Road to Memphis long for Bhutanese refugees

Forced from their homes in Bhutan in the early 1990s, ethnic Nepali Bhutanese find homes in neighborhoods such as Memphis’ Binghampton after 20-plus years in Nepali camps.
This is one in a series of stories that look at the immigrant and refugee experience in Memphis, particularly in Binghampton.

“Up down, up down, mountain, mountain, mountain,” Bisnu Gurung says in broken English, explaining her daily ritual of walking to market in Bhutan.
 
But carrying heavy loads of wares on her back for two to three hours to get to market was a pleasant memory. That was life in Bhutan, where her family lived freely. But all of that changed in the early 1990s.
 
She and more than 100,000 other ethnic Nepali Bhutanese were no longer welcomed in their homes. They became refugees, homeless for the next 20 years.
 
The simple definition of a refugee is anyone forced to leave home because of war, persecution, natural disaster or other reasons. But defining humans by a simple word with a broad meaning is too easy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that one out of every 113 people on Earth is a refugee. Those 65.3 million people have 65.3 million stories.
 
As the 1990s unfolded some 100,000 ethnic Nepali Bhutanese were forced from their homes in Bhutan. They endured walks of five days and more across the countryside to India where they boarded buses for the journey to Nepal. It was there that they lived in camps for 20 years and longer before finally beginning the journey to new homes, which today includes Memphis where 21 households live in the Binghampton community.
 
Bisnu Gurung, Dil Gurung, Kali Gurung and Dil Rai sat down on a recent morning in the workshop of Ekata Designs to share their stories. Ekata Designs employs refugee women who now live in Binghampton. Their job is hand making jewelry that is then sold online and at various shops and events around Memphis.
 
Bisnu Gurung’s daughter in law Dil Rai is like many of the other 100,000-plus ethnic Nepali Bhutanese who lived in a refugee camp in Nepal, only she doesn’t have memories of Bhutan. It was never really home.
 
“I don’t know Bhutan because I was only 6 months,” she said when asked about Bhutan. “My family took me to Nepal. Our home was small. My entire childhood was in refugee camp. I don’t know Bhutan. My mother told me.”
 
Dil Rai and her family lived in the refugee camp for 18 years. Residents of the seven Nepal camps began to leave in 2008. Her family made the journey in January 2010, arriving in New York City on a cold night. She said she was confused about the white-covered streets. It was her first time to see snow.
 
The family went to Cincinnati before making their way to the final destination of Memphis. Today she, her husband and small child are part of a small Bhutanese community that calls Binghampton home. Dil Rai served as translator for the group, all women still struggling to learn English in their new home of Memphis.
 
Nepal was the first home to thousands of refugees from Bhutan – if a first home is somewhere a person’s ancestors moved from more than 100 years prior. See, many Nepalese people moved to Bhutan in the late 1800s. A unification process 100 years later escalated to the point that those 100,000 ethnic Nepalese were sent out of Bhutan.
 
Nepal no longer recognized them. In some ways it’s like an Italian-American family who has lived in Brooklyn for 100 years. They’re American citizens born in Naples who created a new home in New York. But after starting families and living lives as Americans, their government no longer recognizes them as citizens and forces them back to Italy.
 
Only they can’t live freely as Italians. They must live in camps with thousands of others, waiting 20-plus years for the hope they eventually can find a new home to live in peace.
 
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Bhutanese refugees making a new home for themselves in Memphis and other cities across the U.S. and Canada.
 
It’s a story the women who work at Ekata Designs all know too well. Some left home in the middle of the night, carrying their young children on their backs and nothing else. Others made the long journey across mountains while several months pregnant.
 
Many of them left a life of farming. The men worked on farms and the children watched the family cow. They also walked across mountain paths for two to three hours to get to market to sell their goods before making the journey home later that day. The next day was much the same.
 
Bisnu Gurung said she began making the trek to market when she was 6. It wasn’t easy work; the women carry large baskets attached to a long rope that goes around their head. Those large baskets filled with fruits or sticks put a lot of strain on a person’s neck and back. But it was work, something they weren’t allowed to do outside the refugee camps.
 
While in Bhutan many of the children didn’t attend school. There was too much work to do.
 
But as hard as that life was it was better than the refugee camps in Nepal.
 
“I like Bhutan because it’s our own house and farm,” Dil Gurung said. “In Nepal it wasn’t our house. We don’t have money for clothes. You can work but not make big money. In Nepal only men can.”
 
There was no light at night because there was no electricity. Everything was cooked on fires.
 
“It’s hard in the camp,” Bisnu Gurung said. “Someone who has gas has money.”
 
Bisnu Gurung had three children with her in Nepal, one of whom was born there. She and her husband carried the two young ones out of Bhutan when they left that night. The children were 1 and 2.5 at the time. Her husband later died in the camp.
 
Sitting next to her mother in law, Dil Rai shared her own memories of the refugee camp.
 
“In refugee camp the houses are so close together,” she said. “They’re all bamboo and hatch. One or two times the whole camp burned. Sometimes elephants come in to camp.”
 
Camp residents received monthly allotments of rice and lentils. There sometimes were vegetables, but the only way to get meat was to buy it. And with only a little money that came in from occasional work for the men, there wasn’t much meat consumed.
 
When they arrived in the camps everyone was given pieces of bamboo to make their own houses. The work for men usually consisted of making hats.
 
At one time there were seven refugee camps. The number has dropped to two as people are slowly relocated to new homes in other countries over the past eight years.
 
But not everyone wanted to go to America when the moves began. When the first refugees left in 2008 some of the Nepali Bhutanese killed others who wanted to go to the U.S.
 
“They wanted everyone to go back to Bhutan,” Dil Gurung said. “Some people were born in Bhutan and said we go back to Bhutan, not other countries. Some people said the Bhutan king won’t take us. But we’ve been gone a long time. We should go to the U.S. and find a better life there.”
 
All of the women and their families ultimately made their way to Memphis, their home of choice because a family member had already found home in the Bluff City.
 
The U.S. has positives for the women, but the transition isn’t easy, particularly learning English.
 
“Everything is different here but I like America better than Nepal,” Dil Gurung said. “In Nepal we eat and sleep on the floor. It’s a better life here. Everything is freedom. We work and we can buy everything.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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