A two-hour Q&A punctuated by a salvo of Oohs, Ahhs, Reallys? and Nevers! followed the hug fest that launched Pabitra's and my reunion. We had recently returned to our lives in Atlanta; I, from my life in Israel, and Pabitra from visiting her "mum" in a refugee camp, in Nepal.
On the ferociously hot and muggy Sunday afternoon, over an early dinner we exchanged gifts. (One Israeli gift was from flag store owner Yehudit Liman, who instructed me to "Please deliver these [Bhutanese flags] to your friends in Atlanta, the Bhutanese refugees about whom you speak so fondly.")
And, when Craig dropped by to welcome back the one whom I call the Mayor of the Atlanta Bhutanese Community, the conversation took deep dives as the Bhutanese-born visionary, leader, activist, advocate, and go-to person answered our questions.
- How did you feel returning to the camp you had left five years ago and continued to call home?
- Why were you initially afraid to return there?
- What do people in the camps know about life in the U.S.A.?
- How much did you pay for dental work in Khathmandu when you visited the capital city?
- What did it cost to treat your ingrown toenail, and what were the doctor's credentials?
In 1991, Bhutan expelled Pabitra, her family, and roughly 100,000 native-born fellow ethnic Nepalis after countless people endured imprisonment, separation, torture, murder, and rape. For decades since, these exiled, stateless people have been living in seven U.N.-run refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. In 2005, Pabitra left her camp to attend a conference in the U.S.A., where she sought political asylum. She had not seen her mother until last month.
In 2008, the chance to seek resettlement in a third country (the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, and the Netherlands) under the United Nations Third-Country Resettlement Program for Refugees reversed the fortunes of more than 60,000 Bhutanese refugees.
Today, Pabitra and a community of 6,000 Bhutanese refugees live in Atlanta (more members are steadily joining them here and the others nationwide). Craig, I, and other Atlanta Bhutanese Refugee Support Group volunteers are helping our new neighbors to resettle and rebuild their lives. And our dear friend who laughs easily and often, and relishes her mother's Nepalese cooking is a key cultural interpreter and go-to person in helping us and her community to navigate the challenges.
Craig (left) with Atlanta Bhutanese basket weavers
Craig's (abridged) list of Pabitra's gifts
- Pabitra is a shining light. You know she is in a room because people listen. She carries regally the weight and future of her community, and she is busy, productive, and planning her next move and next month’s move.
- Pabitra knows what family really means. She traveled around the world returning to a refugee camp to see her brother and mother. The last leg of her journey she completed on foot and carried only a small satchel of clothes (having left her passport and documents in Kathmandu with friends). If people living in the camp had known she came from the U.S.A. or advocated resettlement, she would have been at risk.
- Pabitra is thankful that she has been given a great gift of freedom in the U.S.A. She remains positive and understands that she is responsible for managing her life and helping others to navigate their way. Tired and tireless today, twenty years from now she will be the same focused, driven person with big dreams and major accomplishments.
- Bhutanese Atlantans repurpose "the vine that ate the South" (includes video)
- July Fourth picnic with Atlanta's new Bhutanese neighbors (includes video)
- Son of Bhutan (Pabitra's nephew Kamal)