From refugee to mason farmer, Bhim embraces his new life
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in the clouds so remote that its giant neighbors didn’t even know it existed. Situated at the eastern end of the Himalaya Mountain Range, it was called High Land by the men and women who lived there. For more than 1,000 years, the kings and their citizens practiced their Buddhist faith and honored their native Tibetan culture.
Then one day, the king invited Hindu craftsmen from the neighboring country, Nepal, to do important jobs – from smithing silver to clearing forests to building roads. These craftsmen brought their families to the kingdom, along with their traditional culture, language, food and clothing. With ample work and plentiful food, these Nepali families stayed and began farming the lush valleys and plains in the kingdom’s southern lands. Their numbers increased as new generations grew up supplying the kingdom with food.
For generations, the kingdom flourished, with the Tibetan Buddhist culture ruling from the north and the Nepali Hindu culture feeding everyone from the south. As time passed, people from India came into the kingdom to work and raise families, too. Though the rulers offered money to those who married into the ruling culture, the Nepali and Indians held fast to their traditional languages and way of life.
Then, the government passed a package of laws called “One Nation, One People,” designed to force uniformity. One law fined citizens if they appeared in public wearing anything other than northern people’s traditional dress. Another law discontinued the use of the Nepali language in the kingdom’s schools, requiring all teaching and learning to take place in Dzongkha, the governing language.
You might have already guessed that this is no fairy tale. The kingdom of the High Land is Bhutan, a little nation in southern Asia with a big immigration issue. After thousands of years of separating residents by their original nationalities, Bhutan’s ruling class decided its population needed to be like them. In 1988, the country conducted its first census to establish citizenship. Those who could prove they had lived in Bhutan prior to 1958 were granted citizenship papers. Anyone who could not prove residence before 1958 was considered an illegal immigrant.
This is the time that Bhim Dahal was born into a Nepali family in southern Bhutan. The youngest child of Bhadra and Harka Dahal, Bhim vividly remembers the night his father had to flee for his life.
He recounts, “In April of 1990, my father, Bhadra, attended a meeting for our whole town to explain the [One Nation One People] laws. After the senator explained how Nepali must speak Dzongkha and wear clothing of the ruling class and practice Buddhism, he asked if there were any questions. My father stood up and said he had tried for a year to learn the Dzongkha, but could not. The senator told him, ‘You Monkey, sit down,’ and said he must stay after the meeting. When the meeting was done, they took him to jail for not obeying government rules.
“They didn’t keep him locked up, but that week policemen came into our neighborhood and began killing Nepali who spoke against the new laws. My father knew he would be next, so he escaped to India to live with my mother’s brother. I was 7, so I stayed in Bhutan with my mother, brothers, sister and grandparents. A year later, we all joined my father.
“In India, we were undocumented, so life was hard. There was no school for us children and conditions were not clean. Malaria and dirty drinking water killed my grandfather. We could not work, we had nowhere to go. We didn’t belong any place.
“Later, we heard about a refugee camp the United Nations had set up in Nepal for refugees from Bhutan. One of my uncles had lived in the camp and he told us about it. We decided to try it.
“When we arrived, the camp was so overcrowded people had to go into the jungle to go to the bathroom. Diseases spread quickly. Many died. But eventually they set up seven camps and spread people out between them. The UN gave us bamboo and thatch to make a 10-by-15 meter house for our family. Refugees built the houses in rows, with bathrooms in separate rows in between so neighbors shared. We carried water from our house and there wasn’t much, but it was cleaner than going in the jungle.
“I went to school in the camp and learned Dzongkha, Nepali and English. UN rations weren’t enough to provide our family’s basic needs, so during school breaks and when I had finished my education, I joined my father and brothers working in the local economy. Both in India and Nepal, the local people took advantage of us because we could not work legally. We had to lie about our status, but they knew where we came from. Some would promise money or food, then give us half, or none at all, after we did their work.
“But we made enough to survive, and after I came back from working in India I met my wife, Yoga. We married and lived in the camp with my parents and grandmother. For 19 years, my family lived in the camps until we were able to move. Of the seven wealthy countries that agreed to take refugees, my father chose the U.S.
“In April of 2010, I stepped off the plane in Lansing with my parents, grandmother and my wife. It was so cold, but St. Vincent Catholic Charities gave us warm clothes. They also provided food, housing and transportation to jobs and appointments. They helped us learn English through the Refugee Development Center, and got us enrolled through DHS [Department of Human Services] for medical care and services to get us started. After eight months, we were able to get along on our own. My father and I were working in local factories and we all worked at raising our own food in community gardens.
“Two years ago, we had saved enough money to buy a farm for my family to live on and work. While I do maintenance in a factory all day, my parents work the farm and Yoga watches my grandmother and our two daughters, Sikka and Swara. After my shift, I also work the farm raising Asian vegetables and livestock.”
Reflecting on his fairy tale journey from the kingdom in the clouds to his Lansing-area farm, Bhim smiles: “Here I have everything. Our house is big enough for my whole family, and I can build it any way I want. We all have health coverage. I can get a loan without having to give lenders gold to keep as collateral. I get paid for my work at Williamston Products, Inc. and on the farm.
“In America, if you work eight hours it will be sufficient for you. But if you work 16 hours, you can keep the money in your pocket – I was even having $60 or $80 in mine! Here I can make a better life.”
While Bhim’s life isn’t a fairy tale, his journey ends as all good stories do – with everyone living happily ever after.
St. Vincent Catholic Charities (STVCC) is the only Catholic Charities agency in the Diocese of Lansing that resettles refugees. In the fall of 2015, STVCC was preparing for the resettlement of Syrians in Lansing and was resettling an unusually large number of refugees from all parts of the globe.
For more information on STVCC Refugee Services, visit stvcc.org/services/refugee-services/ or call 517-323-4734.