Accessibility links

Breaking News

'Warehoused' Refugee Builds New Life in US

The United States resettles the largest number of refugees worldwide, allowing roughly 70,000 to enter the U.S. each year. Currently, large numbers of Bhutanese refugees, who lived for decades in camps in Nepal, are being resettled in the United States. We visited with one of them and filed this report, the second in a two-part series on warehoused refugees, those confined to camps for decades and denied basic rights.

Bhutan - an idyllic Himalayan kingdom where development is measured in GNH - or gross national happiness. The country holds hard to its distinct cultural identity.

But that identity does not include 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin who were expelled in the early 1990s and now languish in refugee camps in Nepal.

"The Bhutanese are a prime example of a warehoused population if you will," Bob Carey said. Carey is Vice President of Migration and Resettlement for the International Rescue Committee. He says Bhutanese in Nepal are being resettled in the U.S. because, due to their ethnicity, there's no hope they can return and live safely in Bhutan. "Even though the happiness index is high it might not be high for everyone," he said.

Dhuni Raj spent 17 years in a camp in Nepal after he and his family were forced at gunpoint from their homes in Bhutan.

He says the refugee camp was like a prison. "If we want to go outside one camp to the other camp, totally the refugee people they are banned to go outside the camp," he said.

But Raj, his wife and children were offered resettlement in the United States.

They were lucky in a sense. Each year, less than one half of one percent of refugees worldwide are re-settled.

Still, the news was a sad reckoning that they would never return to their homeland.

"From our inner heart, we were crying at that time because we leave our motherland and we have been there 17 years in the refugee camp," Raj said. "But it was also our dream."

Their dream to come to America. But adjusting to their new life has been challenging. The IRC gave them cash and rent money for the first few months, but that was it.

Life in metropolitan areas can be expensive. The Obama Administration and the U.S. State Department recently doubled the funds used to help re-settle each refugee, from $900 to $1,800. Experts say the move is welcome, but the recession and high unemployment have hit refugees hard.

Bob Carey says the re-settlement system was set up decades ago and the money is not enough. "Most of it is going to rent deposits, the initial month's rent, very basic furnishing, which is very basic - a mattress, a chair, a fork, a spoon, a knife. It is very limited assistance so the expectation is that people will go to work very quickly to support themselves which most refugees do," he said.

Dhuni Raj did. Now, he travels 5 hours roundtrip to his night job at a restaurant in Washington D.C. Life is hard, he says. He earns about $1,600 a month and spends close to a thousand in rent and utilities.

He is still happy he came. And he loves the $5,000 tax refund he got from the government.

"That system, every system is very good here and people if they have good credit can work anywhere else and do whatever they want to do," Raj said.

His son and daughter attend public school for free in one of the top ranking school systems in the United States. He was a teacher in the refugee camp in Nepal. Now he drills his son daily in math. And dreams of the good life his children will have.

"We are looking for a better future for the children here," he said. "We are here to work for the children."

It's a future that warehoused refugees worldwide may never have.