If you want to understand how it feels to leave your country behind and start anew, there are a million questions you could ask a refugee: about jobs and housing and education. But if you ask those questions over dinner, they’re likely to be answered a little differently. Because three times a day your deepest, oldest instincts kick in. Because the mind likes to look ahead but the stomach tends to think backward.
We were in the warm kitchen of a small second-floor walk-up in a gritty section of the gritty town of Manchester, New Hampshire, and we were gobbling momo. Momo are dumplings, the most traditional food of southern Bhutan, and, indeed, of that entire swath of the Himalayas. (In Tibet they’re stuffed with yak, and in Nepal with water buffalo; if you’ve had Japanese gyoza, Chinese jiaozi or Mongolian buuz, you’re in the same aisle.) These were vegetarian—cabbage diced finely and seasoned with momo masala, a traditional blend of spices. And they were beyond savory: Every few minutes our hosts would open the silver steamer on the stovetop and another round would emerge to sighs of contentment. For a moment, momo were making this small apartment into a corner of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan.
And every few minutes the door to the apartment would open and yet another young person—a son, daughter, niece or nephew—would enter, usually carrying a book bag. These were a few of the local representatives of the Bhutanese diaspora, which began in the early 1990s when the largely Buddhist kingdom forced 108,000 Bhutanese of Nepali descent, most of them Hindu, out of the country and across borders into Nepal. They waited there in refugee camps for almost two decades and then, beginning in 2007, were resettled around the world—Australia, Canada and other countries took some, but around 70,000 were admitted to the United States, one of the largest influxes of refugees (from one of the smallest countries) in recent times.
Rohit Subedi, 29, enters from the outside hallway straight into the kitchen. He’s working on a degree in health information management, transferring paper records to electronic ones. He’d pursued an undergraduate degree in physics in Nepal, but it was too expensive to continue those studies at the University of New Hampshire; this program, he tells us, should lead to a job. “People need to learn how to work hard,” he says. “Without working hard no one can be a success here.”
A friend of the family, Suraj Budathoki, 30, is downing not just momo but curried cauliflower and delicious wholemeal roti. “There are two things we tell our young people when they arrive,” he says. “Get a job, whatever level. And go to school.” For him, the greatest sadness of those decades in the refugee camp was that he had no chance to work—“there was no fruitful activity.” Once a nurse’s aide, he now helps people sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Oh, and he’s just finished a degree program to become a surgical technician. So far he’s saved up $16,000 for a house of his own. “USA stands for U Start Again,” he says.
If you wonder why people want to come to America, that’s why. Oh, and the fact that there’s plenty to eat. At the refugee camp in Nepal meals were sporadic, and there was one standpipe for water, with a constant long line to fill jerrycans. “A very big line, and when you’d get there, it was just a trickle coming out,” says Ganga Thapa, 29, Budathoki’s wife, who even now is producing another pan of momo from the stove in her parents’ apartment, where the group has gathered. Their 3-year-old daughter is dashing through the kitchen, chasing a cousin. Her name is Brianna, which is not a name you’d find in Bhutan. “The first impression you make is your name,” Budathoki says. “We wanted to give her a good chance as an American.” Indeed, after “work,” the most common word in the new Bhutanese English lingo is “blend,” as in “I want our children to blend their two cultures.” For Brianna, it seems to be working—she speaks a toddler pidgin of her two languages, and she has recently learned that most American of greetings, the high-five. She’s eager to exchange it with visitors. But not right now, because she has a momo in each small fist.
Bhutan gets good press, much of it deserved. If anyone’s heard of the tiny kingdom in recent years, it’s because of the government’s adoption of “gross national happiness” as a goal, insisting that gross domestic product is just one measure of a country’s success and that economic growth needs to be balanced against the need to protect the mountains, the forests, the culture and good governance. “Material well-being is only one component. That doesn’t ensure that you’re at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other,” the nation’s former prime minister told the New York Times in a lengthy, glowing account of the nation’s achievements. Only in the third to last paragraph of the story did the Times reporter note that some people had “gently criticized the Bhutanese officials for dealing with a Nepali-speaking minority mainly by driving tens of thousands of them out of the country in recent decades, saying that was not a way to foster happiness.”
Indeed. In fact, among the exile community the criticism is far from gentle. “Gross national happiness is false,” says Budathoki, who has helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan: Earlier this winter at one of its first public forums, the walls were decorated with posters of soldiers attacking the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese before driving a hundred thousand of them from the country. “The whole idea of Bhutan’s happiness is becoming false to the outside world now because there are 70,000 of us abroad,” he said. “We are the truth. We are the result of that happiness.”
The political reasons behind the expulsions are complicated—Bhutan is a small bump next to massive India, which absorbed another Himalayan kingdom, Sikkim, in the 1970s. The king may have feared that as the country’s Hindu population grew, Bhutan, too, would find itself in New Delhi’s sights. But whatever the reason, the exodus was massive and swift; over the course of a year or two in the early 1990s people poured out of the nation in a kind of ethnic cleansing. “I saw the police truck putting students in the back, and I ran straight out of school,” remembers Budathoki, who was a second grader at the time. “That very day found my father coming home with rashes and bruises, saying we should leave the country. We walked out of our house in the middle of the night.” Though they decamped for Nepal, the country wouldn’t let them become citizens, apparently fearing an influx of others from around the region. So for 19 years they lived in United Nations-run camps, which were, at least in the early years, rife with measles, scurvy, TB, cholera, malaria and beriberi. Eventually the community’s leaders accepted that they would not be going home anytime soon and began to look toward a new future, with the U.S. accepting the lion’s share of the refugees.
In their 2013 documentary, The Refugees of Shangri-La, filmmakers Doria Bramante and Markus Weinfurter show scenes of the early arrivals to New Hampshire, many landing in a snowstorm. Refugees get three months of housing and public assistance, but that doesn’t mean life is easy: Farmers from the humid lowlands, they were now apartment dwellers in northern New England. Manchester’s streets aren’t paved with gold; in fact, all winter long they’re crusty with ice and sand, and in 2008, when the refugees began arriving, conditions were particularly bleak, with the U.S. economic crisis at its peak. “When people got here, they had a long breath,” says Tika Acharya, 37, who runs the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire, a nonprofit group that provides English-language education and helps refugees find housing and health care. “We were coming to a land where we’d heard of all the success in the world. But when we landed here, there was the cold, the language barrier, the cultural adjustment. But at least here we’re not dying because of hunger, and at least here we can access health care so our sisters don’t die when they have to deliver a baby at labor time. The challenges are temporary—we are learning how to get the work done. And America was built by immigrants—everyone who came here had the same challenges.”
Though local churches and community agencies rallied to help the new arrivals, not all their neighbors received them so warmly. Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas said the city was being overwhelmed and called for a moratorium on arrivals, which drew considerable support in a city whose newspaper, the Union Leader, has a long reputation as one of the most conservative in the country. But it was an article at Yahoo News that really captured the flavor of the public’s reaction—or rather, it was the 607 reader comments that followed, almost all of them expressing outrage at the idea that “freeloaders” were arriving to mooch off America. As GeorgiaCowboy put it: “If YOU are a taxpaying PRODUCTIVE citizen of this nation then YOU are the ones getting fvcked by these bleeding heart leeches.”
Or, from another would-be political scientist in the comments section: “Diversity = Division = the breakdown of America.”
In fact, what was most remarkable about the outpouring of vitriol was that few of the commenters seemed even to have read the article, which pointed out that in three years most of the Bhutanese had secured jobs, that they were less likely to be on welfare than the Manchester population as a whole, and that their children were graduating from high school at a far higher rate than the native-born population. They were, in other words, the kind of people that Americans like to imagine themselves to be.
"Our children are doing straight A-plus,” says Chura Mani Acharya, 50, who taught school in Bhutan, where he lived for 29 years, and then in the camps, where he spent nearly 17 years. “When we first came, they underestimated our children and put them in ESL classes. Soon, though, they promoted them to a higher grade. Last year 100 percent of our high-school students passed. One has a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Vermont Technical College. We came here for our children. We’re so proud of them.”
Even the adults seem obsessed with learning. We sat in on an English class with elderly Bhutanese, mostly women who, judging from their leathery faces, had spent most of their lives in the fields. They wore bindis, the forehead dot of a pious Hindu, had gold earrings and nose rings, and were concentrating intently on simple words: clock, pencil, table. “They ask us for homework,” says Sister Jacqueline Verville, a 77-year-old Catholic nun who opened a center for refugees about the time the Bhutanese began arriving. “Some of these people didn’t even know how to hold a pencil. They never went to school. They were farmers. The women put the children on their backs.”
Sister Jackie has gotten hate mail for her efforts, but says she hopes the resentment isn’t widespread. “People think they’re on welfare, but that’s not true. Our own people use it more.”
Not every Bhutanese is succeeding, of course. In fact, nearly 20 of the 70,000 refugees in the U.S. have killed themselves, a large enough number that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control commissioned a study to determine the causes. The findings were grim but also expected: echoes of trauma from home and difficulty finding social support in their new homes. Here’s Budathoki’s take: “We almost all had land in Bhutan, we almost all had our houses, we used to grow things ourselves. We were the owners of ourselves. Now every month there are bills. We had never heard about rent. We were in the 17th century and now we’re in the 21st century.”
For almost every immigrant the question is how much to embrace the new world and how much to hang on to the old. And it’s a question that hit the Bhutanese particularly hard, as they arrived very suddenly in a place where there was nobody like them. They know they need to fit in, the young people especially: Subedi announced over dinner that the Red Sox had “won this award and so we had a party at our workplace,” the award being last fall’s World Series.
But they’ve also learned quickly that not every last thing about the U.S. is worth emulating. Budathoki explains why Bhutanese community leaders were setting up a school to teach their children about the culture they’d come from. “When you meet our seniors, there’s a different way of respecting them: saying ‘Namaste,’ for instance. But children who were brought up in America know that they’d just say ‘hi.’ And I can’t call my father by his name: That would be disrespect. We want to preserve those relationships. When we were younger they helped us, so when they’re older, we help them. Here it’s different. When you’re 18 or 20, you leave your family, and eventually you put the old people in nursing homes. In five years no one from our community has gone into a nursing home.”
Three times a day, of course, that question of blending old and new gets settled at the dining room table. At first, it was almost impossible for new refugees to get the food they were used to. But as the community began to prosper, a small grocery store opened. The Himalayas General Store made its debut on a slightly seedy stretch of Manchester’s main drag last year, and if you’re from southern Bhutan, it must be deeply relaxing to walk in. You’re surrounded by the stuff you know.
Some of it is beautiful, exotic: piles of lentils for making dal—bright orange, vivid green, deep brown. Cracked corn, to be boiled and mixed with rice or yogurt. Flattened rice, gram flour and dozens of kinds of pickle: radish pickle, gooseberry pickle, mango pickle, jar after jar of gundruk pickle. Some of the spices are familiar: cumin, coriander. But there are also bags of amchur powder, shiny black kalonji seeds, ajwain seeds. “When ladies are pregnant, and after, when she has a baby, if we eat a soup made from ajwain seeds, it will give us breast milk,” says the store clerk, 25-year-old Tila Bhattarai, who had arrived in Chicago when she came to the U.S. but soon met a fellow refugee from New Hampshire and made the move. Does the soup work? “Oh yes,” she says: Her 2-year-old is thriving. His name is Allen.
She showed off big bags of dried radish and stacks of pimpled bitter-melon gourds, and powders for decorating the forehead for Hindu ceremonies. Some of the stock reminded us that India dominates the Himalayan region: There were tubs of ghee and a shelf of “India’s number one cockroach chalk, Laxmanrekhaa brand.” Other items recalled the not-very-distant days of British colonialism: Britannia brand chocolate-flavored cream biscuits and “Woodward’s Celebrated Gripe Water, useful during the teething period.” In a back room, bright Nepali versions of saris and wedding day clothes for brides and bridegrooms hung on hangers; up front, you could buy a Bhutanese drum and a harmonium, the accordionlike instrument at the heart of the region’s music. And that day by the cash register, a steady stream of customers made themselves paan, the mildly stimulating treat of betelnut and lime paste spread on a green leaf and chewed like tobacco.
There’s no Bhutanese restaurant yet, but a couple of entrepreneurs are preparing a business plan. In the meantime, says Budathoki, he’ll sometimes go to a nearby Indian restaurant. “Or to Margarita’s,” he said. “Mexican food—very spicy, which is what we like.”