Family’s journey to Canada started years ago



From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jul. 17, 2009 10:08PM EDT
Last updated Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009 3:00AM EDT

The Kattels’ journey to Canada began in 1992, when they were driven from their farms in southern Bhutan. During an interview with The Globe and Mail conducted in Nepal a few weeks before they left for Canada, the Kattels talked about their life and their hopes for the future.

The Kattels are Lhotshampa, descendants of Nepalese who moved to southern Bhutan in the 19th century, mostly to farm. Bhutan, which is one of the most isolated countries on earth, is known abroad for its unusual national mantra, which promotes a so-called Gross National Happiness. According to refugees, this state-directed goodwill was never extended to its Nepali-speaking minority.

By the 1980s, Bhutan’s king and government were concerned about the high birth rates among the largely Hindu, Nepali-speaking residents.

Fearing a shift in political power, the government stripped many Nepali-speaking Bhutanese of citizenship, enforced a strict dress code, and outlawed the use of Nepali in classrooms. Violent protests broke out in 1990, and activists were tortured and arrested. If Nepali-speaking residents couldn’t prove they lived in Bhutan before 1958, they were expelled.

In the dead of night, Mr. Kattel, his mother and two sisters made their way to India and eventually into Nepal’s southeastern Terai region. The following year, he wed Bishnu Maya in an arranged marriage.

They settled into their life at the Goldhap refugee camp, one of seven camps run by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Their children were educated and food was provided by the World Food Program. But, as Mr. Kattel’s mother said, “Every day was the same.”

The Kattels lived in a small, four-room bamboo hut with no privacy. The only real furniture was five beds Mr. Kattel built himself. Menuka, 12, shared a bed with her grandmother and was looking forward to a room of her own.

“Maybe we’ll have a computer and television in our big house, not like this, and a telephone,” she said. “I’ll have a separate bedroom.”

Of all the family members, Ms. Kattel appeared the least thrilled about the move, longing instead to return to Bhutan. But she too was fed up with the dreariness of camp life.

“It’s good that we’ll have freedom,” she said. “That we can practice our religion, we can speak our language, and the society itself is multicultural. The first and foremost thing is that we will not be refugees any more.”

Yesterday, the Kattels savoured their first full day in Canada. Touring downtown Vancouver, they gaped at roller-bladers and the sea planes landing in Burrard Inlet. Then it was back to the bureaucratic business of becoming Canadian. A counsellor spent the rest of the morning helping the Kattels apply for health and social insurance cards. Mr. Kattel was especially thrilled to apply for a permanent-residence card. At the Nepalese camp, he was issued a refugee card, a label he loathed.

By noon yesterday, Mr. Kattel admitted that his head was swimming with information. His grin, though, was as broad as ever.

“It’s very good here,” he said in English.

Special to The Globe and Mail, and with a report from Jane Armstrong