Ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan face generation gap

Older generation want to go home; the younger are seeking a new life in the west.


A Bhutanese refugee shopkeeper looks out from his shop at The Beldangi II Refugee Camp 300km south-east of Kathmandu. Photograph: Prakash Mathema/AFP

“Look how happy we used to be,” says Harka Jung Subba, pointing to a family photograph hanging on the wall of his hut. It shows him, his wife and their six sons and daughters when the family still lived in Bhutan, more than 20 years ago.

In 1990 they were forced to flee because of persecution of ethnic Nepalis. Harka thought they would be away only long enough for things to settle down again. But Harka and more than 100,000 other Bhutanese refugees have been living in refugee camps in Nepal ever since.

His son, Ram Kumar, seen in the family photo as a boy, moved to the US last year with his wife and his own two children as part of a UN resettlement programme. Fearful that his father would not give his consent to let him go (the UNHCR requires all members of a household to attend the verification interview), Ram, now 33, left with his mother’s blessing, while Harka was in India lobbying politicians and rights activists to pressure Bhutan’s government for repatriation.

“My son, who grew up in my arms, left without saying goodbye. I am sure I will never see him again,” Harka says. His other sons are now also pushing him to let them leave the camp.

For the younger generations, who have lived in the camps all their lives, reliant on handouts as they are forbidden by law to work, the resettlement programme is their only way out. But the older refugees have no desire to move away from their community to a foreign country with an alien culture and a language they will never learn.

Harka, 68, admits he is fighting a losing battle against his grown-up sons. So far resettlement has been the only solution offered. In 2006, following 15 rounds of failed bilateral negotiations between the Bhutanese and Nepali governments, Washington offered an alternative: moving to America. Within a year more than 25,000 refugees had applied for resettlement in the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. A further 15,000 are expected to be resettled by the end of this year, while 50,000 more have registered.

Harka was one of the first 100 refugees to arrive in Damak, one of the six settlements in Jhapa district in south-eastern Nepal. He says they had a good life in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where he was a government official and owned a large farm. But in 1989, threatened by the prosperous Hindu Nepali-speaking minority, the government imposed a policy of Bhutanisation. Under the policy “one nation, one people”, only Buddhism, Bhutan’s main religion, could be practiced, while a Bhutanese dress code, culture and language was enforced. Many of the ethnic Nepalese had their land confiscated and were stripped of their citizenship.

Harka says he protested against the arrest of some key Bhutanese democratic leaders. Afterwards he was threatened by government officials, including members of the army. He fled. The army seized his house. Harka and his family lived in Tsirang district, in south Bhutan, a fertile area, in the foothills of the Himalayas, lush and green. Farmers grow rice, maize and millet, while major cash crops include oranges, mandarins and cardamom.

Now Harka’s home is a two-room hut. With mud floor, bamboo walls and roof, it can barely fit two beds so the family take it in turns to sleep on the floor. The camp has no electricity and the sanitation system is poor. There isn’t enough water and Harka says they have no access to newspapers or television. In the dry summer temperatures can reach 45C, with accidental fires, while in the monsoon low-lying Damak is vulnerable to flash floods. In the winter the walls do little to keep out the cold and fog.

Harka and fellow refugees, such as Maniraj Lama, 60, long to return to their old lives. “We have waited this long and we still can wait to go home,” Maniraj says. But Sandeep Bhattarai, 23, doesn’t remember Bhutan. His father refuses to give him permission to leave. “I still have the ability to start something new,” he says. “I don’t want to grow up as an old refugee and suffer like my parents. I have to think of myself and my younger sisters.”

Sandeep works as a volunteer in a school in the camp for a small allowance. He says most of his friends are now school graduates or have finished college and are pursuing further studies. Sandeep explains that the rules about not working are not strictly adhered to; however, high unemployment means there are very few jobs and even if they get a job, they get paid less than a Nepali would.

Jiten Subba, a Bhutanese journalist in exile in Nepal, says the resettlement helped to reduce the violence, crimes and insecurity among the frustrated youth as many started to concentrate on improving their skills. But for every success story that filters back from resettled refugees, there are stories of hardship and isolation.

Another Bhutanese journalist, Thakur Prasad Mishra, 24, grew up in the refugee camps in Nepal and moved to New York as part of the resettlement programme in July last year. He explains that most of the older refugees who have resettled suffer from depression. “The elderly mostly stay inside their apartments as they have no idea how to use the public transport. They even require someone to guide them to visit a nearby hospital.”

Mishra does believe that life is still better in a new country than in the refugee camp, but he warns that elderly people with no children are better off staying behind.

The UNHCR says it continues to advocate for voluntary repatriation to Bhutan. But for now that road seems to be a dead end.

Harka sums up the feelings of many of the older refugees when he says emphatically: “I would rather hang myself and die here in the camp than follow my children to a new country.” This is not a throwaway line. Suicide rates are high in the camp as many refugees suffer from depression. Maniraj Lama’s wife hanged herself one day while he went out for a walk. It has made him more determined than ever to get back to Bhutan.

In the meantime, Harka worries that more young people will leave, abandoning their elders. “The rift between the old and young generation is worsening,” he says. “There is bad blood between the old parents and their children.”

The photograph on his wall reminds him of what he has to lose as well as what he has already lost.



Bhutanese refugees: American dream tantalizes, deceives

Bhutanese refugees: American dream tantalizes, deceives

Published: Saturday, December 18, 2010, 2:18 PM
Guest Columnist By Guest Columnist 
bhutanese1.JPGView full sizeThe Oregonian/Torsten KjellstrandMembers of the Bhutanese Club at David Douglas High School discuss the Dashain Tika Festival held recently at the high school. Most of the students in the club grew up with refugee status in Nepal and now are learning to live in a new home here in Portland, where they learn English and try to adapt to American ways. Â


I am a refugee from Bhutan. In the early days after my arrival to Portland, I would call friends and family in the refugee camps in Nepal, telling them the United States is close to heaven and they should try to come as soon as possible. 

Now, nearly two years later, I see those newly arrived struggling; they question me about my “heaven.” Some say they would return, if it were possible, to their dark refugee camps rather than face their desperate situations in Oregon. I have come to feel that “the American dream” is dangerous, because people come here with great expectations. I have stopped calling the camps in Nepal. 

GS.11BHUT19.jpgView full size

Still, Bhutanese refugees keep coming here, for lack of other choices. Bhutan, a country tucked between China and India, claims to be one of the happiest and most peaceful places in the world. But in 1990, Jigme Singe Wangchuck, Bhutan’s former king, began the process of ethnic cleansing, with India’s support. He started to evict the Nepali-speaking, Hindu minority population — called Lhotsampas — who had lived in Bhutan since the 17th century. Lhotsampas have been banned from speaking their languages and practicing their religion. The Indian army transported and dumped our people in Nepal, where the United Nations later established refugee camps. Requests to stay in their motherland as bonafide citizens have been met with bullets, bombs, torture and rape. Some 150,000 Lhotsampas have become stateless and homeless. 

The Bhutanese, the newest refugee community in Oregon, began arriving in early 2008. More than 33,000 now live in the United States — including more than 400 in the Portland metro area — as part of a State Department resettlement program. Another 30,000 are expected to arrive in the U.S. over the next three years — destined to face an economic crisis that adds to the challenges of their integration. 

Twenty years of living in a refugee camp is unimaginable. As a boy, one late, cold and windy winter night, I saw my father pour icy water over his head. When I asked him “Why?” he answered, “I can’t sleep. I am tired and hurting so much and feeling so hopeless at having been forced from my country.” 

More on refugees
Click here to see previous coverage of the Bhutanese refugee community.

Confined to small bamboo, thatched-roof huts, refugees like my father could not work or even leave the camp. Young people like myself had few options to get an education. A dependency began to replace our ancient and elegant Lhotsampas traditions. 

When the United States opened its door to refugees from Bhutan, we jumped at the opportunity. But a three-day orientation overseas did not prepare us for life in America. We were told how to use a toilet or fasten a seatbelt, but nothing about how to deal with a lack of employment opportunities. Bhutanese refugees suffer intense culture shock when they arrive in the U.S. Separation from family and from everything familiar is overwhelming, as is the trauma of war and refugee camp life. 

Instead of patching up leaks in straw roofs, refugees are negotiating ink cartridges for their secondhand printers. Every day is filled with new discoveries and difficulties. Language is an enormous challenge: from being able to read notes from school, letters from health clinics and government agencies, to job applications and interviews. Finding a job to bring money into a household is an immediate need. 

Refugees arriving in the U.S. are eligible for food stamps, Medicare and cash assistance. They are expected to become self-sufficient within three to eight months of arrival — a tall order. The cash assistance itself is inadequate: A family of four receives $621 per month to pay for rent that costs a minimum of $650 for a two-bedroom apartment, not to mention utilities, clothes and other necessities. Within five months, refugee families must start to repay the travel loan they received to fly to the U.S. (a family of four owes $5,300 for the one-way trip from Nepal). 

After eight months, federal refugee benefits end, except for TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) for families with children. I know many refugees who are unable to find a job within the eight months. When they lose benefits, they have to rely on Bhutanese friends and family in Oregon, who are already overburdened. For some, the pressure is too great. Suicide among refugees is a real and growing concern in the United States. Already, eight Bhutanese refugees have hung themselves in four states since 2009. Suicide by a refugee has an added poignancy: Refugees believe they are coming to start a new life, not to end it. 

Although no suicide has occurred in Oregon, I have met several Bhutanese refugees here who have contemplated suicide due to their dire financial circumstances. Thankfully I was able to connect them to resources and counseling and tried to give them hope for the future. 

bhutanese2.JPGView full sizeThe Oregonian/Torsten KjellstrandAfter hosting a community festival in October, members of the David Douglas High School Bhutanese students club — Kalpana Wagley (from left), Purna Adhikari, Maya Ghising and Hameda Dil Mohamed — gathered to write thank-you notes to all the people who helped them.

Even refugees who do find work must deal with discrimination and injustice. Many are hired for low pay, asked to work extra hours, and some are not paid for the work. They are vulnerable, because they are not fluent in English and do not know their rights. Earlier this year, several Bhutanese men working at a downtown Portland restaurant were cheated of their paychecks. It took two months for community leaders to persuade the restaurant owners to pay them. 

Bhutanese refugees are very thankful to the U.S. government and to Oregonians for welcoming them to this community and providing hope and an opportunity for a new life. But we need more support to thrive here. Families are simply not prepared for the complexity of American life. We need longer individual and group orientations, more vocational training, and more civic engagement. Portland resettlement agencies need volunteers and mentors to help refugees with school registration, transportation, and orientation in Oregon and in American culture. 

We also need the U.S. to pressure Bhutan to improve life for the 80,000 ethnic minorities still living in Bhutan and to take back the exiled refugees. Bhutanese refugees want to return to their home country. International law provides only three options as a solution: repatriation to the home country; integration into a host country; or resettlement in a third country, usually in the Western world. The first two options are not available for Bhutanese refugees at this time. Seventeen rounds of bilateral talks on repatriation between the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments have not yielded a resolution. Peaceful protests by refugees in Nepali camps for return to Bhutan have failed. The Indian army has forcibly returned refugees attempting an overland return to Bhutan. And the government of Nepal does not permit the second option, local integration, because that nation is poor and unable to provide for its own citizens. 

So while third-country resettlement in places like Oregon, far from our country and culture, is not optimal, it is better than languishing in temporary camps without a clear or meaningful future. Even if it means an uncertain struggle against economic and emotional hardships. 

Som Nath Subedi is a Bhutanese community member who lives in Southeast Portland. Reach him at 



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Old Friends, Ne…


Old Friends, New Place

Posted on: November 8 – 2011

As I hung out with my friend Krishna in Joliette, Quebec, he commented that spending time with me made him feel like he was back in Nepal again. I, too, kind of felt the same, as I visited with Krishna and other resettled Bhutanese refugees this summer.

These people whom I met could perhaps be called Bhutanese-Nepalese-Canadians. In Quebec they call themselves the “Communauté bhoutanaise du Québec.” They had been in camps in Nepal for years, along with approximately 100 000 others, after having been forced from their homes in Bhutan in the early ‘90s. They were forced out because the ruling group in Bhutan had felt threatened by the growth of the Southern Bhutanese, who are of a different ethnicity, language, and religion. From the time of their settlement in camps in Nepal, until 2003, there was a series of talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan. These talks concerned the possible repatriation of these people. Bhutan has not allowed for their return, though, and so in recent years an alternative solution to the refugee situation has been found. Since 2008, a third country resettlement process has been going on. Many of the refugees have now resettled, or are in the process of resettling, in the U.S., Canada, and in five other countries.

 I was in Nepal, until June 2011, for a year of my formation as a Jesuit scholastic. There I was a member of Jesuit Refugee Service, and worked for Caritas Nepal. Caritas is responsible for the education of the refugees in the camps. My main job involved working with the English classes for adults, which were being conducted in all seven of the camps. I got to visit all the camps, meet a lot of people, and help with their transition to English speaking countries. My favourite activity while over there was to go around visiting with refugees in their homes. I would thus get to know them and their situation, and to experience their warm hospitality.

In Quebec, I felt somewhat like I was back in Nepal as I met old friends I’d known from the camps. The surroundings are different: their apartment buildings here are quite unlike the bamboo huts they used to live in. Some things don’t change, though. For one thing, they have managed to find the right ingredients here so as to prepare the same food as in Nepal. The same sense of community is still there, too. In Nepal, I would go around visiting a number of different families, often in the company of one friend who was my host and guide. We did the same thing here in Canada, but this time going from apartment to apartment. As well, the generous welcome that I and other guests would receive in Nepal has not changed. In Nepal, there were times when someone would show hospitality by fanning me with a hand-made fan. Here in Quebec, I recall how one of my hosts carefully arranged a room for me to sleep in, placing a fan in the spot that he thought would make me the most comfortable.

My friends have settled and adapted well, in many ways, and they seem to be quite happy here. However, they certainly face challenges as well. Families generally move together from Nepal to new locations, which is good; but many still face a separation from loved ones. I had met Bhagi Maya through English and French classes which she had attended in the camps. As I visited with her here, she told me that she had cried a lot when she had first arrived in Canada, and had subsequently forgotten her English and French. I asked Krishna at one point if he’d visited Montreal, which is not too far from Joliette. He told me that he did not feel able or comfortable with making that journey, because of his lack of proficiency in French.

In Quebec City, along with members of the Bhutanese community, I also had the pleasure of meeting a Québecois man named Jonathan. He has become a close friend of the Gazmer family, spending time with them almost daily. It is good for the family to have this new friend, who helps them to feel at home here. And Jonathan certainly indicated to me that it was good for him that this family is part of his life. He told me that he’d been at a point in his life where he needed some new friends, and that “Quelqu’un” had led him to this family.

As Jonathan is a blessing to these people and is blessed by them, so with me, I think: I thank God that I was able in Nepal, and still am back in Canada, to be welcoming and encouraging to the Bhutanese community. And I have gained so much from them! I feel like I move closer to God through them. I pray, then, that I might be able to continue to meet with these people, to share my love and to share in theirs. 


Paul Robson, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic currently serving at the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre in Espanola, northern Ontario.

Winnipeg Free P…


Winnipeg Free Press – PRINT EDITION

‘1000 times better’: Life in Winnipeg is a blessing for Bhutanese refugees

By: Carol Sanders

04/8/2011 1:00 AM

Seven-year-old Sagar sits with his mother Purna in their St. Boniface apartment. Purna says her kids love going to school in Winnipeg so much they even want to go when they’re sick.


Seven-year-old Sagar sits with his mother Purna in their St. Boniface apartment. Purna says her kids love going to school in Winnipeg so much they even want to go when they’re sick.

WINNIPEG – Canada is so cold, it will make you infertile.

In Canada, immigrant men are sent up north to take care of the sheep.

The Biswa family: (left to right) Bal, Sagar, grandfather Suk Bdor, grandmother Suk Maya, mother Purna, father Gopal, and Tirtha moved to Winnipeg a year ago from Bhutan.

The Biswa family: (left to right) Bal, Sagar, grandfather Suk Bdor, grandmother Suk Maya, mother Purna, father Gopal, and Tirtha moved to Winnipeg a year ago from Bhutan.(JOHN.WOODS@FREEPRESS.MB.CA)

These are just a couple of the rumours the Biswa family heard in their Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal. But after 20 years in captivity there, they decided to head to Winnipeg — which they believed couldn’t be much worse.

“The focus was on the children,” Gopal Biswa said recently, through an interpreter. “Life would get better.”

Gopal, his wife Purna, mom Maya, dad Bder, sons Bal (in Grade 5) and Sagar (in Grade 1) and daughter Tirtha (kindergarten) arrived just more than a year ago and live in an apartment in St. Boniface.

The couple wanted to be sure their children would have opportunities to learn and succeed, said Gopal.

Their family is among 200 Bhutanese refugees living in Winnipeg.

Many more remain stuck in camps.

“The government of Bhutan is not letting them go home,” said Chitra Pradhan. He was one of the first to arrive in Canada in 1992. Now, he is the community’s go-to guy, interpreter and president of the Nepali Cultural Society of Manitoba.

The Biswas say they have no regrets about leaving the crowded, hopeless camp. But life in Winnipeg hasn’t been without its challenges either.

It’s tough for them to get work, said Pradhan. They barely speak English and spent the last 20 years (in the camp) unable to farm, work for a living, get job training or get ahead in any way.

“Their skills are limited,” said Pradhan. The parents and grandparents have been taking English-language classes several times a week for a year. Surrounded by other newcomers with no grasp of the language, they’re not picking it up very quickly, said Pradhan.

But they persevere because they want to work.

“If you’re not speaking the language, you’re not able to get a job,” Gopal said through Pradhan, who interpreted.

“Language is the No. 1 challenge,” Purna added in Nepali.

Pradhan knows it.

One day he got a call about a Bhutanese man missing in -37 C weather.

“I was really scared,” said Pradhan. The missing man had got on the wrong bus. He was found alive and well in St. James after riding the bus all day.

Other times, the challenge is conducting important cultural rites for the Nepali-speaking people in this foreign land.

“We had our first death in the community last year,” Pradhan said. “I had to go to the U.S. to get a priest.”

Now there are marriages on the horizon.

“I’m trying to get a minister here for two weddings.”

For the children of the Bhutanese, life is less complicated. They’re picking up the English language quickly because they’re surrounded by English speakers all day at school.

“I learned a lot from my friends,” said Bal, “and a little bit of French.” The Grade 5 student attends Marion School.

The Bhutanese were warned by fellow refugees in the camp that they’d have many problems in Canada, but no one mentioned language would be one of them.

They were told Canada is so cold, their Butanese reproductive systems would seize up.

“The girls wouldn’t be able to get pregnant,” Purna said, through the interpreter.

“There were many more rumours. The men would be sent up north to take care of the sheep.” While they were away shepherding, Canadian “men would steal their wives.”

One rumour they heard through the refugee grapevine that turned out to be true was that Canada is a more welcoming place for newcomers than many countries.

“People are extremely helpful,” said Purna. “They don’t talk bad about people.”

The Biswa family was befriended by Jeanie Dalman, who met them at a gathering at Knox United Church not long after they arrived.

She’s especially close to Purna although they communicate with lots of hand gestures and intuition. Dalman has helped the family get accustomed to their new home and appliances and customs.

She’s getting cakes and candles for boys who have birthdays this month. The Bhutanese don’t acknowledge birthdays the way we do.

There’s lots of excitement to see what blowing out the birthday candles is all about, said Dalman.

She’s gone to the Biswa home to cook pancakes. The bacon served as part of a “Canadian breakfast” was a hit but the grown-ups didn’t care for the maple syrup. “None of the adults like the sugar,” said Dalman. “Their cooking is 10 times healthier.”

The Bhutanese are used to cooking with raw ingredients and unprocessed food, she said. Members of the community try to be sure their chickens are free-range from area farms.

The elders like to watch Nepali movies when they can get them. Life could be worse.

After being pushed around and kicked off their land by the Bhutanese government, they appreciate the help Canada has offered.

“We never dreamed we’d be going to school and learning things, with the government spending so much on us and the children,” said Purna.

And they appreciate Canada’s universal health-care coverage. A Bhutanese family they know who settled in the United States a while back is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after one of their children got sick, Gopal said.

His wife is thrilled with the children’s school here. The refugee camp’s classrooms were overcrowded with few resources and poorly paid teachers, said Purna.

“Here the kids want to go to school,” even when they’re sick, she said.

“It’s 1,000 times better. There’s no comparison.”


Why are Bhutanese folks here?

Since the early 1990s, about 108,000 Bhutanese refugees of ethnic Nepalese descent have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal. The government of Bhutan kicked out people of Nepalese descent when it enacted citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis. The laws stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.

In May 2007, the Canadian government announced it would resettle up to 5,000 Bhutanese refugees over the next five years.

As of November, 2,200 have been resettled in Canada.


Sources: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Human Rights Watch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2011 B1


Bhutanese refugees thank Canada for their adopted home

Submitted by  on November 7, 2010 – 10:12 amNo Comment


By a Staff Reporter

Bhutanese refugees, assembled at City Hall on October 14 to express their gratitude to Mayor Peter Kelly and for Canada’s hospitality.

One hundred twenty four Bhutanese refugees have so far arrived in Halifax while Canada has accepted 5,000 of the 120,000 Bhutanese who have been driven out of their homes.


The others have left for seven other countries around the world, Bhagawat Pokhrel, a community representative told this reporter. He said a majority of them had lived for about 18 years in the UN’s Nepali camps— “in conditions as good as a life in prison.”

In his address at City Hall, Pokhrel said: “The final years of the past decade saw the execution of the Bhutanese government’s racially discriminatory policies aimed at forcibly evicting tens of thousands of its ethnic-Nepali-speaking Lhostam population from southern Bhutan.”

He said people were arrested and imprisoned by security forces, were subject to torture and forced to admit to crimes they did not commit. “After release from prison, they were forced to leave the country with their families.”

Pokhrel said raids were carried out on Nepali-speaking families, officially declared by the census as anti-nationals. “These raids involved molestation … security forces committed rape and torture during these house raids.”

Apparently, these Bhutanese refugees see a second chance at life upon arrival in Canada. But Pokhrel said that while his community is overwhelmed with the language classes and job-skills training currently being provided by ISIS (Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services), it nonetheless lacks the space to celebrate their festivals.

Listing the communities needs in an address to Mayor Peter Kelly, he said: “In order to celebrate our festivals and preserve our culture, we need meeting space and would be grateful if you could provide us one (community) hall for free.”

Likewise, he drew attention to transportation loans the families would have to pay back to the Canadian government and made a plea for these loans to be waived for those that cannot afford to pay back.

Former Bhutanese refugees struggle to adjust in Vancouver

By Rukmagat Aryal Bhutanese refugees settled in Vancouver often find it hard to adjust to a new language and life. But elder members of the community frequently come together to support one another and combat isolation.

Four Bhutanese seniors who relocated to Canada during the past three years, recently gathered in one of the men’s Coquitlam apartments to swap stories. The group sat together on Laxmi Narayan Subedi’s living room couches and sipped tea. They told tales of their past lives in Bhutan and Nepal, and of their latest adjustments in their new country.

Gatherings like these are a frequent ritual for many elderly here.

Their stories ranged from tragic to nostalgic. Subedi, 96, recalled how a fire in a refugee camp in Nepal gutted everything in 2008, including his bamboo hut. His nephew, Parmananda, 81, shared fond memories of life on his farm in Bhutan, rising at 5 a.m. to plow the fields with his pair of oxen.

But health issues dominate the conversation when these seniors meet.

Subedi’s asthma has been keeping him awake at night.

“Maybe death is calling me,” he said to the group. “I could not sleep even for a while. Sometimes it feels like my breath is going to stop.”

Subedi fled his home country of Bhutan in the early 1990s, when the Druk government outlawed thousands of Nepali-speaking people like himself. He was 76.

Laxmi Narayan Subedi, 96, moved to Vancouver in December 2010 to begin a new life.

Almost 100,000ethnic Nepalese fled Bhutan to Nepal as Subedi had. More than 44,000 of them found a home for a third time after the United Nations introduced in 2006 a plan to help Bhutanese refugees resettle permanently in other countries.

Subedi arrived in Canada last December.

“I did not decide to come here,” he said. “It’s destiny that brought me here.”

Senior citizens like Subedi and his new friends, face exceptional challenges as they near the end of their lives in an entirely unfamiliar atmosphere.

In addition to natural health problems, they are frustrated by a lack of access to religious services, grapple with a foreign language, and more than anything, they must learn to cope with the greatest pain: loneliness.

By the time Subedi and his family arrived, a Bhutanese community, albeit small, had already formed in Vancouver.

Meetings like this help make life in Vancouver tolerable, Subedi said.


The resettlement program

Before arriving in Canada, Subedi suffered a traumatic journey of struggle, uncertainty and statelessness that lasted almost 20 years.

He and his family escaped Bhutan after their government cracked down on the country’s ethnic Nepalese.

“Everything was good in Bhutan,” Subedi said of the time before the crackdown, “but something went wrong behind the curtains and we were forced to flee.”

They then spent nearly two decades struggling to survive in one of Nepal’s seven refugee camps.

When the UN launched the third-country resettlement plan, Subedi jumped at the opportunity to relocate to North America.

The United States accepts the majority of Bhutanese refugees, and has offered to resettle up to 60,000 of them. It has welcomed 37,000 so far, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Canada has pledged to accept up to 5,000 Bhutanese refugees under its government-assisted refugee settlement (GARS) program. It provides financial support to the new immigrants from the federal government in the first year and from the provincial government thereafter.

Meeting community members is a way for the seniors to beat loneliness and to pass time.

It is one of nine countries to have invited these refugees for permanent settlement. Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, the UK and Sweden have also opened their borders.

Nearly 2,500 former Bhutanese refugees have resettled in Canada. Over a hundred have landed in British Columbia. Of them, only five are over 65 years old, and 33 are children under 15, according to the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC).

The nonprofit organization helps the new immigrants adjust to their new setting through orientations and counseling, said Subrath Shrestha, a counselor with the society.

Of the nearly 20 Bhutanese interviewed for this story, each said they were grateful to the Canadian government.

“We had brought nothing with us,” Subedi said. “They (the government) have provided us with food, clothes, shelter and everything.”

Subedi`s neighbour, Kharsila Kafle  agreed. “It is perfect here. We have come to the right place. We have left all the suffering behind.”

Kafle.67, is among the first group of Bhutanese refugees to have resettled in Vancouver in March 2009.

“It would be ungrateful if we start complaining,” she said.

Yet despite that they appreciate the country’s support, starting a new life has had its challenges.

A new language, limited access to religious services

Parmananda Subedi, 81, wishes he could talk to the people living in his building. But his inability to speak or understand English prevents him from being able to get to know them. His interaction with his English-speaking neighbours is limited to brief exchanges, a mere “good morning” and “good evening.”

It’s unlikely that the elders will learn English.

Unlike the children of the Bhutanese community, who learn to speak English quite quickly, or the adults in his family who attend ESL classes, seniors generally stick to Nepali.

“We elderly cannot learn a new language,” Kafle said. “Over time, we may learn a few words, but that won’t be of much help. This is reality and we have to live with it.”

Parmananda has developed a better strategy. He has learned a few English words: “hello,” “yes,” “no,” “good morning,” “good evening,” “good,” “fine,” “okay” and “thank you.”

He pulls out one of these phrases whenever someone says something to him. He guesses at a person’s intention based on their gestures and tone of voice.

“That is all I have learned so far,” he said.

Reading religious books like the Ramayana is the favourite passtime of Parmananda Subedi, 81.

With many Bhutanese families living in clusters, the seniors rely on the younger generations to learn English.

Many of the Bhutanese who have settled in Vancouver have said they are also somewhat disappointed by the lack of access to religious services.

They wish they could have a temple and a pundit – that is, a Nepali priest – in their community.

At home, Laxmi Narayan begins his days with a morning worship ritual. Unlike in Bhutan and Nepal, he doesn’t have a temple to go to nearby, as there is no Hindu temple in Coquitlam.

He recites the Hindu epics like Ramayana and Krishna Charitra in the afternoon whenever there is no one to talk to or nothing to do. Reading religious books is also a favourite pastime of his nephew Parmananda, especially on afternoons when his family members go to work or school.

Seniors who cannot read have an alternative: they can watch DVDs of films based on the epics.

“It is sad that without a Nepali priest we cannot properly perform life rituals,” Kafle said, including naming ceremonies, weddings or death anniversary rituals.

“In a new place we knew that we would not be able to perform elaborate rituals,” Kafle said. “But we have not been able to perform even the minimum either.”

Some members said they are thinking of raising funds to establish a temple but the idea has not taken shape yet. Perhaps over time as the community grows.

Ready to Work Program Sets Refugees on Path to Successful Tourism Careers

CTHRC News > HR Times > Winter 2012 Issue > Ready to Work Program Sets Refugees on Path to Successful Tourism Careers


Canada’s Federal Tourism Strategy was released in 2011 and identifies four priorities including “fostering an adequate supply of skills and labour to enhance visitor experiences through quality service”. The Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council (CTHRC) was named in the strategy as the organization best suited to address labour market issues and promote professionalism in the tourism sector by addressing skills shortages and fostering a human resources development culture in the industry. One of the many ways the CTHRC fulfills this mandate is by administering the Ready to Work program, a bridging program which provides skills development to underrepresented labour groups in order to improve recruitment and retention of workers from these groups in the tourism workforce. The CTHRC works closely with its partner Human Resource Organizations across Canada, who deliver the Ready To Work program in their province or territory.

The extraordinary difference that the Ready to Work program is making in the lives of participants is evident in the stories of Bhutanese refugees recently resettled in Canada.

In eastern Nepal, there are seven Bhutanese refugee camps in the lowlands neighbouring the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains.  The approximately 100,000 refugees who call them home have lived here since government efforts to dictate and enforce a single national culture and language and to restrict citizenship forced them to flee Bhutan between 1988 and 1993. The camps were established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a response to the growing humanitarian crisis caused by tens of thousands of Bhutanese arriving in Nepal with no means of sustenance or survival.

Life in the camps is austere, with shacks of bamboo and thatch built for shelter, shared latrines within a few metres of housing, and a dependence on outside organizations such as the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA) for primary health care and the World Food Programme (WFP) for biweekly food rations. Although conditions have vastly improved since the camps opened, there is a constant risk of disease spreading through the cramped settlements, as well as threat of devastating fires started by primitive cooking and heating implements. Fires in two of the camps on March 23, 2011 left over five thousand homeless.

Despite these difficult conditions, the refugees managed to establish a formal education system in the very early days of the exodus. This tradition continues, with each generation taking on the responsibility of teaching the one to follow. Although many of the Bhutanese have spent their entire lives as refugees and are not allowed to pursue work or education outside of the camps, they are relatively well-educated and remarkably eager to learn.

In 2006, several countries including Canada expressed a willingness to receive those Bhutanese interested in third country resettlement, and refugees from the camps in Nepal began arriving in their new homes in 2008, with over 2,500 choosing to relocate in Canada by 2011.

Bhutanese refugees are a recognized refugee priority in the province of Nova Scotia, and make up a high percentage of Government Assisted Refugees (GAR) settling in the province. Citizenship and Immigration Canada resettles most of the Bhutanese refugees in the Halifax area where essential support from settlement and integration agencies is available.

The largest immigrant serving agency in Atlantic Canada, Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS) is located in the city, and provides newcomers with employment placement, language training, settlement services and counselling, business training, interpreters, and skills training.

Steven Claveau is an employment specialist with ISIS. He clarifies the process.

“Government-assisted refugees  (GARs) are identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)overseas. Once they arrive, they are provided special settlement services through ISIS and they are supported by the federal government for one year, at approximately the same rates as social assistance. They are landed immigrants, and our biggest goal is social and economic integration in order to empower new arrivals so they can take charge of their life in Canada.”

One of the organizations that ISIS works with is the Nova Scotia Tourism Human Resource Council (NSTHRC), which delivers a wide range of training related to tourism occupations, including the Ready to Work program. While ISIS assists the refugees with cultural challenges, it often refers them to NSTHRC for skills training, and the Ready to Work program is often a good fit for the Bhutanese refugees.

“They come from a training background— in camps, the value of education is passed down from generation to generation and was taken on by the refugees since they often don’t have the language levels to attend  formal training from an educational institution— so are a perfect fit for Ready to Work”, explains Mr. Claveau. In fact, the program’s effectiveness for the Bhutanese has become well known in the community.  “Through word of mouth, these refugees come into the office asking to be placed in Ready to Work, and employers ask for Ready to Work graduates from Bhutan when looking for help recruiting. Most of the refugees who participate in the Ready to Work program find work in frontline occupations in the accommodations industry, where they become stars at the workplace.”

Two Bhutanese refugees who have settled in Halifax and participated in the Ready to Work program talked about their experience coming to Canada, and how the program has helped them establish themselves and start their working lives in their new country. The fact that the refugee camps are built around a training culture is evident in both of their stories, as is their willingness to take on new challenges, their eagerness to learn new skills, and their determination to build a new life for themselves and their families.

Dilli Ram Dhungana was born in Bhutan, but grew up and was educated in a refugee camp in Nepal. He attended the Institute of Fine Art and Commercial Art in the camp, which teaches refugee children fine arts while focussing on helping them express their feelings and start their new life. He later shared what he had learned with youngsters by working as Chief Coordinator of the Institute.

He and his family arrived in Canada in June, 2010. He heard about the Ready to Work program, and that the training it provided was essential when looking for work in the tourism sector.

“I talked to my employment specialist, Steven at ISIS, about Ready to Work, and he gave me information on interview skills that helped me pass the interview and get involved in the program.”

Once enrolled, he found that the program more than lived up to its reputation.

“Ready to Work built up my knowledge to work in different positions in the tourism sector in Canada. It gave me the confidence to apply for work in this sector and helped me to get prepared for interviews and answer the interviewer’s questions.”

After graduating from Ready to Work, he had the skills and confidence required to enter the Canadian workforce.

“I know how to manage time, provide excellent service, work in a team and maintain privacy. The program helped me to be aware of workplace hazardous materials, and the First Aid training is helping me in day to day life. I am now working at Delta Halifax as a steward helper in the kitchen and my future plan is to become a cook.”

The value placed on education and training in the refugee camps is evident when Dilli Ram Dhungana is asked what he thinks is the most important benefit of the Ready to Work program. He answers, simply that “it is always good for the community to have educated and knowledgeable people and the knowledgeable workers that employers need.”

Gangaram Adhikari was born in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal, where his family of five lived for more than 18 years. His father and brother were teachers in refugee schools, and once he finished Grade Ten he volunteered at camp libraries, assisting children with finding books, with reading and with checking materials in and out. When he arrived in Canada, he found the Ready to Work program in much the same way as Dilli Ram Dhungana.

“My employment specialist at ISIS talked about the Ready to Work program and helped me to fill an application form. I like to work with people, he also told me how much easier it would be to find jobs in hospitality after doing RTW.”

When asked how Ready to Work prepared him for his new career, Gangaram doesn’t hesitate.

“Ready to Work taught me about different tourism careers, industry terms, communication skills, organizational skills, numeracy skills, and team work. It gave me the ability to multi-task, be flexible, and adapt. We also had some important workshops on WHMIS, Serve Right, First Aid/ CPR, Food Handlers, SUPERHOSTS, Workplace Etiquette, Time Management, Basic Budgeting, and Stress Management.”

He is clearly happy and excited about his new position and future prospects.

“We had a hotel tour in the program, where we talked to Human Resource Managers from different hotels and I was able to give my resume to them. I am now working at The Prince George Hotel, Halifax in the position of Housekeeping Room Attendant and will get cross trained for other departments. My future plan is to start university while still working part time and to graduate as a chemical engineer.” 

While the difference the Ready to Work program has made in his life is obvious, Gangaram recognizes that the program has a larger impact in the community.

“I found the Ready to work program important for learning about the Canadian workplace environment and tourism industry and its benefits to country, community and myself. It helps employees develop and improve their skills, work safely, and improve their understanding of the industry. It creates employment opportunities, it generates revenue, and it builds relationships between people. There were thirteen candidates for my seven week program, and eight of them were new Canadians. However, this program can help not only new Canadians like me, but all Canadians who need help finding work.”

The effectiveness of the partnership between ISIS and NSTHRC, and the positive effects of the Ready to Work program in Halifax have been extraordinary. As labour shortages in Canada return, employers will be forced to look to new Canadians, temporary foreign workers, and other underrepresented labour groups to fill necessary positions. In turn, employment bridging programs like Ready to Work will become more and more important to  maintain “an adequate supply of skills and labour to enhance visitor experiences through quality service” in the tourism and hospitality sector.

To illustrate the benefits of the program one last time, Steven Claveau from ISIS shares a remarkable statistic.

“Traditionally, about ninety percent of Government Assisted Refugees would apply for social assistance after their first year in the country. Since we began working with NSTHRC and Ready to Work, the number dropped to below sixty percent.”