What it Means to Be a Refugee

Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to become better acquainted with one of our clients – Birendra Chhetri. Birendra arrived in the US a year ago this month, and this fall he had just begun interpreting for us in the Cultural Orientation classroom when he agreed at the last minute to accompany me to a speaking engagement at UNC-G. Birendra spoke so eloquently and powerfully in that class that I returned to my office that day beaming with pride at his accomplishment. Speaking in his second language to a classroom of his peers about a deeply personal experience was so brave and inspiring on its own, but it was his words that really moved me.

This winter, I asked Birendra if he might be willing to write out an account of what he said that day – the story of his personal journey in coming to terms with being a refugee.  We are proud to share his story in his own words in full below. It is this story and that of so many others that inspires to start each day anew, reminding us why we have committed to a life of service and why it is worth it. We thank Birendra for allowing us to print this piece.


A Different Look at my Life
by Birendra Chhetri

When I was a young boy I remember my father calling me near his piles of old books and papers and handing me a note book. I was curious and a bit more anxious of the “big” responsibility that was going to be passed onto me. Handing over a thick tome on facts about Bhutan he said “this is for your reference to write down the facts and exciting things about Bhutan.” As if on a big mission, I started exploring the colorful pictures with captions trying to jot down something that was worth writing on the first page of the immaculate paper. From that day onward I came to know Bhutan as a tiny little Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China. A beautiful country that passed on the legacy of divinity and witnessed four different kings who then ruled Bhutan (we now have the fifth king). Portraits of people from various walks of life were seen smiling and enjoying the beauty of the nature and their existence in the very land of the thunder dragon. I used to be lost for hours looking at the majestic palace, from the priceless throne of gold and the celebration of different festivals to the artifacts and the glorious panoramic view of the Himalayas. If such a beauty is my country, why was I not there? Why was I in Nepal, a country not even bordering on my home? Why was I not part of the smile that was replicated among all those faces? Why was I a refugee and not among the hundreds and thousands of people still living there?

What is it to be a refugee? Refugee for ordinary people often means down-trodden, poor and hungry with tattered clothes living in world’s most pathetic life style, often terribly persecuted and humiliated, carrying no human value. If this is what they think it means, then they have given justice to the definition.

First and foremost you have nothing of your own. You don’t own a house, neither do you own a single inch of land to call it yours. You don’t have access to different facilities and benefits and you can’t travel or work legally. Your moves are being watched and you have no freedom at all.  We, like many of our refugee brothers and sisters, had to leave our closest relatives and house in Bhutan and escape at midnight because of the raising insecurity and fear of being the victim of random persecution by the Bhutan army. The houses were burnt, women were raped, people were imprisoned for no reason, they were tortured and killed.  The tragedy of leaving all of your closest relatives, the feeling of brokenness when you leave your house where you were born is simply heart breaking. Those who died bypassed the pain but those who survived had no option but to live in constant fear. “The leaving behind” – the violent and in-secured life and coming to Nepal was just a temporary escape. Thousands of people lived in constant psychological fear because of the trauma. Those who escaped the brutal torture of the army carried passive fear that never left their minds. Yes, we escaped the physical persecution but the emotional and the psychological persecution has been passed down the lineage by friends, family members, relatives and near ones that you can not escape but humbly accept the fact that you are a refugee and have nothing of your own.

The so called GNH (Gross National Happiness) that Bhutan proudly talked about in the UN and acts as a leading example of providing happiness to each and every people of its land is but a failure when they knowingly try to leave out thousands of Bhutanese refugees whose voice have never been heard or are not provided justice for what they went through. One of the Dutch writer and journalists writes “According to the international morale of refugees, people should repatriate but that has obviously proven to be an impossible dream.” The sixteen bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan could never come to fruition. There was no option for the helpless refugees but to opt for the resettlement to the third countries like USA, Australia, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and UK. It is rather safer to move to the countries where their law of the land can at least allow you to live with dignity, work with a permit and protect you without any differentiation and open door for being a citizen of the hosting country. It is a fact that adjustment to a totally different culture is always a problem for refugees, especially the old ones with regard to the food habits, language and culture. People have committed suicides in camps and there are cases where they have ended their lives in the resettled areas too. Yes it is true that the pain and separation from your homeland is incomprehensible. Its also true that we continue to carry the marks of violence and injustices done to us in our own Sangri-La. Above all being tagged as a refugee is the worst part of it when your friends and colleagues unknowingly try to make a difference between you and them, and you know that they are doing it.

But I reflect at my own life in a little different way. People comment that refugees have no identity but for me “refugee” itself is an identity. I don’t hide the fact that I was once part of the unethical ethnic cleansing of the Nepali speaking Bhutanese from Southern Bhutan. Bhutan may not accept me but the world has known me as a “Bhutanese Refugee.” Somewhere underneath the lines of what people term my status, I continue to be a refugee from Bhutan. That is where my heart is and where I belong. I have started to accept that the pains and persecutions as a refugee have made me more humane to people who are victimized in the corners of the world. A journalist might meticulously describe the pathetic life of a refugee with the power of his words, but unless he feels what thousands of refugees have gone through, it still remains shallow and ineffective. I found Christ after being a refugee, which I don’t think I would have if I was in Bhutan. As a refugee, I explored the beauty of different cultures and I don’t think I would have had a broader sense of the intricacies of politics living in one corner of Bhutan. I came to know what a refugee is to be like or what emotional torture would mean.  Being a refugee I have met hundreds of friends, teachers and well wishers who have changed my entire being. As a refugee I know what life means to me. I have come to know that the world not only has ruthless dictators but thousands of good souls who wants to make this world a better and a just place to live in.

We might have lost many things but the government of Bhutan could not succeed in taking our hope. It’s that hope that has continued to grow in us and have given us new life — If not a good present, surely a big hope for a better tomorrow. I have, along with thousands of refugees, risen above the challenges. Unless you know the meaning of darkness you may not be able to know the need of light. Similarly we have risen from the shards of nothingness and got a new life. A life with challenging experiences that added to its beauty with various ups and downs. We were able to live as refugees for years in the camps and today those experiences make us stand tall in front of the petty problems that we may face in life. We have shown the world that the houses that once turned into ashes and the life that was once shattered have been rebuilt with a solid foundation of hope. We might not even be allowed to be in the country where we were born, but we have brought our culture, our language, our ethnicity along with us and we are proud to pass it down to our generations. We have abilities and experiences, we have talents and skills, we have budding singers, writers and great thinkers. All we need is support. Some one who can be by our side to say “I am there for you.” That is why I am out of my childhood oblivion of “why me?” to a new understanding of “thank God it was me!”

Birendra arrived in the US in January 2012 through the US Department of State Refugee Resettlement Program. He was  welcomed by CWS and by the Greensboro community. He served as an interpreter giving back to his community in CWS’ Cultural Orientation Classes until this month when he started as a full time student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. We want to offer our most sincere thanks to him for sharing his story and allowing us to share it with you. 

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