The last couple of days while I’ve been walking my dog, I’ve been listening to some NPR.
Lately, the Syrians have been in the news. We are all waiting with bated breath to see whether the new administration will let the scheduled resettlements continue, even as they threaten “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We have no choice… we have no choice.”
But in the past couple of days, I’ve listened to two stories from Beldangi 2, a refugee camp in Nepal. It focuses on Teacher Day, which is really in the fall, but the reason the stories are coming now is because the camps are scheduled to close.
There was a deadline in November for people to apply to leave:
The Bhutanese refugees were given until Nov. 15 of this year to apply to go abroad. By the end of the year, UNHCR will stop forwarding applications for resettlement.
The reporter says there are predictions of 10,000 people who will be left behind in the end. Most of my students are from this camp. Most were born there. I wonder how many of their relatives or neighbors will be among those left behind?
When things wind down in a camp, it causes a little havoc; this PRI story profiles a woman who is teaching math, even though she is not a math teacher. For her $7 a month, she studies at home so she can bring the knowledge back to her students. Those with the most education leave camps first. Those left now, according to a Nepali friend I was talking to last year, are there because they are old and sick and don’t want to leave or there is an issue with intermarrying which hangs up paperwork.
The stories this reporter tells are heart-rending. How do you leave when a parent says that they will not make a change to a new language and climate? They don’t want to leave truly everything they ever knew behind. At least when these refugees moved from Bhutan to Nepal, the language and climate stayed the same. But leaving to the United States is something completely different.
One story is of a man who is refusing to go, whose family has been waiting to apply, hoping he’d change his mind, but to no avail. He knows that his illiteracy, age and lack of marketable skills will hold him back. But staying also is not a great option. Nepal does not allow integration at this point, although UNHCR is working with both Nepal and Bhutan to try to come to an equitable solution.
What happens to the children when the camps close? Will they be allowed to matriculate into Nepali schools? What happens to health care? What happens to those who are old or sick? Addicted to alcohol or drugs?
The high rate of suicides in the camps are well-documented. As the camps empty out in this last push, as rations are cut and friends, neighbors and family leave, will those numbers jump even higher?
For men, stressors related to employment and providing for their families were related to feeling burdensome and/or alienated from family and friends, whereas for women, stressors such as illiteracy, family conflict, and being separated from family members were more associated.
It’s difficult to forecast positive change for these stressors that were documented among former refugees resettled in the United States. They surely will intensify for those left in the camps.
I see more and more uneducated families settling here. And it takes a lot of hutzpah to tackle those huge barriers when one loses everything one knows.
What has life been like for these people for the past quarter century, having lost everything they had in Bhutan: land, property, stability, jobs, and a sense of home? They will most assuredly lose all these things again, or any semblance they had of “home”, by coming to the United States. These families may gain indoor plumbing and free education for their children, but what kind of jobs await illiterate adults who don’t speak English? And yet the bills continue to mount. They must repay their travel expenses. A person has to eat.
Even more difficult to imagine is how my students, who grew up in the tropics, in a place where elephants knocking down your house was part of reality, are coping with suddenly living in snow. It may not seem like much, but it’s huge going from wearing shorts and flip-flops every day to dressing for the cold. My high schoolers fight wearing hats (they mess up their hair) and gloves (they get in the way and are itchy); the little ones try to slip in line without putting on snow pants to keep them warm on the icy playground. And in a state where the windchill has been known to slip into dangerous territory more than a few times in an average winter, the battle never ends.
So I open 2017 with my eye on trying to stand in another’s shoes. It’s only by doing the research that teachers can have a tiny inkling of where students came from and maybe glean an idea of where to go from here.
One of the best stories I found was one from a couple of years ago from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Video, photos and stories make this a powerful place to start: http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/longform/stories/refugees/ I encourage everyone to take even a passing glance at this, just to imagine where your new students and neighbors come from.
And this travelogue from 2015 gives an unflinching look at attitudes prevailing in the camp at that time.
And thanks for listening.