Chandra and Phul Pokhrel arrived in Vermont almost four years ago with their son, Austin.
Chandra and Phul had been living in a refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years. Phul, who is 28, barely remembers what her family life was like in Bhutan – her home country. Neither does her younger brother, Lila Dahal, who lives with her now in Essex Junction after moving up here from Pennsylvania. In Bhutan, their families owned land, had access to education and good jobs. Then they lost everything and were driven out of the country.
Chances are, if you have ever heard of Bhutan, you may think of it as a happy place. Twenty years ago, the government of Bhutan started the Gross National Happiness (GNH ) movement. Bhutan has an ancient, indigenous Buddhist culture and prides itself on striking a balance between the spiritual and the material. This tiny kingdom, tucked into the eastern Himalayan Mountains is a close neighbor of Nepal as well as with the powerful nations of China and India.
If Bhutan is such a happy place, why then, does Vermont have a thousand Bhutanese refugees living here?
The history is a bit complicated.
While Bhutan has a predominantly Buddhist culture made up of Drukpa people who share a common culture with Tibetans and other Himalayan people, there is an ethnic Nepali minority many of whom are Hindu and speak Nepali. Back in the 1800’s the Bhutanese government invited their Nepali neighbors to clear the lowland jungles for farming. Those Nepalis created farms, settled into communities and were given Bhutanese citizenship.
Almost 200 years later, in the 1990’s, a violent conflict broke out in Bhutan as the government passed laws to create a more uniform culture and religion of the majority, thereby discriminating and ostracizing the minority ethnic Nepali community. They had little or no government representation and resisted being bullied out of their own traditions and culture. Protesters were thrown into prison and tortured. The rest were driven out of the country and eventually into refugee camps in Nepal run by the United Nations while the two countries tried to form an agreement. Some 100,000 people still live in the camps, waiting for either repatriation or to be accepted into other countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia among a few others.
The Pokhrel family recently purchased a house in the center of Essex Junction on a quiet and charming cul-de-sac. On a rainy spring night, the house was full of people, not only Chandra and Phul with their son Austin, but Lila, Phul’s brother and then another middle-aged couple with an older son. Phul and the other woman have their long black hair tied back and have the vermilion – an orange-red pigment painted on the parting of their hair at the top of their forehead – a mark of a married Hindu woman at her wedding, by her husband. They are dressed in bright colored saris. They all sit on the living room couches, smiling at me.
Their house is always open to newly arrived families from the refugee camp in Nepal and to friends, relatives and whoever needs help.
“The life here is far better than the life as a refugee. Where I used to live for 18 years as a refugee there’s no hope, no desires, I mean in other words I can say there is no life. You technically think of being in exile or being in jail for so many years that you can’t go out, you don’t have better schools,” Lila said. “The houses are in such a way that it’s just a shelter, you can’t really consider it a house, because there’s no heat, no electricity. I consider it a shelter. So being here and finding a house here and getting more apersonated to work and go to college is a real good thing for me.”
Lila’s dream is to attend the University of Vermont or Champlain College to get his bachelor’s degree. Lila’s parents told him about their home country, a country where his grandparents, his parents and he himself was born and lived the first few years of his life.
“I heard from my parents about the torture they faced, the problems they have and it was, it was a better place for them until 1985, 1988 but after that since there was a civil war going on Bhutan they found the life became harder and harder and technically my family was tortured and my parents were tortured. The life there was really hard for them and the ultimate solution for them was to walk out from the country,” Lila explains.
Lila and Phul’s family spent the next eighteen years living in a refugee camp until they were finally able to come to the United States where their parents and one brother settled in Pennsylvania. They have another brother in Pennsylvania where their parents are also living, and a sister in Australia. There is still one more sister in the refugee camp in Nepal who is in the process of coming to the U.S.
It is their custom for parents to live with a son’s family, not a daughter. As much as Phul would love them to move to Vermont, it is not their way. Instead, when Phul and Chandra arrived in Vermont with nothing she had to rely entirely on the kindness of strangers, not her parents, to help with her newborn son. They found housing in Winooski with another Bhutanese refugee family whom they didn’t know.
Judy Scott, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program says Burlington is considered to be one of the top resettlement sites in the country according to the State Department.
“One is that the type of people who tend to gravitate to Vermont, we tend to be open minded and interested in others, we tend to value friendship and connection, also I think we are small enough that we get to know each other and we have to care about our position in the community because people are going to know who you are,” Scott said.
It’s about community. Here in Burlington, you get to know your neighbors, for better or worse, and you all become part of the fabric of the place. Integration is impossible to avoid in Burlington. Judy Scott recounts a story of a refugee family who moved next door to older Vermonters. “She was an older woman and only had a few words of English when she first moved here and wanted to be friends and she just wanted to be friends with the people who lived on the other side of the duplex. So she would say hello to them, this was an American family, and they - at first they simply didn’t respond. But she kept smiling and saying hello and after a while they had to give in and they started saying hello. As soon as they did that, she started saying ‘how are you’ and at first that was a little tough for them but they started responding and as soon as she got that going she started offering them food,” Scott says with a laugh. “They couldn’t resist the food for too long and then they started offering her food also. So I think these things happen just because we are in close proximity to each other and I also think that many of us here in Vermont are really very interested in things outside of ourselves, so we are interested in checking out the ethnic markets which didn’t exist here a few years ago.”
But there are challenges. Phul couldn’t transfer her GED from Nepal, so she had to do it over in Vermont. She then earned her LNA (licensed nurse’s aid) through the Job Corps in Vergennes and works at the Howard Center part-time and at IBM doing night shift work. Chandra, like his wife Phul, works two jobs. The first is as an outreach worker for the Bhutanese community for the ALLV - Association For Africans Living In Vermont, an organization that has expanded to serve more than just the African communities. His second job is also at IBM.
The IBM jobs are night shifts so Phul and Chandra alternate nights so one of them can be home with their son, Austin. Lila had helped them out looking after Austin while he lived with them until recently when he got married and moved out in nearby Essex with his wife.
“I work as a production operator in IBM,” Chandra said. “I was the person who got job in IBM, the first person in IBM from my community. When I got the jobs in the beginning the biggest challenge for me because I didn’t know that good English and it’s the biggest company. But day by day I feel easy and the people from IBM, they help a lot and I did good jobs. Almost 4, 5 months, I try to bring my wife in the same position and then we help to the community. Now, from July 2010 to today we are almost like 30, 35 peoples in IBM. We work hard and we help the community to bring to IBM,” Chandra explains.
For Chandra working both jobs is not just a way to pay his bills or to get ahead, his ambition is to not just make his own life better, but to help those in his community make their lives better, too. As an employee of one of the biggest companies based in Vermont, Chandra gets an opportunity to open the door for others like him. As an outreach worker he gets to know many Bhutanese families and to understand their needs. “I’m so happy I found a job because I help my communities. The first when they came to the U.S. it’s very difficult for our people because they cannot speak the language, some of the community they can’t even speak their own language Nepali. They have different language in back to the country. So, in the beginning all of the people, they need help, so we are working very hard. We work like sometimes from 8 to sometimes close to 9, 10 p.m. to help the communities,” Chandra said.
He tells me the Bhutanese community faces three big challenges, the first is housing. There are just not enough rentals to keep up with the influx of refugees and the housing they do find or can afford is seldom large enough to hold the whole family. In the Bhutanese culture, several generations live together under one roof. They try to maintain that here in Vermont but circumstances can make it tough on all the members of the family, most especially the seniors. According to Chandra, language is the second biggest challenge and the third is helping their seniors.
Chandra and Phul are remarkable in that their desire to have a good life means helping others like them to enjoy the same benefits, the same privileges. This devotion to their community may seem in direct contrast to our system in the United States where we tend to value the individual over the collective. It is a popular cultural belief that if “I made it on my own then you should too.” And yet, here, in Vermont, the Bhutanese might find a place that values community support. In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, for example, Vermonters proved that when something bad befalls some of us, it is up to all of us to pitch in and help make it better.
Dr. Pablo Bose is an Assistant Professor in the Geography Department at the University of Vermont. His community-based research looks at the challenges facing refugee communities as well as at broader ways of measuring successful refugee resettlement. Dr. Bose is passionate about these issues.
He cites the single biggest challenge for refugees, generally spanning across all groups is language, and that what we need is not just basic English but an English language class that can help some refugees move forward into better jobs, once they have acquired the basics of English. As with each group coming into Vermont, their needs and situation are different. Such is the case with the Bhutanese.
“There are many Bhutanese who have very good English language skills. What they are not being able to transfer is the accreditation so their other forms of education or training is not necessarily being recognized. It’s a waste of resources, it’s an under-utilization of excellent resources within these communities,” Bose said.
Bose feels strongly about the way we view the influx of refugees – not as victims who need our help as much as a much-needed resource in our small towns and communities, bringing a vibrancy and job growth.
“One of the things I really want to emphasize is that refugees or immigrants in general are not this kind of passive body that needs to be helped. They have incredible amounts of talent and potential within these communities, and I think that one of the challenges for resettlement in all host countries is to build on that, to build and nurture the leadership within these communities and to really emphasize that this is not an act of charity, this is an act of selfishness in many ways that what we gain from immigrants and refugees far outweighs what we spend on them. So I think it really should be seen as an investment,” Bose said.
But once you speak the language and have a job, what about culture?
Phul takes a pragmatic approach to culture. She wants to create a new, hybrid culture of sorts, to pick and choose what works and what doesn’t. Phul is relentlessly upbeat about the future here, now.
“Actually if we want we can keep our culture here, nobody says no. Nobody is giving us any disturbance but actually what I thought is we need to pick which is the good one. From our culture there is also so many things which are bad and not acceptable in the community we need to throw that and pick the good ones,” she said.
As the newest group and currently the largest group of refugees here in Vermont they struggle with the issues other refugee communities have struggled with – where do we gather? How do we celebrate our culture and religion? Some other groups have found churches that give space, others rent hotel ballrooms to hold their festivities, and still others travel to a big city close by. This is an issue that is pressing as families begin to slowly but surely dig in and plant roots here.
“Since we brought this point about practicing cultures, it’s not just me who is willing to have this place but since I work as an outreach worker and since I talk to the many community people what I see and what I heard from the peoples, senior peoples is that they are really trying hard, they want a place so that they can do something or they can teach the coming generation about Hindu religions, “Lila says. “So it would be much better for these people if they have any temples or a big hall or room where they can go and practice Hindu religions.”
Do they want to stay in Vermont? Phul is certain. It’s a good thing too, because 4-year-old Austin already has one foot firmly planted in the United States. He recently discovered something he loves as much as watching Hindi movies - Tom and Jerry cartoons.
“Yeah, I like Vermont and want to be here in my whole life,” he says.
“We are more than 1,500 people here in Vermont and we are also want to live here in Vermont and which of the people I’ve met is really, really helpful people got in Vermont. I like them and I want to thank every people in Vermont who is met me and I want same kind of help to them,” Phul said.
“I want to give thanks to all the people in Vermont who help the Bhutanese community and I want to give thanks to all the Bhutanese community also for helping each other and being cooperative here and living good in Vermont,” Phul said.
What Phul and Chandra have found here – opportunities, choices, and access to good education in a beautiful setting – is what the urban transplants have also sought out. These families are seeking a better future for their children, one that is all about freedom – freedom to live peacefully and quietly, freedom of space and movement, freedom from a stressful environment.