From Bhutan to Lancaster, Pa.: Chanda and Tika's refugee journey

Growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal, Chanda Timsina had heard of California and New York but not Lancaster, Pa.! Among the very first refugees from Bhutan to come to the United States in 2009, Chanda quickly perceived that most people in Lancaster hadn't heard of Bhutan or Nepal, either.

Growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal, Chanda Timsina had heard of California and New York – but not Lancaster, Pa.! Among the very first refugees from Bhutan to come to the United States in 2009, Chanda quickly perceived that most people in Lancaster hadn’t heard of Bhutan or Nepal, either. “People would greet us saying ‘hola,’” she recalled. “We had to explain that we were not Spanish speakers.”

Since 2009, more than 500 refugees from Bhutan have resettled in Lancaster (population 55,000+) and that community has come to recognize the distinctive language and culture of the Lhotsampas – a Nepali ethnic community that was purged from Bhutan in the early 1990s.

Chanda, now 24, and her sister Tika, now 20, shared their family’s refugee story with Church World Service U.S. headquarters staff in New York City on World Refugee Day, June 20.

The Timsinas and other Lhotsampas are descendants of ethnic Nepalis who began immigrating to southern Bhutan in the late 1800s. As their numbers grew, the ruling Druk majority feared their position was being threatened and, in the 1980s, instituted policies aimed at unifying Bhutan under Druk culture, religion and language.

As the Lhotsampas and smaller ethnic communities escalated their call for a more democratic political system, the Bhutanese government stepped up its persecution. It revoked ethnic Nepalis’ citizenship and civil rights and, beginning in December 1990, forced tens of thousands to flee to refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

In Bhutan, Chanda and Tika’s extended family lived together on a farm. They numbered 18 in all – parents, four children, grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins.

Their “very simple life” was shattered the day the Bhutanese army came to their home and ordered them to “leave the country within one day or we will kill you.” Chanda was four years old, and Tika, four weeks old. They fled to India, where they stayed for several months before being trucked to a refugee camp in Nepal.

“The UNHCR gave us some food and shelter, and clothing once in awhile – maybe once in four years if an organization or country donated some,” Chanda said. For 17 years, the Timsinas’ “home” was a drafty bamboo hut with a sheet of plastic for a roof. Inside, it was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. "We didn't get electricity. It was hard to live there."

There was never enough food. “We got vegetables once a month, I guess,” Chanda said. “We got five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice per adult for 15 days, some beans, some vegetable oil. We ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for supper. We put three stones together and some firewood inside to cook the rice.”

No one could leave the camp without special permission. In the crowded camp, there was “never any silence, always people everywhere,” Chanda said. “The very good thing is that even though life was really tough, we had lots of friends. And we got to go to school. My parents never got that chance. In school, we learned some English. That helps us right now. I did my high school and went to college for a year.”

When the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program opened resettlement to the Nepali Bhutanese, the Timsinas were among the first to apply.

In February 2009, as the family landed at the Lancaster airport, “We didn’t know where to go, who will come to pick us up, where we are going to be,” Chanda said. “CWS-Lancaster did a very good job. They were the ones who helped us in the beginning.”

CWS-Lancaster staff member Jackie Sahd collected the Timsinas from the airport and drove them “to our home, a really big house with very big rooms, food all over in the kitchen,” Chanda said. “We had enough dishes and everything. The rooms were all decorated and very clean, the beds already made.”

Over the next six months, Sahd was the Timsinas’ primary contact at CWS, and said she and volunteer Laura Janardhan “spent a lot of time with their family.”

Chanda said CWS staff “came to our house every day to see how we were doing, showed us how to set up our own billing accounts, told us the basic rules of what we can do and can’t do, walked with us for a little bit in the street, gave us a map of the city.

“They would always come in time if we needed something. They helped our father find a cleaning job, enrolled my brother and sisters in high school, and connected me to training to become a certified nursing aide. They taught us how to do it, because everything was very new for us at the time,” she said. “We are thankful for what they did.”

“And are doing,” Tika added. “We still call them and go to the office. They are the ones we can call confidently. Most of the staff there are more like friends than caseworkers. We call them, text them. Everyone who works there is very, very nice, really good people.”

Living between their "home" and American cultures,
Young Nepali Bhutanese find their own balance

Chanda and Tika Timsina

Chanda Timsina often gets asked why she is still living with her parents. Her American-born peers say, “You are 24 now. Don’t you want to get your own apartment?”

For her, the choice to stay home is clear, this refugee from Bhutan replies. Solidarity with her family is more important right now than asserting her independence.

“We just came to this country in 2009,” said Chanda, who lives with her grandmother, parents, brother and two sisters. “We know how we lived, how we survived together for 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. We want to stay together for now.”

In a recent interview, Chanda and her sister Tika, 20, talked about this and other acculturation challenges, which involve so much more than just choice of clothing, language and food.

These young women clearly love the United States and the opportunities it offers to – as Chanda put it – “start life again with respect and dignity” and to advance one’s education and career at any age. They look forward to applying for U.S. citizenship in two years.

“But I don’t want to go enroll in someone else’s culture and then forget mine,” Chanda said. “That would make my parents feel bad. I don’t have to act like I am from here. I already have my own culture.”

Chanda and Tika said they cherish their family’s rituals and routines, including starting each day together with a prayer. “We have our own calendar at home,” Chanda said. “Our father keeps track of all the festivals we used to celebrate.”

Lancaster’s Nepali Bhutanese community is close knit. Now numbering between 750 and 1,000, it has grown large enough that “they are now opening some stores with cultural and religious things we used in Nepal. It’s easier for us to keep our culture and we are proud of it.”

Chanda and Tika’s parents are strict vegetarians, and forbid alcohol, drugs and tobacco. They don’t want their children going to dance clubs or parties or staying overnight with friends. Respecting their wishes means sacrificing certain opportunities to socialize with peers.

But their parents welcome their children’s friends to their home. “They love our mom’s delicious cooking,” Chanda said. For her part, Tika has learned from some American friends how to make pizza and cookies.

Chanda graduated high school and completed one year of college in Nepal. Tika graduated high school in Lancaster last year and is in college. Their brother and other sister also have graduated high school.

Chanda would like to continue her college studies eventually, but has deferred in favor of working to help support her family. It took her eight frustrating months to find her first job, in the corner convenience store. Then she was trained as a certified nursing assistant and found work in a nursing home. She has a second job teaching preschool-aged children of migrant workers.

“Now I want to become a registered nurse, but I don’t know when,” Chanda said. “The good thing here is that it’s never too late, you’re never too old to go back to school.”


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