Bharbi Hazarika

Beyond a Refuge


A refugee family’s journey to citizenship

Bharbi Hazarika / Senior Writer

At first glance, the acroamatic piece of amber-colored fabric stuck to the doorframe goes unnoticed and so do the chappals (slippers) tossed to a corner of the walkway that leads up to the burnished door. Binda Adhikari has a strict “no shoes inside” policy, as is typical in most Asian households. A tradition that the family neatly tucked inside their suitcases, in between the folds of their sarees and Dhaka topi, before heading to “America.”

The suburban house is overwhelmed by a sharp smell of mustard oil. The sound of sizzling spices quickly catches your attention, which is naturally drawn to the mosaic of colorful portraits of Hindu gods and godmen glued to the whitewashed-walls.


Bharbi Hazarika| SENIOR WRITER

The Adhikaris pose for a photograph in their suburban home in Columbus, Ohio.

Binda wakes up well before dawn to prepare for the day, while little girls with pigtails bouncing on their shoulders shuffle around the house. Snuggled in an oversized grey cardigan, Binda swims around the kitchen island. Her husband, Bhagawat, says she is the hardest worker in their family. From preparing their children for school to reminding her in-laws to take their medicine, she does it all.

Raven hair clipped back, her eyes are fixated on the chopping board as she meticulously slices the tomatoes. Binda hardly lets anything distract her, a determination that carried her through high school in the U.S. in her 20s. It’s not until she sweeps toward the kitchen sink to wash the greens, when the maroon-colored gnuiu, a Nepali fabric wrapped around her waist, appears. Her attire seems to mirror their current lifestyle — a fusion of the worlds, mismatched yet balanced.

Unlike her daughter-in-law, Madhavi Adhikari hasn’t picked up the latest trend in fashion. A Nepali wrapper modestly draped over her bosom, she sits in a corner of the living room gently rocking the cradle, back and forth.

The typicality of the Adhikari household is reflected in the roles played by the three generations, carrying distinct experiences, tied with a single thread, which is their Bhutanese-Nepalese identity. It’s a characteristic that the suburban house dons well.

At first glance, the peculiarities of the houses in the neighborhood are unremarkable. From the outside, Etna Township passes for any other American neighborhood with symmetrical houses and coiling roads. The Columbus suburb, however, is home to over 30 immigrant families from Bhutan who were expelled from their native country in an ethnic cleansing attempt during the ‘90s. They spent much of their lives in refugee camps across Nepal before they were catapulted to United States as a part of a United Nations third country resettlement.

“When I first came here looking to settle down, I saw plains,” Bhagawat said. “It reminded me of our village in Bhutan and I instantly knew I wanted to live here.”

The Adhikari household is the new normal in this bourgeois neighborhood.

The Expulsion

“I was jobless, homeless, countryless,” Bhagawat, a warehouse worker at KDC/ONE Columbus, said with an unusually resilient smile on his face.

Bhagawat and his family emigrated to Tucson, Arizona, in 2009 after living as refugees for 18 years in Jhapa, Nepal. They later moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 2013 to finally settle in their American life.


Bharbi Hazarika| SENIOR WRITER

In the mid-1980s Bhutan, led by the monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began tightening its citizenship laws calling for “One nation, One people.” The Himalayan kingdom conducted a census of its demographic and then proceeded to evict nearly 100,000 people, almost all of them Hindus of Nepalese origin, including the Adhikaris. It declared the Nepali-origin community, called Lhotshampa, illegal immigrants, even though their lineage went back several generations in Bhutan. The process of cultural homogenization, administered by the king, required all Bhutanese to follow the lifestyle of the Drukpa, the lineage of the royal family who follow Buddhism, and its norms which included their eating, drinking and clothing habits, and even their speech.

Bhutan, which mainly comprises of people who follow Buddhism, a religion that touts its pacifistic and non-violent edicts, forced out a significant portion of its citizens using draconian measures. The anti-immigrant drive was implemented starting in 1989, when Nepalese books were rounded up in town squares and burned, Nepalese houses were rampaged, women and children lived in the fear of rape and abduction. From Bhutan, many were forced to escape to neighboring countries, where they lived in refugee camps along the border. It hasn’t let any of them move back.

About one-sixth of the Bhutanese population was cast out of the nation and had to seek refuge in the neighboring countries such as India and Nepal.


Considering the country’s relatively small population, the magnitude of this exodus was one of the world’s largest by per capita. The Buddhist Shangri-La, however, still seems to maintain its title by advancing the philosophy of “gross national happiness,” coined by the 4th King of Bhutan, Wangchuck, in 1972.

For Bhagawat, the hallmark happiness was just a veneer that cracked as soon as he turned 9 and was forced to flee the country.

Many asylum seekers ended up in the seven refugee camps in southern Nepal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme among others were responsible for the camps, which were home to these Bhutanese migrants.

Living without an identity

Camp life was tough both psychologically and physically.

Rife with disease and squalor, the Goldhap refugee camp became the new home for the Adhikaris. The camp had sprawling dirt streets monopolized by bands of scrawny children, who didn’t have anywhere else to play.

UN volunteers distributed food rations every two weeks. It included the staples: rice, lentils and some salt. The Adhikaris were often told to stretch the ration for as long as they could. Bhagawat’s mother, Madhavi, would come up with novel ways to keep her hunger at bay. She would often take a wet cloth and fasten it around her waist. The snug knot that hung just above her navel, hardly let her breathe, a sacrifice that the mother justified by necessity — one more day of food for her family.


Bharbi Hazarika| SENIOR WRITER

The Adhikari household prepares for Dussehra festival, a celebration symbolizing the victory of good over evil.

People lived in feeble bamboo houses with thatched roofs and no toilets. The communal lavatories, which were basically pits in the ground, were located outside. Groves of banana trees separated the houses from each other. Tilak Niroula, Bhagawat’s nephew, said their houses had no electricity or running water. There were a few tanks and hand-pumps used to draw water, installed sporadically throughout the camp. Approximately 40 households had to share one tap. These low-cost, temporary shelters housed more than 15,000 refugee families.

“It was miserable in the camps,” Bhagawat said. “Where to go? So many of my friends and other people committed suicide.”

Nature’s wrath was apparent and the thin walls of the houses didn’t help. The cottages were prone to fire, and rain would easily seep through their flimsy ceilings. Lack of building materials meant it wasn’t unusual for families to mount tents out of plastic from time to time.

The cerulean tents provided some relief to the eyes in the otherwise dusty-colored neighborhood. The tranquil blue of the tent, however, did little to offer seamless sleep to Bhagawat and his family.

Most of those refugees spent close to 20 years of their lives in the cramped nooks of southeastern Nepal.

Their title didn’t allow the people to step out of the refugee camps except for official reasons, Niroula said. They were forced by law to be confined to close quarters. Niroula knew if he stepped out, he would have no recognized identity to support himself.

Bharbi Hazarika| SENIOR WRITER

A lack of national credentials automatically made them ineligible to pursue jobs outside the camps and many were unable to provide sufficient nutrition to their family, let alone buy other luxuries such as clothes and shoes. There were some jobs available within the camps, but provided little incentive.

Bhagawat said he is educated and was a diligent student in the camp school, but the fact that he couldn’t get a job frustrated him.

Some days, Bhagawat would hike up the hills on the border of Nepal overlooking Bhutan and vignettes from days spent in his village in Bhutan would flash through his head and he would contemplate sneaking back in. The temptation was as inconceivable as the idea of a home. A teenaged Bhagavad was forced to emancipate from his motherland before he came of age.

“It feels like my own mom has disowned me,” he said. “I am an orphan and I can never go back, they won’t let me.”

Dreaming of a home

Now, Bhagawat sleeps on a comfortable mattress wrapped in clean white sheets. The walls of his house are solid and impenetrable, and he says he is thankful it doesn’t burn down. Bhagawat and Binda got married in the U.S. in 2010 and soon after they filed for citizenship. The family finally discarded their refugee titles for to become citizens of the United States in 2013 and for the first time in a long time Bhagawat said he felt at home.

“I never thought I could say this,” Bhagawat said. “That I am a proud citizen of America.”

Chris Boian, the spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency for the United States and the Caribbean, said the UN Refugee Agency is invested in finding durable solutions for people fleeing persecution, war and violence across the world. Boian added that the UN proposed resettlement program has had a significant positive impact on the lives of refugees.

In 2016, the number of countries offering resettlement programs doubled, from 14 resettlement countries in 2005 to 37 countries worldwide, including the United States, according to UNHCR.

“Resettlement is a discretionary activity, in other words, it’s not mandatory for any country,” Boian explained. “It’s a choice that countries make for humanitarian reasons, to ensure that very vulnerable human beings such as women, children and men, who fled their homes are able to receive the safe haven and the ability to restart their lives with dignity that those countries themselves feel is necessary.”

“Statelessness is a terrible tragedy. These are individuals who are recognized as nationals by no country in the world and it has very sad consequences on the ability of these people to lead meaningful lives.”Chris Boian

Despite this increase, the dream of resettlement is a realization for a meager less than 1 percent of the global refugee population, Boian said. More than 99 percent still remain without a nationality or are internally displaced in their countries.

The privilege that comes along with the title of a citizenship is rarely experienced by refugees and asylum seekers. According to the 2018 UNHCR survey, there are 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18 worldwide. Additionally, an estimated 10 million stateless people, which previously included the Bhutanese-Nepali diaspora, stand without a nationality or access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.


Bharbi Hazarika| SENIOR WRITER

Binda Adhikari holds her younger daughter Shrenika.

“Statelessness is a terrible tragedy,” Boian said. “These are individuals who are recognized as nationals by no country in the world and it has very sad consequences on the ability of these people to lead meaningful lives.”

The identity of a refugee has lent unfathomable challenges to families like the Adhikaris. Bhuwan Pyakurel, the chairperson of the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio, said the trauma of being displaced comes with added woes. Once resettled, the sense of entitlement that comes with being a citizen still seems like a distant benefit for several members of the community.

Serious mental health issues plague the Bhutanese-Nepali diaspora in Ohio. Pyakurel said several members experience post traumatic stress disorder that harkens back to the atrocious experiences of fleeing Bhutan and the subsequent refugee life. Many of them find it difficult to let go of their prior identity, which is why several still identify as “second-class people,” he added. The self-attached title is a remnant of the profound vulnerability that the community experienced in Bhutan.

“We were scared all the time, twenty-four seven,” Pyakurel said. “We used to think anybody can kick us, anybody can hit us, anybody can do anything they wanted to us.”

The Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio with the help of North Community Counseling Center, a mental-health agency on the northeast side of Columbus, provides facilities to support the victims. It’s estimated that the center helps over 5,000 people annually by hosting programs and training that promote integration into society.

The mental-health agency stepped in after the Trump administration and the Office of Refugee Resettlement nixed federal funds to the community. Pyakurel said the organization had initially received a three-year federal grant totaling $450,000.

Last year, after the federal government canceled the funds, the group used its savings to operate. The services were well on their way to becoming defunct when the Columbus City Council donated $45,000, a fraction of their initial grant, but Pyakurel said any aid helps.

Bharbi Hazarika| SENIOR WRITER

For most people, the struggle of living as a refugee is an afterimage prodded by the ceaseless images of the state in Syria and Yemen plastered on TV screens. The Adhikaris have known no reality other than the constant instability for much of their life.

Now, Binda and Bhagawat are grateful that they can finally offer to their children what they never had growing up — a stable life.

“We didn’t have a roof or anything in our classrooms. If it rained, class got over,” Bhagawat said recounting his school days in the camp. “But Shreya goes to a school that takes care of everything from her alphabets to if she is growing okay and that means a lot.”

Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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