Transitioning from Bhutan to the Buckeye State can be difficult for refugees
Shaha Biswa sat on the faux leather couch facing the television that covered most of the narrow wall; the 67-year-old’s walking stick rested against the wall next to him — within arm’s reach. The smell of sabzi, vegetables cooked in gravy popular in Bhutanese-Nepali cuisine, wafted through the air, from the kitchen into the living room.
Biswa’s wife, Januka, 64, and daughter-in-law, Chandra Rai, 39, sat on chairs adjacent to the couch, sharing the small living room, staring into the air.
“Namaste!” they said, as they greeted visitors to their North Side townhouse.
The Biswas’ 4-year-old granddaughter, Salomi, weaved across the sparsely decorated living space before settling on the couch, the glow from an iPad screen lighting up her face.
It was a normal day in the life of the Biswas. With nothing much to do or say, they gather in the common room. Silence and sideways glances occupy much of their time.
The group arrived from Nepal in south Asia as refugees on Dec. 6. A little over six months have passed and they are still getting accustomed to the new surroundings, language and culture.
They are one of the many families still trying to acclimate to a new life in central Ohio on World Refugee Day, an annual observance on June 20 declared by the United Nations.
Refugees are people fleeing conflict and persecution. As of June 2018, there were 25.4 million refugees around the world, more than half of whom are under 18 years of age, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Columbus has become home to many fleeing conflicts in Somalia, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries around the world.
Shaha Biswa fled Bhutan with his wife and three young sons in 1992. They are part of the Lhotsampa people, an ethnic minority in Bhutan who have been discriminated against for having Nepali ancestry.
“I was a two-star officer in the Bhutanese army,” Shaha said through an interpreter. “My ancestors helped build roads and hospitals and helped develop this country. And once the country was developed, they kicked us out,” he said, wiping away tears with the back of his hand.
The family fled to a refugee camp in Nepal hoping that one day they could go back to the life they knew before. More than 25 years passed. Bhutan has yet to welcome back the Lhotsampa people.
With refugees unwelcome in Bhutan and Nepal unable to accommodate them as citizens, only one option was eventually available: resettlement, said Sudarshan Pyakurel, former executive director of the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio and a refugee who also fled Bhutan in the early 1990s. In 2006, the UN publicly announced the option to resettle the Bhutanese-Nepali refugees in one of the seven countries that welcomed them, including the United States.
Biswa’s family had grown and shrunk within those years. His three sons married and had children of their own. The oldest son applied to resettle in the U.S. and moved with his family to Pennsylvania about five years ago. Biswa’s youngest son died at age 24 of food poisoning. The middle son, Jivan, 35, stayed in the camp with his wife, daughter and parents.
“I didn’t want to come to the U.S. at first,” said Shaha. “But my children insisted. They said that we were growing old and there won’t be anyone left even for the funeral. What they said was true.”
The refugee camp, which initially had over 100,000 people, had only a few thousand left when the family came to America, he said.
The Biswas joined an estimated 30,000 Bhutanese-Nepali people already residing in central Ohio, according to Nadia Kasvin, co-founder and director of US Together, a refugee resettlement agency in Columbus.
After applying for resettlement and going through an arduous process that involved vetting, Shaha and the Biswa family arrived in Columbus with the hopes of finally calling a country home. But transitioning into a completely different nation thousands of miles away proved difficult.
An accident a few years ago injured the family patriarch’s legs. Both his wife and daughter-in-law also suffer from physical ailments, leaving his son to be the sole breadwinner of the family. Once a church pastor in Nepal, Jivan Biswa now works at a local warehouse on the assembly line.
The family of five has to live on the approximately $500 Shaha gets in disability income and the little Jivan earns through his warehouse job.
Being the only one who speaks English — though not much — Jivan also is forced to be the face of the family.
“I sometimes think we made a mistake by coming to America,” he said through the interpreter.
He added that his life has been frustrating with so many expectations piled up on him.
“And everything is different here,” Jivan said, naming everything from going to the grocery store to driving everywhere to using cards instead of cash.
Shaha said he wants to help but is unable to because of his physical condition and the language barrier. At stores, he has to find someone who speaks Nepali to help him when he gets to the cashier, or else he returns home empty-handed.
The Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio helps refugees transition into their new homes, aiding them in setting up utilities and hosting language classes — which Shaha has started attending.
Like many who seek refuge in the United States and pursue the American dream, he is hopeful.
“I’m learning to adapt. It is slowly getting better,” he said. “America gave us the hope of citizenship. That is why we came here.”
After being stateless for 26 years, rejected by the country they considered home, the Biswas said the promise of citizenship was a much-welcomed idea.
“We were uprooted,” Januka added. “I just hope our children and grandchildren can grow roots here.”