Bhutanese community in Pittsburgh is a growing and vibrant community that is part of the overall Bhutanese refugees resettled in the U.S since 2008. Over 60,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal have been resettled in the U.S as part of the Third-Country Resettlement Program started by UNHCR for the refugees in Nepal who were victims of ethnic-cleansing and political vendetta in Bhutan.
The Bhutanese refugees, though they pride themselves to be called new-Americans, first came to Nepal as refugees from Bhutan in 1990s after a series of ethnic cleansing drive started by the Royal Government of Bhutan under the fourth king Jigme Singye Wanchuk. An overwhelming majority of Bhutanese in the southern belt of Bhutan were Hindus of Nepalese descent who had been legally residing there since the early part of the 19th century (The earliest batch of Nepalese to legally settle down in Bhutan was in the 17th century before Bhutan was unified). The turmoil in Bhutan started in the early and mid eighties with the Citizenship laws and homogenization (the correct word to describe could be ‘Talibanization’) drive under the fourth king and his extremist team who started getting paranoid soon after India annexed Sikkim in 1971, another Himalayan country ruled by similar Buddhist elites.
The homogenization of Bhutanese society picked up so fast that it included every aspect of Bhutanese life. Since the ruling elites were of Buddhist origin based in Tibet, they claimed that Bhutan would lose its identity if Bhutan followed the footsteps of democratic choice. So they pushed very hard to mold and orient all Bhutanese into a Buddhist style of life that pleased the regime that included uniform dress-code for all Bhutanese (kho and kira), following a set of social etiquette known as ‘Driglam Namzha”, doing away with Nepali language curriculum in the southern school and regulating even temples and cultural ethos of the southern Bhutanese along with crafting one of the weirdest kind of citizenship laws in 1985 that annulled earlier citizenship granted by the government. This all boiled down and triggered a peaceful mass uprising in the southern belt of the country in the late 1990.
However, the government could easily suppress the movement with its brute force which began the era of political and ethnic vendetta causing Bhutanese from the southern belt to flee for safety. An overwhelming majority of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal numbering over 100,000 are Hindus and were citizens of Bhutan with all the papers that government issued them. However, after the mass protest of 1990, the Bhutanese from the southern belt were rounded up and forced to sign voluntary migration form before forcing them out of the country. These voluntary migration forms were used by the Royal Government of Bhutan in international campaigns to give legitimacy to its claims that we left the country out of our own will by surrendering our property to the government for compensation.
Thus, our arrival in Nepal as refugees through the Indian Territory smacks of a lot of political stakes at the geopolitical level that is essentially between India, Bhutan and Nepal. After our arrival in Nepal, the government of Nepal invited donors and UNHCR for our upkeep. Thus, we ended up in the camps for the last 17 years and for some it is now over As diplomatic efforts between Bhutan and Nepal to repatriate the Bhutanese refugees failed after 15 rounds of talks taking 15 years, the international community began to show fatigue in the upkeep of the Bhutanese refugees in the camp. From the time the Bhutanese refugees arrived in Nepal, our leaders and Government of Nepal tried for repatriation as the only one option. The Bhutan Government on the other hand did not even admit that we were refugees and kept its propaganda that we were illegal migrants thrown by the Government. It kept campaigning that we were traitors, anti-nationals, illegal immigrants and even terrorists. The point was to hide its sinister policy of ethnic cleansing supported by the Government of India.
The sad part is that the international community is hoodwinked successfully by the Government of Bhutan through its much hyped concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), serving as an effective tool to distract the international donor partners from its guilt of gross human rights violations inside the country. Bhutan has over the years introduced some cosmetic changes to allay the concerns of the donor countries in Bhutan who were getting wary of its human rights record. Though the public has seen some relief in the form of limited social and cultural freedom (the TV was allowed only in 1998), the drama of democracy in Bhutan has not got any better in terms of its ethnic policy. There are still political prisoners in Bhutan and it practices discrimination and racism inside the country. Despite its much hyped democracy Bhutan is still shying away from setting up its National Human Rights Commission. The ethnic Nepali of Bhutan (Lotshampha in Dzongkha) still face various forms of discrimination and harassment from the public officials at the local level as its state policy.
That’s brings us to the point that Bhutanese refugees in Nepal being tired of Bhutan’s game decided to consider resettling in the third country when Nepal Government said they cannot accept us as citizens. Thus, from late 2007, a core group of donor countries, except Japan, decided that they would accept Bhutanese refuges from the camp in Nepal to resettle them in their countries and help them obtain citizenship(as Bhutanese refugees lived so long being stateless). The United States, being the most generous one, it decided it would take as much as 60,000 refugees and thus our story in the U.S begins.
Once we arrived in the U.S, we did not pick up our State or city of resettlement. It was all decided at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) who placed the arriving refugees in different States and cities. But being lucky to be in this country, our folks began to move all around and choosing the place of their own due to their needs of being together for family reasons as well as reasons of employment. Most of the Bhutanese community members in Pittsburgh are now secondary migrants from other States and cities who like to live in Pittsburgh for various reasons. We are proud to call Pittsburgh our home now.
And Bhutanese refugees are making progress all around despite low level of literacy and language barriers. Our kids are doing well in the school and some of our kids do not even speak our native language anymore. That is good as well as a concern for the family as kids are picking up everything very fast whereas the elders have difficulty navigating public transport and shopping malls.
The biggest challenge facing the Bhutanese community in the U.S is with regard to elders who are above 50 years old and being totally and absolutely illiterate, cannot pass the naturalization test. If few can make it we should be lucky. Aside from that, the Bhutanese Americans are now in their way to adapting well and carrying out various activities. They are in business, medical, education, engineering and now the new generation of high school graduates are entering into professional career lines. People have bought their houses, opened their stores and shops and setting up their community centers. One such community based organization in Pittsburgh is BCAP (Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh). It is totally manned by volunteers and carries out a lot cultural and other activities in Pittsburgh by networking with other communities.