Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom hidden in the eastern Himalayas, has a reputation as one of the worlds most peaceful and happy countries--an image its rulers relentlessly promote in Western media.
But for many, the reality of life in Bhutan is anything but peaceful.
In the early 1990s, during a brutal military campaign, Bhutan expelled some 100,000 ethnic Nepalese from their homes, in order to preserve the cultural purity of the northern Druk Buddhist majority. The government viewed the Hindu Lhotsampas, as they are known, as a religious and demographic threat and stripped them of their citizenship.
For almost two decades, the Lhotsampas have lived in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Nepal, without a home or a country to call their own.
Uma Timsina was 12 years old when her family was forced into exile. She remembers the day the Bhutanese army rousted her from her house. "They pounded on the door, screaming, 'Open the door! Open the door!' And then they surrounded our house. I was crying and my body was shaking. The soldiers were very bad people. They would do whatever they wanted to you."
With no hope that the refugees will ever be allowed to return to Bhutan, several Western governments have agreed to take them in. In 2006, the United States committed to accept 60,000 of the refugees living in Nepal.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian aid agency that assists refugees, is one of a handful of organizations that has partnered with the State Department to resettle the Bhutanese in the U.S. Uma and her family are among them.
On a snow filled day last February, Uma, now 32, with her husband Chet Nath Timsina, 39, and their 5-year-old son Kushal Timsina, reached refuge in New York City - seventeen years after Uma and Chet Nath were exiled from their homes in Bhutan.
The couple lived in a refugee camp with their family in an eight-by-fifteen foot double hut, shared by 13 people. Denied the right to work, they were unable to earn money to provide for their needs. "Education was the only wealth we could accumulate while in exile," says Chet Nath. He and Uma received their bachelor's degrees while there, traveling by bus to their classes in neighboring India.
After living in the camp for twelve years, limited to the sparse food rations (rice and potatoes) provided by non-profit agencies, and without the finances to support their siblings' education, Chet Nath and Uma left the camp to find work. Although refugees are not permitted to work in Nepal, the couple found jobs as English-speaking teachers in private schools. Undetected by the authorities, they lived and worked in Nepal for five years.
Now, almost 20 years after they were banished from their homeland, the Timsina's have left everything familiar to rebuild their lives in America welcoming a new start in the Bronx.
On February 3, 2009, The Timsina family arrives in New York City. It's a moment they dared not dream of during the years they spent in a refugee camp in Nepal.
"When they stamped our visas inside the airport we were told that the stamp meant that we have permission to work in this country," says Chet Nath. "It is joyous to get that permission. Now we do not need to hide our identity. Even though we are refugees we have the equal right to work. We feel that our rights will be protected in this country," says Chet Nath.
In Nepal, Chet Nath tirelessly championed for the rights of his people through an organization he started alongside other refugees, the Bhutan Press Union, which worked to establish the freedom of speech and press in Bhutan while advocating for the establishment of true democracy.
On May 28th, 2007, in pursuit of these freedoms, Chet Nath marched with over five thousand refugees in the Long March to Bhutan in hopes of having peace talks directly with the leaders of Bhutan. The Indian border security forces, at the urging of the Bhutanese government, prevented them from reaching their destination. They attacked the group at random, killing two and brutally beating many. Chet Nath was beaten, left with permanent injuries to his leg.
Debbie Kraus, a case manager for the International Rescue Committee escorts the Timsina family to their new home in the Bronx. Kraus will help the family with everything from English classes and employment counseling to school enrollment and doctor's appointments.
The Timsina family stands with their luggage, three fifty pound bags stuffed with personal belongings and precious family mementos, in the apartment building lobby of their new home in the Bronx.
Kushal peers curiously out of the apartment's fourth floor window. In his short life he has never lived above the ground floor.
On the day after their arrival in NYC, the Timsina family takes their first ever subway ride on their way downtown to the IRC's offices.
Swiping their Metro Cards for the ride was a novel experience for the family, they had never used a card as a form of payment.
During the ride Kushal clings to his father. But after only a few days of riding the trains he acts like an experienced straphanger, rushing to grab a window seat where he can watch the other trains pass by.
At the IRC's New York office, the family meets with their case manager Debbie Kraus.
Kraus takes down the family history and explains what government and IRC services are available to them. At the end of the session Chet Nath signs their refugee employment grant paperwork. Through the grant the U.S. government will provide the IRC with money for the Timsina family that will pay for their rent, among other bills, for the first three months.
Although Chet Nath and Uma speak English they decide to enroll in an advanced English class offered by the IRC. Uma says the class has improved her English while Chet Nath says it is too basic. They both enjoy meeting other refugees and IRC staff members. "The IRC has become our second parents, nurturing us and strengthening us until we are able to live independently," Chet Nath says.
Back in the Bronx, Uma and Chet Nath prepare a vegetarian curry for dinner using spices from a Bangladesh market near their apartment and tools like a pressure cooker and a Kari from Nepal. Storing foods in their fridge is a novel experience for the family. "In Nepal, a fridge was for rich people," says Chet Nath.
Traditionally the Bhutanese men of Nepalese descent do not cook, but Chet Nath enjoys working with his wife in the kitchen. "We always cook together, that way I am not bored," says Uma.
After one week in New York the family is still awed by their new surroundings. Uma can't stop talking about the subways, the tall buildings and the availability of electricity.
"How did the American government get electricity to run for 24 hours? It is shocking," she says. Uma notes another crucial difference from her previous life. "There is no discrimination here, at least not yet. In Nepal I thought I might suffer in America, but the reality is different. I am happy."
At a Hindu temple in Jackson Heights, Queens, the New York Bhutanese community gathers for the marriage ceremony. Newlyweds Bhanu and Bhima arrived in the U.S. less than a year ago and were also sponsored by the IRC. Chet Nath and Uma are honored to take part. The Bhutanese government prohibited the Nepalese minority from practicing their traditional Hindu beliefs, but in New York the community is free to hold marriage ceremonies like this one.
After two months in New York, Uma starts to regret her decision to come to America. She and Chet Nath are unemployed and their financial support provided by the U.S. government in the form of a refugee employment grant is due to end in a few weeks.
"I wonder how we will pay our rent and bills," she says. "New York is an expensive city. If I have to suffer more here than in Nepali, then there is no point. I must get some relief. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if had we stayed in Nepal but I know that the opportunities here are better for us, and that the education here is best for my son, so I have to remember that," says Uma.
Uma is also apprehensive about the imminent arrival of Chet Nath's brothers and their families from Nepal. Although she is looking forward to seeing them she wonders how four more people will fit in their two-bedroom apartment.
On April 15th, Chet Nath leaves home for a two-hour journey to Queens to interview for a job as a medication aid at an assisted living facility in Queens. It is his first job interview.
"We can't believe that in a city where the rent is almost four times higher than what our friends in other cities pay that the minimum wage is so low," Chet Nath says. "When we left Nepal we were at the top levels in our jobs, working as supervisors. Now we have to start at the bottom again. Although we knew this would be the case the reality is discouraging."
Back in the refugee camp, Chet Nath was the coordinator of seven camp schools for children with disabilities. By the time he left Nepal, he was a college lecturer.
After the interview in Queens, Chet Nath is offered the job at $7.50 an hour. He takes it.
On a cold morning in May, Uma walks Kushal to a pre-K Head Start program near their home.
Although his parents believe Kushal is ready for kindergarten the local elementary school does not have room for him, and he will have to attend Head Start until the next school year. For Uma nothing is more important than ensuring a good education for Kushal.
In Bhutan, Uma was forced to stop her education in the fifth grade when the Bhutanese government closed all of the schools in Southern Bhutan, turning them into Army barracks. She later continued her education in the refugee camp, in schools run by the human rights organization, Caritas Nepal.
After two months of looking for work, Uma lands a job as a cashier at a gourmet market in Manhattan, just before the family's refugee employment grant was due to end.
Now, she commutes 3 hours round trip on the subway for work. In Nepal she used to walk 5 minutes to the elementary school where she taught near her home.
While the job is welcome, Uma often arrives home after her son is in bed. Chet Nath's work schedule, meanwhile, is the opposite of hers and sometimes days can go by without their speaking. "This is the New York life," Uma says. "This is what I have to do."
On April, 22, Chet Nath's eldest brother, Khara Nanda Timsina , with his wife, Bishnu and son, Shishir, are the first extended family members to join them from Nepal.
On the way home from the JFK Airport Chet Nath, sits in the backseat of the cab next to his sister-in-law and his exhausted nephew.
Chet Nath reminisces about their childhood in Bhutan when they worked on their family's land, picking and plowing whatever needed to be attended to, and laughs remembering fondly how they would run into the river to swim after an evening of hard work.
When the two brothers were in their late teens that was stripped away from them by the Bhutanese government who confiscated all of their land, land that their family had cultivated for generations.
In June, another brother arrives from Nepal, Mona Roth Timsina, with his wife and daughter. He joins Chet Nath and his brother Tek Nath Timsina, who arrived in April. The two brothers live with Chet Nath and his family in their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.
"Now that most of the family members are here I feel more secure," Chet Nath says. "We have a togetherness. I have the feeling of home back again."
Uma sits with her sister-in-law Pabitra Timsina. Pabitra shares the apartment's second bedroom with her husband Mona Roth and their 4-year-old daughter, Pratiksha.
Uma's concerns about living with her husband's extended family have gradually eased. Indeed, she finds them to be a great help and support. Her sister-in-law Pabitra Timsina assists with chores and meals and often takes Kushal to and from school. The two women are very close.
"I am like her big sister," says Uma. "Pabitra was only 18 when she married into the family, so I took care of her and gave her advice."
Since the arrival of his cousin Pratiksha, whom he calls sister as is custom of the Bhutanese of Nepalese descent, Kushal's personality has come alive and he has time for no one else. She is equally fond of him. They are together from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep.
"They don't want to separate," Uma says. "They never want to eat, they only want to play."
When Uma and Chet Nath become discouraged by the difficulties and obstacles they face, they remind each other of why they came to America the first place: to build a better future for their son. As Uma often jokes, "Kushal will be able to help us later."
Chet Nath, Uma and Kushal
- Find out more about the International Rescue Committee's work: www.theIRC.org
- Volunteer at a local refugee resettlement office: www.theirc.org/volunteer
- Give a gift, rescue a life: www.fromharmtohome.org