First a very brief background to their story:
The Kingdom of Bhutan, a South Asian country bordered by China to the north and India to the south, was a collection of warring fiefdoms until the early 17th century when the area was unified by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who fled religious persecution in Tibet and cultivated a separate Bhutanese identity. In 1907 Ugyen Wangchuck became king and his fifth descendant is king today. In 2007 Bhutan made the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy.
Bhutan's climate is Alpine in the north where the people are culturally aligned with Buddhist Tibetans and subtropical in the southern plains. Beginning in the 19th century a government policy of development allowed the immigration of ethnic Nepalis to farm and build roads. In most accounts the immigrants were to be awarded citizenship for their service. The south became the breadbasket of the country and by 1960 one third of the people in Bhutan were reckoned to be of Nepali descent, mostly Hindus.
By the middle of the 20th century the Bhutanese government began a series of measures aimed at suppressing the Lhotshampa (the word means 'southerners') population including closing schools, fines and imprisonment for speaking Nepali, wearing anything but the national dress (wool and layers, suitable in the north, but impossible in the tropical south), confiscation of property, etc. Eventually the Bhutanese of Nepali descent were expelled. Since the late 1980s, over 100,000 Lhotshampa have been forced out of Bhutan, accused by the government of being illegal aliens. Between 1988-1993, thousands of others left alleging ethnic and political repression.
Nepal has not accepted the refugees into its population. In 2008 the U.S. offered to resettle 60,000 of the 107,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin then living in seven U.N. refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program has placed 900 Bhutanese since 2008 and, under its five year plan will accept 300 more. For more information about Lhotshampa refugees click here. About Bhutan, click here.
After they married Nandi and Bhagi were farmers raising corn, vegetables and rice for their family's food and oranges, cardamom and cattle for sale. Hindus do not kill animals in general, or cattle in particular, so the cattle were used for dairy products and sale. Village life revolved around agriculture, family, festivals and prayer. Of Nandi and Bhagi's seven living children, three are in the U.S., one in Nepal and three still in Bhutan.
Here in Burlington they share a house with their son and his family. As they pointed out, parents invest in their children when they are young and the sons would be shamed if they did not take care of their parents in their old age. They say they are happy in Vermont and glad to see that in the U.S. the government is committed to services for older people because there is no such help in South Asia.
Nandi and Bhagi like to go out when it's not too cold. They need to go with family because they don't drive and have very limited English, but they enjoy Vermont, especially visiting farms and gardens. They like watching Animal Planet on TV, no English needed. Their sons are working and grandchildren attend Burlington High School. Bhagi would like to cook, but her daughters-in-law laugh and say they will cook for her.
Without a Hindu temple in Vermont the Nandi and Bhagi follow home rituals and gather with other families for the principal Nepali festivals of Dashain and Tihar. They recently held a celebration with fasting and feasting to give thanks for being able to purchase their home in Burlington.
Before writing about Toma, I want to thank Madhu Neupane who introduced me to Lhotshampa families and translated my questions and their answers. He lives in Burlington with his wife and two daughters.
Madhu works for the Burlington School Department as a translator and cultural liaison helping Bhutanese children and their families learn navigate the ins and outs of living in Vermont, as well as helping school faculty and staff understand the culture of the students. He helped organize the Vermont Bhutanese Association to facilitate understanding in and outside the refugee community. He lives in Burlington with his wife and two daughters.
When he arrived in Vermont Madhu wrote a moving essay about life in the Nepal camps.
For more information of the Vermont Bhutanese Association, click here.
TOMA DEVI TIMSINA
Toma, 88, was born in Nikasi in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on the border of Bhutan. Her family moved to Bhutan to farm and she was married at age 10. Early marriage for women was expected at that time. Toma explained that during Mughal Rule in India, a culture of rape and violence against Hindu women was common and one means of defense was for the women and girls to display the sindoor, a vermillion mark on the forehead and wear a green garland that signified the woman was married.
Toma and her husband were early settlers southern Bhutan and cleared jungle and helped establish their village. She says the only items they ever purchased were salt, kerosene and some clothes. They wove fabric for most of their clothing and grew rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, sugar cane, oranges and cardamom, along with any vegetables that would grow! They kept just what was needed for the family and sold the rest.
In the Vermont Bhutanese community all the sons and grandsons and granddaughters work or are in school helping to build a better life for the whole family. For more information of the Vermont Bhutanese Association, click here.
Toma has some hip problems and needs a wheelchair when she goes out with family, but says she enjoys winter. The snow is "lovely" from the inside. In warmer weather she enjoys looking around her new surroundings and has visited Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, Shelburne Farms and regularly visits Battery Park. With her sons' families she travels to festivals and Nepali community events, weddings, birth celebrations, funerals. She says her life is full. "I feel I have a good life. Although so many are dead, I am pretty lucky to see America and different parts of the world."
I am sure many of us, seeing our country through the lens of our day to day lives, find the immigrant experience perplexing. While the overwhelming majority of our families came from somewhere else, often fleeing persecution, it was a long time ago and seems remote. Being welcomed so warmly by these Bhutanese families and seeing their happiness at being here with their families safe, working or in school despite the barriers of language and c-o-l-d was inspiring.