Bhutanese celebrate holiday, new life in SLC

Story and photos by MATT BERGSTROM

Thursday, Oct. 9, was an important day for Hindus around the world. It was the celebration of Dashera, the victory of the goddess Durga over the demons who stood in the gods’ way during creation.

For a group of Bhutanese refugees in Salt Lake City, it was also a celebration of a different victory.

Thursday was the first time the small Bhutanese community in Salt Lake City has officially gathered since refugees began arriving in the city in April 2008. The gathering was held at the Taj India restaurant at 4515 S. 900 East.

Bhutanese celebration

Bhutanese celebration

For nearly 20 years, these families had been living in refugee camps in Nepal. Most of that time the Bhutanese coexisted peacefully with their Nepali hosts. For the past few years, tense relations between China and Tibet have driven more refugees into Nepal. This flood of new arrivals pushed the Nepali government to its breaking point, prompting officials to make an appeal to the United Nations for help. The U.N. decided to resettle the Bhutanese who had long been without a home of their own.

Nearly 250 Bhutanese have resettled in Salt Lake since April. Among them are many members of the Dulal family.

Biren Dulal, 26, was only 8 years old when his life was uprooted and he moved with his family from his home in Bhutan to a camp in southeast Nepal. Today he barely remembers why he had to leave his home. He thinks it had something to do with the Buddhist government wanting Hindus to convert in the interest of national identity.

The actual reason seems to still be in dispute. According to the Web site for Human Rights Watch, the exodus was based on ethnic reasons rather than religious ones. The government of Bhutan in the late 1990s was interested in establishing a firmer national identity. The dispute is whether ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan chose to leave or were forced out by the government.

Regardless of the reason for leaving, Biren said life in the camp was difficult, but not unbearable.

Refugees were seldom allowed to leave. They had their own schools and shops and most of their basic needs were met. However, under certain circumstances, refugees could get permission to live outside the camp.

Biren left the camp for the first time at 18 years old to attend Kalimpong College in eastern India. After earning his bachelor’s degree he went to Katmandu to teach middle school science. A short time later he decided to return to the camp where most of his family still lived to continue his teaching there.

Soon after, members of Biren’s family began being resettled in the U.S. He decided it would be best if he joined them.

Biren Dulal arrived in San Diego on June 21, 2008. He had been sent to live with a brother and sister who had already been resettled there. Biren did not care for San Diego, but is too polite to say why.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

He was then allowed to join the rest of his other brothers and sisters in Salt Lake City. The former teacher now divides his time between his job as an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake, the nonprofit group that helped resettle him, and his volunteer work teaching English to other Bhutanese in town.

Ultimately he would like to get back to teaching science.

Travis Zirker, an IRC caseworker for many members of the Dulal family, said getting back to work is a common desire. A few of Biren’s brothers also were teachers in Nepal before coming to America.

One of those brothers is Ghana Dulal, who Zirker said has become a sort of unofficial community leader.

In the small Indian restaurant packed on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon with almost 200 Bhutanese refugees, guests from various resettlement organizations and members of the press, Ghana Dulal offered a speech of gratitude and, in a small way, victory.

He talked of their hardships while encamped in Nepal and of the warnings they received from friends before leaving. They were told they would not be allowed to be Hindus in America.

In the end, Ghana Dulal summed up what all the Bhutanese were feeling, and what those who have not been there could not understand, when he said, “We are no longer refugees. We are free people.”