Thursday, October 16, 2008

From Bhutan to Nepal and to Bronx

Kina Maya is 50

She has lived in a refugee camp since she fled Bhutan with her husband and son in the early 1990s.
Now she is in New York.

Imagine, from a camp in Nepal to New York. Culture shock doesn't even begin to describe it.

"We can't understand anyone, and they can't understand us. We walk on the street, and everybody is a giant. It's scary. We go into the subway it's strange, getting into a lift is odd," she says."Everything is strange."

She giggles as she describes her new life. It's all alien, but so full of hope. For the first time in 17 years the family have a proper home.

The tiny Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan, sits between China and India. More than 100,000 ethnic Nepali Bhutanese fled or were expelled from the country in the early 1990s.

The majority have been living in camps in Nepal ever since.

As well as America, some are now going to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway.

Kina Maya's son Banu shows me around the spacious one-room apartment in the Bronx, just north of Manhattan.

They are proud of their little domain: it's squeaky clean, carefully protected. The plastic is still on the dining room chairs.

Coming to grips

It is a far cry from the world they left behind at the camp.

"The situation was very horrible, the home we lived in was not good at all," she says.

Now the family is coming to grips with living in an entirely different environment.

It's the basics that are challenging: what do you do if there's a fire? You call 911. Of course, it's obvious, but only if you know.

The organisation involved with bringing them over, International Rescue Committee (IRC), ensures that details such as this are covered, along with how to use a fire extinguisher, how to use the cooker, how to use the subway and where to buy groceries.

America has agreed to take in 60,000 refugees

For now the family have some new arrivals staying with them.

Tika Maya is 28 years old, her son Suraj is seven. He was born in the refugee camp, it's all he has ever known.

For her America is centred around her son; she is hopeful but scared.

"The most exciting thing is now we're in New York, now we'll get a lot more opportunities. My son will get a better education and he will work more, and he will earn for me. The most frightening thing is how to get a job, how to enrol my child to school."

At the IRC, as well as helping with basic information, they run a series of orientation programmes.

The aim is to ease the refugees into the patterns of a new life. School enrolment is one of them.


"There's naturally a period of transition and adjustment once they arrive to the US, especially for children. Some of these kids have known nothing but refugee camp life, so when they come to the US they're expected to sit in a classroom, follow a routine they may not be used to," says Christine Petrie of the IRC.

"Whilst many refugees work in a camp setting, working in a structured work environment can be challenging."

The first step is the language.

Almost every day, the two families travel into central Manhattan to learn English.
Banu helps his parents with the alphabet. He is the only one of the two families who can speak English.

Getting a job, being independent is a priority. Banu is confident that with his language abilities he'll get something fairly quickly.

The IRC says most refugees become self-reliant within four months.

Mingled with this urge for forging ahead, is sadness for the death of a dream - of one day returning to Bhutan, but it's one they accept has to be given up.

They have had almost two decades without an identity - as Banu explains, the concept of citizenship, is precious.

"For the first couple of days we are feeling very lonely, very upset. Now here for 15 days, everything going smoothly. The goal is to earn money, to be a citizen of a country, to earn a house, and to get freedom and rights and everything that is the goal."

Banu's family, Tika Maya and her son belong to the first wave of the 60,000 refugees the US has agreed to take in.

There is no doubt it's going to take a while to adjust.

But although this is a foreign land, for the first time in 17 years they have a place to call their own, they have a country that is home.

No comments: