A teenage girl in a long skirt and bright red top spins to a Nepali folk song over a crackly speaker. Her thick black braid trails her as she whips and turns.
It’s Teacher’s Day at Beldangi refugee camp. Students at Tri Ratna Secondary School are thanking their teachers with speeches, songs, and folk dances on a bamboo stage decorated with their mothers’ saris.
This has been a yearly tradition since the school opened in 1992, when the refugees had just arrived and classes were held in an empty field. Now, they study in a modest complex of bamboo classrooms that even has a science lab and small teachers’ lounge. But there aren’t many students left. The school’s principal, Purna Gurung, says the student body has dropped from nearly 3,000 to fewer than 200 as kids leave the camp and resettle in new countries. But he has no plans to leave himself.
“I have chosen to be here, longing for repatriation to Bhutan, my own country,” Gurung says.
Fleeing ethnic cleansing, finding new homes in third countries
In the 1990s, people in Nepal like Gurung, with certain ethnic backgrounds, were pushed out of the country through a severe campaign to retain Bhutanese national identity. Around 108,000 people moved through India to Nepal, where camps were eventually established. In 2007, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, started accepting applications for moves to third countries. After almost a decade of the resettlement program, more than 105,000 Bhutanese refugees have moved abroad. The vast majority have started new lives in the United States.
With about 90 percent of the refugees now abroad, the Bhutanese program is actually a huge success, as far as refugee resettlement goes. More often, refugees never get the option to move. According to Kevin Allen, the Kathmandu-based representative of the UN refugee agency, global displacement has now reached World War II levels. And fewer than 1 percent of refugees typically find safe homes in new countries.
“There are currently 65 million people forcibly displaced, it’s in the news, the Syria situation, South Sudan, Somalia, etc., and so the international community is hard pressed to meet needs globally,” Allen says.
The Bhutanese refugees were given until Nov. 15 of this year to apply to go abroad. By the end of the year, UNHCR will stop forwarding applications for resettlement. Allen predicts there will be about 10,000 people left here at the end.
One of the last to leave will be 29-year-old teacher Sita Adhikari.
Adhikari teaches high school math in the camp and makes $7 a month. She actually has a master’s degree in humanities. But when the camp’s last math teacher moved to the US, she was the most qualified person to take over.
Back in her bamboo hut, she teaches herself the lessons while trying to keep her young kids occupied enough to ignore the oppressive heat and mosquitoes. A small fan quietly fights back in the corner, but sweat trickles with any movement. When a problem stumps her, she texts her brother for help. He used to teach math in the camp too, but resettled to Rochester, New York, in 2008. Soon she’ll join him.
“I want to experience life and I want to provide my children more facilities than I used to have because I have taken much struggle in life now,” Adhikari says.
Some refugees don't want to be resettled
Adhikari says she’s late to apply for resettlement because her recent divorce has complicated her application. But some of her neighbors are still here because they don’t actually want to move. Some think they’ll be given land in the area if they stay.
“Some want to return back to Bhutan also. There are people. There is one grandfather there. He wants to move back to Bhutan.”
But Adhikari knows this is unlikely. She says people have been talking about moving back to Bhutan since the ’90s, but it hasn’t happened. One of these people holding out for return was Adhikari’s own primary school teacher, Dhanman Khadka, who came to her hut to talk.
Khadka has been teaching primary school in the camp since 1994 and was adamant against resettling; so much so that his wife and son moved to Australia without him in 2012. They haven’t spoken since. But now 64 and living alone, he’s resigned himself. Last March, Khadka applied for resettlement to Dallas, where his daughter lives.
“What to do — so many relatives are there. Better to go there, our life is better than here,” he says.
Khadka’s friend, 70-year-old Dal Bahadur Bista, disagrees.
“I’m not going. I’m staying here.”
Bista has lived in the camp for 24 years. He still considers Bhutan, where he had to abandon his house and fields of cardamom and orange trees, home.
“I have really really big hopes that I could be back one day in my land in Bhutan, and if not, I’d like to die here in this land, but I won’t go to a third country. At least I can die here in peace in this camp.”
Bista sits outside his hut sweating over bamboo he’s fashioning into a baby cradle. Refugees aren’t legally allowed to work in Nepal, but the informal economy is flush with their labor. He sells his bamboo crafts both in the camp and to locals outside, but he knows these skills won’t translate well in the West.
“Thinking about going abroad, I can’t read or write. I’m just going to be sitting there like a rock. We can’t understand anything, can’t do anything. I’m too old to work,” he says.
So, why doesn’t Bista go back home? Because Bhutan has made it crystal clear they don’t want the refugees, whom they considered illegal immigrants, back. And if you try, there could be a big price to pay.
Stuck in limbo
Take 28-year-old Shanti Ram Acharya. When Acharya was 17, he says he tried to cross back over the border to visit an uncle. Instead, Acharya says he was accused of terrorism by the Bhutanese authorities.
“I spent eight years in the detention center, it’s too terrible,” he says.
With charges of terrorism on his record, he’s been told he’s ineligible to resettle to the US, where his family moved in 2011. He’s hopeful he’ll be able to resettle in Australia instead, but it’s hard on his mom.
“I didn’t call her. When I call her she used to cry, she always remembering me. She always ask everybody about me so I don’t want to give torture to her.”
Refugees like Dal Bahadur Bista don’t want to go to the West, but Nepal, despite hosting the refugees for over two decades, says they don’t really belong there either. Most likely they’ll be allowed to stay, but experts say statehood and land rights may elude them, as it did in Bhutan.
For its part, UNHCR says it is still negotiating with both countries. They’re also looking at local solutions, like getting Nepal to let refugee kids attend regular schools once the camps have closed. UNHCR’s Anna Pelosi admits, though, it’s more likely to be older people who will stay behind.
“I think over the years what we’ve seen is the older generation tends to be more interested in returning to Bhutan and the younger generation sometimes tends to want to resettle,” she says.
The last to go
This rings true for Bhim Thapa, the grandson of Dal Bahadur Bista, the bamboo craftsman. Thapa, 28, is applying for resettlement in Australia. He had put it off hoping his grandfather would change his mind and come with him, but with the deadline looming he had to act.
“Now everybody agrees to go, but still there is some problem because of this grandfather, grandmother, other people also they don’t want to go, so what we should do for them. Still we are confused.”
Thapa doesn’t want to abandon his grandfather, but he worries about his own family’s future. He points out his son, who’s sitting nearby watching videos on a cellphone. He’s 5, the same age Thapa was when the family first arrived in the camp. Thapa doesn’t want him to waste his childhood in a refugee camp too.
Around the families still here, things are changing. Empty housing plots have become vegetable gardens. When a family moves out, Sita Adhikari says, their neighbors dismantle their bamboo hut for firewood.
“Like sharing birthday cake, they will share the house,” Adhikari says.
Rations from the World Food Program are decreasing too. But for the most part, the rhythm of life in the camp goes on. And the school continues to offer promises, even as more of its benches empty.
“In this place, our only hope is our school,” Adhikari says.
Her legal name, the name on the documents that will get her out of this limbo and on a path to American citizenship, is actually Saraswoti, the goddess of learning. It’s a fitting name for a woman who sees education as the ticket to a better life.