, an inflammatory disorder of the intestine. He could not walk, lost half his weight and nearly died from dehydration. He had such a severe case of diarrhea and bleeding that he had to leave the family hut and camp out in the jungle by himself for days at a time before the camp’s physicians gave him medicine to counteract the disease.

Subba was not the only member of his family to fall ill. Subba’s infant son suffered from life-threatening seizures. Knowing it would be weeks and weeks until his son could be seen by a doctor, the only choice they had was to rely on his uncle who was also a part-time medicine man. Subba’s uncle administered a special liquid from an animal bone to Subba’s son. Miraculously, it stopped his seizures.

After leaving the jungle, Subba’s family lived in refugee camps for two decades. In November 1991, the family relocated to the first camp with 60,000 other refugees. The conditions were terrible and the refugees had to beg for food from the surrounding villagers. Then, Subba’s family was able to relocate to one of seven United Nations-operated refugee camps, Beldanzi 1, where for the first time, his family’s basic needs were met.

Bishnu Subba 2

Camp life bleak but hopeful

Subba explains that there were several international aid organizations helping to manage and organize the camps in Nepal, including the UN Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Program.

While life in Beldanzi 1 was an improvement, it still had plenty of challenges.

“Life in the camps was very difficult,” Subba said. “We had to frequently rebuild and repair our own huts and transport heavy loads on our backs. The camps offered little in the way of recreation, and there were little to no opportunities for steady employment in Nepal.”

Like most Bhutanese refugees in the Nepali camps, Subba lived in tight quarters. He lived with seven members of his family under one roof measuring about 20 beet by 10 feet.

“We were able to make partitions inside the huts for privacy,” he said. “The floors were dirt and we swept them daily with handmade brooms. Our always unreliable roof, that we frequently had to repair from high winds and severe storms, was a combination of plastic and thatch.” The bamboo huts often could not withstand the torrential downpours of the monsoon and the rations of rice, lentils, oil, salt, vegetables and kerosene provided by UNHCR were far from sufficient.
Subba’s family had no running water or electricity.

“We didn’t have sufficient food to eat, no sanitation program, no good health service and,water had to be drawn out of underground wells,” he said. “We walked to pit toilets, one each for two families. We were allocated one liter of kerosene per month in order to light our rooms. Many times I remember people burning to death from accidental fires consuming their entire homes due to mishandling their kerosene lamps and stoves.”

The refugees were prohibited from engaging in economic activities outside the camps. They had no land rights and could not leave the camps without special permission.

Remittances and work in Nepal’s informal economy were important revenue streams, providing families the option to supplement rations and purchase clothing, personal items and materials for their homes.

Within the camps, adult refugees are paid salaries at a fraction of average wages. Many of the Bhutanese had an excellent education and spoke English and a lot of young Bhutanese like Subba found work teaching throughout Nepal in private schools and colleges. Others found work as laborers in industries such as road-building, stone-breaking and agriculture.

The World Food Program was in charge of food donations for the camps. It distributed severely enforced food rations every two weeks to households in allotments of 2,100 calories per day per person.

The “food baskets” consisted mostly of beans, rice, lentils, vegetable oil, sugar, salt and vitamin supplements with a few vegetables and no fruits.

“The rations were far from sufficient to feed our family,” Subba said.

With his stipend from teaching, he earned about $10 per month and supplemented the meager food rations by purchasing more vegetables, fruit and the occasional meat and fish.

Children in the camps attended schools until tenth grade, though sometimes aid ran out and their educations were interrupted. After that, students could attend local Nepali schools outside the camp for a fee. Some students were able to attend secondary schools and universities in India.


Resettlement to the U.S. bittersweet

Subba left the Nepali refugee camp for America with seven family members after an entire year of applications, regular interviews and countless medical exams.

“When we learned we were finally accepted to come to America, we faced the anxiety of leaving behind friends and the familiar life we had known for nearly 20 years in the camps, heading to a foreign land filled with unfamiliar traditions and unknown challenges,” Subba said. “Many parents lose children, siblings become separated by continents and extended families separate. Many are so depressed from hopelessness about never returning to their homeland that they commit suicide. It is very difficult.”

Each change that is experienced on a personal level has a large impact at the camp level. Schools lose teachers, principals, and counselors. Camp committees lose leaders. Entire camps close, as dwindling numbers allow for consolidation. That ensures more reliable aid delivery, but it also dismantles communities. Of the original seven camps, only two remain: Beldangi and Sanischare.

Bhutanese refugees have been resettled all over the United States. They receive basic employment and educational support from federally funded programs. Many refugees look forward to resettlement so that they can be reunited with family members. Others focus on an education or the prospect of a new career, tempering their hopes with the knowledge that the education and skills they developed in the camps might not enable them to immediately achieve their goals. Other refugees resettle because they realize that they have no other choice, and they risk being completely alone and separated from their loved ones if they do not go. Still others want to discover new things and to experience life in a country with a developed economy and a stable political system.

Several international aid organizations help to manage and organize the camps in Nepal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and the World Food Programme are the largest. The World Food Programme distributes rations every two weeks to households in allotments that allow each person to have 2,100 calories per day, mostly from beans, rice, and vitamin supplements, not fruits or vegetables.

Subba knew that there was no other options aside from becoming an American.

“The Bhutanese people won’t take us back. In the past there was a lot of talk about them taking us back, but now that hope is also gone,” he said. “We are now making a good life in Akron. We are thankful to this generous community and happy to be here.”

Coming next: Living life in a new land

One response to “Life in the Bhutanese Refugee Camps by Bishnu Subba

  1. Thank you so much for posting this important story. I honestly can’t imagine the horrors this community has faced. My heart reaches out to each of them and I hope that their transition to a life in Akron finds them some peace and happiness.

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