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Who We Serve: Nepali and Bhutanese Refugees

There’s a lot of talk about refugees these days, and there’s a lot of questions about who they are, where they come from, and why they’re coming to the United States. At BRL, we work with refugees every day and want to share with you more about what’s going on in our learners’ home countries. Learn more about Bhutanese and Nepali refugees in this post.

Full disclosure: prior to working at BRL, I definitely thought refugees from Nepal were because of the horrific earthquake in 2015. The real deal is way more messy--generations ago, a load of people from Nepal immigrated to nearby Bhutan for work. Ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan prospered, until the late 80s and early 90s when Bhutan decided it wanted to be to be mono-ethnic (read: no Nepalis allowed) and said if you’re going to live in Bhutan, you’re going to adopt Bhutanese traditions.

Naturally, many Nepalis were like “That’s our cue,” and began to go back to Nepal. Then the Nepali government was like “Hold up, we can’t take all these people,” and the two countries found themselves between a Himalaya and hard place. After failed attempts by the two countries to reach an accord--seven camps were built in Nepal where over 100,000 refugees settled and lived for decades. Many people in the camps were or are stateless, as neither Nepal nor Bhutan want to claim them.

In the mid-2000s, the international community was like “wait, what?” when they noticed that hundreds of thousands of people were in between countries with no solution in sight. Figuring that Nepal and Bhutan weren't going to bury the hatchet, a group of eight developed countries, including the U.S., agreed to accept the refugees, and the process of screening and resettling was underway.

However, not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of resettlement. Many of these refugees had lived in Bhutan for decades, were established there, and considered Bhutan their home. And that’s all they wanted--to go home. However, rejected by both Nepal and Bhutan, many of the refugees agreed to a third country resettlement simply to get out of the camps.

Today, Nepali-Bhutanese people now make up one of the largest refugee groups in the United States, with over 84,000 refugees living, working, and growing their lives here. Overall, nearly 100,000 refugees have been resettled to other countries like Australia, Norway, and Denmark. As the massive resettlement process reaches an end, the UN estimates 10,000 to 12,000 refugees will stay in the remaining camps. Since Nepal and Bhutan are still listening to "Bad Blood" on repeat, no solution has yet been reached on what to do with those who did not resettle.

As for us, BRL has worked with dozens of Nepali-Bhutanese migrants who sought help for learning English and developing job skills. They meet with tutors, come to classes, and gaze at the Appalachians instead of the Himalayas as they build their new lives, right here in Roanoke.

Read more about Bhutanese refugees in Nepal here, here, and here.

Editor's note: Many articles say these people are Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. While true, some of our learners consider themselves Nepali, especially since many of the younger migrants were actually born in the camps in Nepal and never knew Bhutan to be their homeland. This is why the refugees have been referred to as Nepali-Bhutanese in this article.

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