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Immigrant Stories: Bhutan

Suk Sapkota, Bhutanese Refugee

When Suk Sapkota was asked how he remembers the Bhutan of his youth, he described the country with great nostalgia. He said that Bhutan was a very open, beautiful country, with a fair and equal government that cared for its citizens. However, the country was later led by “tribal kings” who saw a clear divide between the people and economies of North and South Bhutan. These leaders decided that the enforcement of ethnic cleansing was necessary to re-unify the country and its people. The government primarily targeted residents living in southern Bhutan–specifically those who were in school, graduated, or had a job. The government also targeted specific races, religions, ethnic groups, residents who spoke certain languages, or any persons with opposing political opinions. Suk met many of these criteria and was threatened to leave or face death.

Suk was forced to flee Bhutan in 1989, and from this time on he lived as a displaced person until being admitted to the Nepalese refugee camps in 1992. In 1993, Suk received his scholarship to study law in India. After completing his studies, Suk returned to the Nepalese refugee camps for many years. Initially Suk was selected by the UNHCR to move to Denmark, but he promptly requested that he and his family be moved to the United States, which was approved. After nearly 10 years living as a refugee, Suk and his family arrived in California in 2008. Shortly after, Suk and his family moved to St. Louis. Suk now resides in St. Louis with his wife and two children. Suk and his wife met in a refugee camp shortly after his arrival and were married in 1998. Suk described many of the difficulties he endured as a refugee—namely, a constant feeling of “statelessness” and isolation.

Before arriving at the refugee camps in 1989, Suk spent a great deal of time wandering the region in search of a job. Most of his time was spent in the Indian countryside because it was too dangerous to look for work in the city—he was much more likely to be identified as a refugee by the police in the cities. Suk took nearly any job he was offered, even if the pay was only in food. During his job search, Suk described what it felt like to be stateless. In the interview, he states, “It is like it is so hard to be stateless. You have no rights, you have nothing. You know you are kind of like, the status of an animal…it’s that bad to be stateless.” Suk also explains the difficulties of providing for and maintaining a family as a refugee. While resettlement was the desired end-goal, it was difficult for all family members to live and stay together. As a result, Suk and his wife were forced to leave many of their closest relatives behind.

Throughout his journey as a refugee, Suk traveled to and worked in many places. He has an extensive academic and professional background. Before leaving Bhutan, Suk was pursuing a bachelor degree in electrical engineering, which he nearly completed. As a refugee, Suk was offered a scholarship to study law in India, which he accepted and completed. In the refugee camps, Suk operated a community development center to help his fellow refugees to build up their community and to prepare for life after leaving the camps. Upon arriving in the United States, Suk studied car mechanics, and now he works as a workforce solutions employment specialist for the St. Louis International Institute.

Although Suk has experience in the workforce, his previously acquired skills were not necessarily useful when he arrived in the United States. Much of his education was non-transferable, and it was difficult for him to find a job with his specialized skillset. As if simply trying to adjust to the new culture wasn’t enough, Suk and his family had to figure out how to begin their new life in America, and how to make ends meet. Although he and his family are in a more comfortable place now, Suk describes his assimilation process as a fairly difficult one that certainly did not leave much time for enjoyment. Despite the setbacks, Suk and his family have since adjusted to American culture. While Suk still values his Bhutanese identity, he is also very proud of his newfound American citizenship. He described the time when he attained citizenship as, “a time of emotion, it is like a time of greatest respect, a time when tell yourself hey, I belong to somewhere now.”

Facts about Bhutan

Situated between the superpowers of India and China, the isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, hailed by some as ‘the last Shangri-La’, has generated one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world in proportion to its population. From 1991 over one sixth of Bhutan’s people sought asylum in Nepal, India and other countries around the world. The vast majority of the refugees are Lhotshampas, one of Bhutan’s three main ethnic groups, who were forced to leave Bhutan in the early 1990s.

Over 105,000 Bhutanese have spent 15 – 20 years living in UNHCR-run refugee camps in Nepal. Since 2008 a resettlement process has seen the majority of those living in the camps re-settled in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Bhutanese refugees now live all over the world. Yet their story is largely unknown.

Population: 722,397 (July 2018 est.)

Location: Southern Asia, between China and India

Languages: Sharchhopka 28%, Dzongkha (official) 24%, Lhotshamkha 22%, other 26%

Religions: Lamaistic Buddhist 75.3%, Indian- and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 22.1%, other 2.6% (2005 est.)

Ethnic Groups: Ngalop (also known as Bhote) 50%, ethnic Nepalese 35% (includes Lhotsampas – one of several Nepalese ethnic groups), indigenous or migrant tribes 15%

Information from the CIA World Factbook