Former refugees have turned Albemarle Road into a microcosm of their Himalayan homeland
Refugees from Bhutan who lived for two decades in camps in Nepal and were resettled in the United States are finally finding their feet after an initial period of adjustment.
It has not been easy for the 100,000 refugees who were evicted by Bhutan in 1990-92 and 25,000 others who were born in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal administered by UNHCR. After Bhutan repeatedly stonewalled on taking its citizens back, a process of third country resettlement was started in 2007. By the end of this year, nearly 95,000 will be resettled in the United States with the UK, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand taking smaller numbers.
Eight years after being resettled, former refugees from Bhutan have turned Albemarle Road in Charlotte of North Carolina into a Little Bhutan. There are an estimated 5,000 Bhutanese in and around Charlotte who run shops and restaurants or work in groceries. Nepali Times spoke to some of them:
Khadga Gurung, 28
Khadga Gurung doesn’t remember much about Bhutan, since he wasa small boy when he was forced to flee with his family. As a refugee, he was attending college in Nepal when he was resettled in the US in 2010. He first worked in a food packaging factory, but decided to strike out on his own. He used his savings and borrowed from friends to invest $75,000 in a provision store on Albemarle Rd in Charlotte.
Pradip Gurung, 38
Former refugees from Bhutan know Pradip Gurung as “Sahuji”. With friends Hom Gurung and Om Gurung, Pradip invested $300,000 to start the Munro Nepali Indian Grocery on Albemarle Rd. The store stocks clothing, foodstuff, cosmetics and has a daily turnover of $3,000. On the side, he also does interpretation for newly arrived Bhutanis being resettled in the US. In the Khudunabari Refugee Camp of Jhapa, Pradip used to teach at a local school, but in America he is on the job 16 hours a day. He says: “I had to start from zero here, but in America if you work hard you can go far.”
Purna Karki, 36
Purna Karki was a teenage when he arrived at the Beldangi 2 Regugee Camp in Jhapa from Bhutan with his family in 1991. He still remembers that their home for nearly two decades was Sector B Hut Number 139 at Beldangi. Karki graduated from Trhibhuvan University and used to teach at an English school outside his refugee camp in Nepal. He arrived in Charlotte in 2008 and has set up his own garment shop. What strikes Karki the most is how easy it is to start a business in the US. He says: “It is completely hassle-free as long as you follow the rules.”
Kamal Dhimal, 45
Kamal Dhimal is actually a writer from Bhutan who was forced to leave along with other Lhotsampas from his ancestral home. After spending 18 years in Goldhap Refugee Camp in Jhapa, he was finally resettled in the US in 2013 where he first worked as a geriatric caregiver for six months. Then he worked in a footwear company and now has taken out a $30,000 loan and invested his savings to set up Central Market on Albemarle Rd in Charlotte. Dhimal drives his truck 1,200 km to New York to bring products provisions preferred by South Asian residents here. The store now has a daily turnover of $2,000.
Shiva Darji, 52
When Shiva Darji was living in Chirang Pattale in southern Bhutan, he carried on his ancestral profession of tailoring. In 1991, his family was driven out of Bhutan like 100,000 other Nepali speakers, and he set up a small tailoring shop in his bamboo hut in Sanischare Refugee Camp in Morang. When he boarded a white International Organisation of Migration (IOM) bus to be resettled in the US in 2008, he brought along his interlock tailoring machine. Here, he bought a stitching machine for $250 and set up a small shop in the Central Market on Albemarle Road. His customers are mainly South Asians who want blouses and salwar kameez, and he makes about $1,500 a month. Says Darji: “I’m happy because even in America I can make a living doing what I know how to do.”
The 100,000th refugee, Gopal Gartaula
California’s little Bhutan, Ayesha Shakya
No place like home, Shailee Basnet