We are publishing this essay in honor of World Refugee Day 2019. The author serves as a Define American Ambassador and this is his first piece for the Define American blog. — Eds.
One typical summer day in 1990, while my father and I were walking to a nearby farmer’s market in Lamidara, Bhutan, we suddenly heard several rounds of gunshots. I was 8 years old. My mother had told me that ethnic Nepali citizens were being imprisoned and tortured under Bhutan’s “One Nation, One People” policy enacted in 1989. This policy led to ethnic-cleansing and expulsion of approximately 100,000 Nepalis from Bhutan, including my family.
My father assured me that the gunshots were from poachers hunting in the area. But when we returned home, my cousin’s sister, to my disbelief, narrated a different story. She told us that a man with a gunshot wound to his head entered her home, fell on the floor, asked for water, and passed out. The army came and dragged his body into a truck and drove away. Later, we found out that this man, who survived, and four others, who were killed, were trying to stop the army from confiscating Nepali language books from the local school. The bodies of the four dead men, my father said, were never returned to their families.
There was growing fear in the Nepali-ethnic community. My mother warned us after our neighbor fled that we could be the next to be forcibly evicted out of Bhutan, a country we had called home for several generations. My father was a friend of the head of our village who was Hindu; for this the government tried to imprison him. Luckily, he made it safely to a hideout in a cave, several miles away from our house. He stayed there for a few weeks. He would come home during the night to eat and return to the cave during the day. One day, while I was fetching water, a group of men from the army stopped and questioned me about my father’s whereabouts and asked if I had any information. I started crying, nodded my head no, and pretended I had no clue. One soldier almost hit me with the butt of a long rifle. Once they left I returned home traumatized. That event still gives me nightmares.
My mother was right — a few weeks later it was time for my family to leave Bhutan. One early morning before dawn, we packed up everything we could and left home to an unknown destination. We drank stream water and made a bed out of tree branches on our way to cross the Indian border from Bhutan. I have a vivid memory of my little brother, who was 6 years old, refusing to travel because his feet couldn’t carry him further. He insisted he wanted to go back home. My dad carried him on his back. Though my parents assured us that we would return home soon, it never happened. Instead we ended up in a refugee camp in Nepal for close to 20 years. In the camp, I experienced many forms of hardships. It was difficult to live in hunger, poverty, and deprivation. My family, like thousands of others, depended primarily on the UN’s limited food rations to survive.
In 2007 the U.S. government announced it would resettle Bhutanese refugees. I was very optimistic. Less than a year later, after being vetted thoroughly by the U.S. government, I got my new life. Springfield, Massachusetts became my new home.
Although my 18-hour flight from Nepal to JFK airport was painful (my first experience in an airplane), my happiness overrode my jetlag. I was determined to begin a new chapter of my life, for to me “U.S.A.,” as I used to hear while in the refugee camp in Nepal, meant “U Start Again.”
After some adjustment struggles, just like any other refugee/immigrant during the initial phase of resettlement, I got settled in my new homeland. I have achieved my goal of becoming a proud naturalized American citizen. I couldn’t be more thankful to this country and to the public for letting me have a second chance at life. I have experienced firsthand that the United States is a country where one can achieve success based on merit, and not on race, religion, or ethnicity.
Unfortunately, negative stereotypes of refugees have increased since Trump took office, making America a less welcoming place. Lately, I’ve struggled to define my identity and belongingness to this country, the same way I felt back in 2012 when I became a naturalized citizen.
“You know that you don’t belong here, right?” a white man asked me recently at the local store. “What?” I asked and he said, “Never mind,” and started talking with others. I am afraid that we as a country have deviated from one of our founding principles — to be a country of immigrants.
The fiscal year 2019 ceiling limit for refugee resettlement in the United States is just 30,000 people. Historically, this is one of the lowest numbers since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. I know I cannot do much at an individual level to change this, but I feel compassion for those refugees who need a new home to start a dignified life. As one of the greatest countries on the planet, we can do better. I strongly feel that we should welcome more refugees.
I continue to aspire to give back to the community that has restored my life. I, like many other refugees and immigrants, want to grow, invest and die in this country. I have no other homes to go to. As a refugee, I can’t go back to Bhutan. Thankfully, there are good people in the United States who stand with refugees, or I would be traumatized by fear of deportation. Instead, I am celebrating my life now with courage and resilience. I wish and hope that my soon to be two-year-old daughter, born and raised here, will grow up to be compassionate towards all people, refugees and immigrants and citizens alike.
Bhuwan Gautam, a former refugee from Bhutan, is a Define American Ambassador and the senior advisor to the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts–Springfield, a Massachusetts-based community organization that responds to the social, cultural and educational needs of the resettled Bhutanese. He holds MPA from Westfield State University.