Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nepal’s fresh start, or last chance?

A new Prime Minister, driving a Nepali-made SUV, may be just the answer this young republic is looking for

By Benjamin Graham
August 30, 2010

Never has a simple SUV attracted as much attention as did the four-door Mustang Max that drove through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday. Riding in the vehicle was Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who chose to drive the Nepali-made car to his swearing-in ceremony and his new office at Singha Durbar, Nepal’s parliamentary building. Bhattarai’s choice of transportation breaks a long standing tradition among Nepali Prime Ministers, who usually opt for expensive, foreign-made luxury autos.

The discreet SUV, which lacks air-conditioning and power windows, much less bullet-proof glass, brought crowds of interested citizens to the streets and caused a firestorm of chatter on social networking sites.

“Nepal made mustang jeep is new ride for New PM, Will he be able to live up to the people's expectations? He certainly has the potential!” tweeted KC Bishal, a Nepali living in the US.

“Good thing the #PMBRB (Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai) picks Mustang vehicle. Gives hope for the country.” said Guna Raj Luitel, executive editor of the Annapurna Post daily in Kathmandu, via twitter.

While the choice has garnered praise from citizens and the media, some are still reluctant to be openly optimistic.

The new Nepali leader comes into office under difficult circumstances. The day after Bhattarai was sworn in, the deadline for the completion of Nepal’s new constitution was extended another three months, to November 30. Since the end of Nepal’s 10-year Maoist insurgency and the beginning of democratic elections in 2008, the constitution’s deadline has been extended three times. Many believe this most recent extension will have to be the last.

The excitement and cynicism expressed by many Nepalis hints at a country approaching a tipping point. Some hope Bhattarai, riding in his Nepali-made car, marks a different kind of Nepali leader--one ready to put the will of the people ahead of self-interest. Others believe time is running out for Nepal’s political establishment to get its act together.

In 2008, the 601-member Constituent Assembly (Nepal’s parliament) was elected and given the task of writing a new constitution. The Maoist party won the most seats, followed by two more-established parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal - United Marxist Leninists. But power struggles between the parties, and even within the parties, have resulted in political deadlock time and again.

The main point of contention lies is the fate of the remaining Maoist combatants, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who have been waiting in camps and barracks across Nepal since the war ended in 2006. The Maoist political leaders have been reluctant to disarm the PLA without major concessions from the other two parties on monetary compensation for PLA soldiers and their integration into the Nepal Army. The completion of the peace process would enable the constitution to be written.

Hailing from a rural village in western Nepal, Bhattarai is the fourth Prime Minister to serve since the election of the CA. He gained fame as a leader of the Maoist insurgency, and played a critical role in the transformation of the Maoists from a rebel group to a political party.

Bhattarai was educated at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and is viewed by some as both an intellectual and a man of the people. Others see him as part of the same political establishment that has led to the current gridlock.

By winning the support of smaller Madhessi parties, based in the southern Terai region of Nepal, Bhattarai was able to gain a majority in the CA. This new coalition will be pitted against the Nepali Congress and UML, but cooperation between the two sides is critical if any progress is to be made in the coming months. Fortunately, Bhattarai is known as a moderate within his own part.

The euphoric energy at the end of the Maoist insurgency and the birth of the Nepali republic has slowly waned over the last five years. Some are allowing themselves to be optimistic about Bhattarai’s intentions, a sentiment boosted, no doubt, by the car he now drives, but many remain skeptical. If serious progress isn’t made on the peace process and the constitution isn’t written by the next deadline, Nepal will enter the political unknown.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A refugee's journey to the Bhutan he has never known

Born and reared in refugee camps and soon to resettle in the West, 18-year-old Dipak Chetri embarks on a trip to the homeland he may never see again.

Benjamin Graham
Published in New America Media
November 14, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal— "I was born right here," Dipak Chetri says, standing over a bare spot on the mud floor a few feet from his bed.

"My mother was two months pregnant with me when she left Bhutan," he explains, his mother nodding in agreement as she prepares curd in the next room.

In 1992, Chetri's mother was among the 105,000 Bhutanese citizens who fled their homeland in southern Bhutan to escape government persecution, seeking refuge in eastern Nepal.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) organized the displaced Bhutanese into seven camps, where they have been living ever since. Chetri, now 18, is the same age as the refugee crisis, and like his entire generation of Bhutanese in exile, he has never set foot in his homeland.

For nearly two decades, the exiled Bhutanese lived with little hope of finding a solution. That was until the United Nations initiated a third-country resettlement program in 2007.

Since then, nearly 40,000 Bhutanese have been permanently resettled in the West, with thousands more set to do the same in the next few years. Chetri's family is preparing to move to New York at the end of 2010, but before he leaves the camp for good, he has one last goal.

"People always tell me I am Bhutanese—the UNHCR, my teachers, my parents—but I have never been there," he says. This is why he’s decided to leave Nepal for the first time and make the risky 150-kilometer (93-mile) trip to see his homeland—just once.

Roots of the Crisis

Perched high in the Himalaya between China and India, Bhutan has kept itself isolated from the outside world for centuries in an attempt to preserve its traditional Buddhist culture.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the government began to view the growing population of southern Bhutanese, who are ethnically Nepali and religiously Hindu, as a demographic threat to the Buddhist majority. The regime enacted a series of discriminatory laws aimed at those in the south, employing threats, imprisonment and torture to coerce thousands to flee their homes.

"My father and uncle were involved with the democracy movements in southern Bhutan in the ’80s. That made them targets of the Royal Bhutan Army," Chetri (not his real name) explains as he stuffs a borrowed backpack with a change of clothes and a semi-functional cell phone.

"They hid in the jungle until they were able to get my mother and leave for Nepal," he says. Refugees caught back in Bhutan now would be imprisoned indefinitely.

With this in mind, Chetri's mother has tried to discourage her son from making the risky journey, but he won't listen.

Learning Bhutanese, Looking West

Each morning in the refugee camp, children line up in neat rows outside of school. Over the intercom, the head master begins reciting the Bhutanese national anthem, and the students join in.

"Wherever we go, we should not forget who we are," S.K. Suba says, assistant headmaster of the secondary school from which Chetri graduated. Lessons in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, are mandatory, even though Nepali is the mother tongue of nearly all the refugees.

Ironically, part of the Bhutanese government’s discriminatory policy was to make Dzongkha mandatory in schools and local government, much to the dismay of the southern Bhutanese. Now the refugees have done the same in their own schools.

"We teach Bhutanese history and Bhutanese social studies as well,” Suba says. “When we get resettled to a new country, people will still know we are Bhutanese.”

But most of these students would rather spend their time learning English.

Since resettlement began, teachers and students alike have been leaving in droves. School attendance and test scores have plummeted, and few young people spend time looking back to Bhutan. They are excited about their futures in the West.

As this new generation is resettled and begins to learn English, Dutch or Norwegian, the question remains: What will Bhutan become to them?

Chetri hopes to find some answers at the Bhutanese border.

A Risky Trek

The bus ride from Nepal to India is easy, but the train ride across the northern tip of India to the Bhutanese border is stressful. Though some people speak Nepali, most are speaking Hindi, a language Chetri never learned. In an attempt to conceal his Bhutanese identity, he addresses them in English.

At a station near the Indian border town of Jaigaon, Chetri asks an auto-rickshaw driver, "Do you speak Nepali?" The driver shakes his head, no. "Bhutan border?" Chetri asks in English. The driver understands.

At the border, a large arched gate opens up to Bhutan. A small battalion of uniformed Bhutanese officers allows Indian nationals to pass into the country for trade purposes without an ID check, but everyone else needs a visa. Fortunately for Chetri, he looks Indian.

Walking briskly past the guards, Chetri's first steps into Bhutan stir unexpected feelings. "People are staring at me," he says with a tinge of paranoia, "They know I don't belong here." It takes a few moments to calm his nerves, but soon he is ready to take in his surroundings.

To Chetri's surprise, the town he has entered is bustling with commerce, not at all like the poor, underdeveloped Bhutan he learned about in school. "I always thought that the King of Bhutan was very cruel for kicking us out," Chetri explains. "Now I think that he's cruel to us, but the people in Bhutan seem happy—they are engaged and have jobs. He must be a good king for them.”

Chetri's plan is to stay for a couple of hours, so he pushes onward for a quick tour of the border town.

He finds the local Dzong, one of the traditional Bhutanese administrative buildings depicted in paintings on the walls of his former school, but decides not to go in.

"Entering it is too risky," Chetri says, "If they catch me, they will arrest me."

Outsider at Home

One hour is enough time. Crossing back to the Indian side of the border, Chetri breathes a sigh of relief.

"It felt good to step foot in Bhutan— today I feel Bhutanese," he reflects. "But Bhutan did not feel like home. No one should be that nervous in their homeland."

Chetri's parents and grandparents still hope to return to Bhutan as citizens some day, but in a few months, they will be transitioning to life in New York, the place of Chetri’s dreams.

"Bhutan is our heritage, but my future is in America," he says.

For Chetri, homeland, birthplace, and the future are all different places. At least now, when people ask him where he is from, he can decide how to answer on his own.

The road back to Bhutan...

Chetri has lived in his family's hut for his entire life, rarely leaving the area surrounding the seven Bhutanese refugee camps.

The bus ride out of camp is the only familiar part of the journey for Chetri.

The relative calmness of the refugee camps gives way to the bustle of India as Chetri takes his first steps out of Nepal. Culture shock sets in quickly, leaving him overwhelmed for the majority of his trip.

A border guard checks vehicles as they pass into Phuentsholing, Bhutan. Indians of Nepali origin pass into Bhutan daily for work and trade purposes, making it easy for Chetri to slip over the border unnoticed.

The border sign addresses "foreign nationals," but Dipak does not have foreign citizenship, nor does he have Bhutanese citizenship. At the moment, he is effectively stateless.

A summer home of the King's mother is the farthest point that Chetri reaches in Bhutan before returning to India.

And a few extra shots from the camps...

The paintings on the back of the classroom wall are of thunder dragons, the national symbol of Bhutan, and a Dzong, the symbolic administration buildings of Bhutan. The students have only experienced these traditional Bhutanese icons through their studies.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A refugee camp divided

By Benjamin Graham
Published at
November 8, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal - Subash Archaya thought he had escaped persecution for good when he left southern Bhutan in the early 1990's. Harassed by the government and threatened by police, he joined the growing population of ethnically-Nepali Bhutanese citizens fleeing to refugee camps in eastern Nepal. After 18 years of living in exile, Archaya says the same types of threats that drove him to leave Bhutan have surfaced again, but this time they are from his fellow refugees.

"It started with texts," he explains, holding up a mobile phone in the dim light of his hut. "Plz donot try 2 share these 2 police," the screen reads.

Through several anonymous messages, Archaya is warned that his family will be in danger if they don't leave the refugee camp immediately. His wife, holding their 15 month old daughter, unfolds a crumpled piece of paper; a hand written note again threatening violence if they stay in the camp.

With no place to go, Archaya has relocated his family to a security village in Beldangi I camp; a refuge within a refugee camp where armed guards and a tangled fence of barbed wire provide 24-hour protection and isolation. Archaya hasn't left the tiny plot of land for several months.

Although the family doesn't know exactly who sent the threatening messages, they do know why. "I support the resettlement program," Archaya says, "But there are still some in the camps who oppose it."

For the majority of their time in exile, Bhutanese refugees hoped to return to Bhutan as citizens, a process known as repatriation. In 2007, the U.N. and the United States offered an alternative solution by initiating a third country resettlement program. While many Bhutanese welcomed the opportunity to start new lives abroad, there was a significant portion of the population who viewed resettlement as a victory for the Bhutanese government. In their opinion, people would stop fighting to return to Bhutan if they moved to western countries, a fatal blow to the repatriation movement.

By mid-2007 the camps were divided over the issue, and tensions boiled over into violence.

"I used to be Camp Secretary of Beldangi II camp," Archaya explains, "Because of my leadership position, a lot of people were looking to see if I would stay or if I would decide to resettle." When word spread that he wanted to resettle, threats began to appear.

Repatriation has been a top priority for the exiled Bhutanese since they first fled to Nepal, but every organized attempt to return home has been met with failure.

As early as 1996, a rally was staged in which hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Nepali border town of Kakarbhitta in an attempt to enter India and then Bhutan, but several activists were arrested by Indian security officers and the rally dissipated.

More recently, in May of 2007, a 'Long March Home' was organized in which tens of thousands of exiled Bhutanese attempted to walk from the camps in Nepal, across India, and back to Bhutan. The marchers were again met by Indian security officers at the Nepali border, where several guards opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators, killing two.

These early attempts to return to Bhutan show the commitment that many refugees had to repatriation. For a long time, it was their only hope.

But resettlement changed everything. Although it created hope and excitement for many refugees, especially the young and educated, it also amplified the frustration of repatriation advocates. In an effort to counter the resettlement movement, many pro-repatriation groups evolved into underground political parties, some with militant tendencies like the Liberation Army of Bhutan (LAB), Druk Leapord, and the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB).

It is groups like these that Archaya and his family fear, and it was these groups that initiated inter-camp violence, beginning in 2007. Early that year, two young refugees died in a clash with an underground political party. The same week, a refugee leader was beat-up and his hut destroyed because he supported resettlement.

In the days after, a news release from the Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch, Bill Frelick, warned that, "Nepali police need to protect the Bhutanese refugees and their right to peacefully express their views on resettlement or return."

Despite many more pleas for increased security in the camps, violence continued, culminating in 2009 with the deaths of two Camp Secretaries (the same position that Archaya held). KB Khadka was stabbed to death on his way home one evening in April, while Shanti Ram Nepal was shot four times by an unidentified gunman later the same year.

Yet as the number of Bhutanese resettling has increased, the cases of violence have tended to decrease. By mid-2010, nearly 80% of refugees either already moved abroad, or expressed interest in doing so.

As is often the case, families still in the camps will hear good news from their already-resettled relatives, persuading them to make the leap and file their own case for resettlement. Repatriation groups are losing the hearts and the minds of the remaining refugees. After 18 years of camp life, the pull to resettle is strong.

Dr. Bampa Rai is a Bhutanese refugee and a doctor by profession, but he is more renown as a leader of the repatriation movement. Since the early 90's, he has run a health clinic for refugees near the camps while also peacefully advocating for repatriation through legitimate organizations like the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Representatives Committee.

But even he admits that "The sun is setting on repatriation." Rai does not condone violence or intimidation, but he does believe that the cause of repatriation has been marginalized in favor of resettlement.

"The UNHCR has been advocating resettlement in every camp for years now," he explains, referring to the various information meetings, English classes, and cultural orientation programs sponsored by the U.N. that are aimed at recruiting and preparing refugees for resettlement.

"Don't get me wrong, I am grateful to the UNHCR, but for 18 years people were never given hope of repatriation by the UNHCR; not a single meeting," he says. Now he believes resettlement will completely deflate the cause for repatriation, and, he claims, it already has begun.

Indeed, many refugees argue that violence and intimidation have all but disappeared from the camps. Now it seems that most everyone is looking forward to moving to new homes in the West. While Archaya insists that the underground groups continue to operate today and threats still exist, he also looks forward to resettlement.

"I am Bhutanese, but my future is in the United States," he says, "So we spend our time waiting for resettlement; it is our only hope."

Subash Archaya was able to protect his family by relocating them to a security village, where barbed wire, a watchtower, and armed guards keep them separated from the general refugee population.

Many residents live in fear as they wait to resettle, but that is starting to change as pro-repatriation groups give way to to the excitement of resettlement.

An IOM bus refugees to and from the UNHCR office in the local town of Damak every day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unbecoming a refugee

While many Bhutanese wait for resettlement, some still wait for acknowledgment.

Benjamin Graham
Published in Bhutan News Service
October 19, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal - Optimism runs high around the Bhutanese refugee camps in eastern Nepal these days. After 18 years of living in crowded bamboo huts, many refugees are packing their bags, preparing to move to western nations under a resettlement program sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Those still waiting for their departure date in the camps pass the time by brushing up on their English and discussing which US state has the best job market, but there remains a small contingent of Bhutanese who are a step behind their peers.

A person must first be a registered Bhutanese refugee to be able to resettle, and there are a few, like Karna Bahadur Rai, who are still waiting for the UNHCR to recognize them as refugees.

Like the majority of the 105,000 Bhutanese citizens that fled to Nepal, Karna Rai left southern Bhutan with his family in 1992. Since then, he has spent most of his life in Beldangi I refugee camp with his wife and son, both of whom have official refugee identification cards administered by the UNHCR. Karna does not.

The label of 'refugee' has been a contentious issue since the United Nations defined the term in 1951. Originally designed to classify the millions of people fleeing post-World War II Europe, the term was broadened in 1967 by a UN protocol aimed at incorporating displaced populations from new crises in Latin America and Africa. Today the UNHCR estimates there are roughly 16 million refugees world-wide, all of whom are guaranteed specific rights under the original 1951 agreement. It is not uncommon for similarly desperate people to pose as refugees in an attempt to flee poor economic situations or gain the protections and services provided to legal refugees. To combat such cases, the UNHCR interviews potential refugees to verify whether they are able to return to their country of origin without fear of persecution.

The UNHCR first conducted for the Bhutanese in 1992, when the vast majority of them arrived in Nepal. Karna Rai was 13 years old at the time.

"My whole family was interviewed, even the little ones" he said. Each of them were administered a card displaying a portrait photo of themselves, their date of birth, and their identification number. The card permits a refugee to obtain food rations, open a bank account, access health facilities, and pursue an education in the camps.

Soon after the crisis began, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan initiated a series of bilateral dialogues in an attempt to find a durable solution. Through inconsistent statements and skillful maneuvering, Bhutan was able to prolong the discussion process. Eleven years passed in which 15 separate dialogues took place, each of them ending fruitlessly. Realizing that a solution would not surface in the near future, many Bhutanese began to temporarily leave the camps in search of work.

Karna Rai's family was no different. Strapped for cash and tired of the stagnant opportunities available in the camps, Karna left in 2005 with plans of returning in a year.

He ended up in Gujarat, India, but after eight months of labor his boss offered to fly him to Delhi where he could make higher wages working at a factory.

"Obviously I accepted," Karna said, "But after I landed and was transported to the factory, I found out I wasn't anywhere close to Delhi." He wasn't even in India.

Karna had been trafficked to Malaysia, sent to work at a factory. The compound was all inclusive, complete with a bunkhouse, cafeteria, and store, but the workers weren't permitted to leave. Karna struggled to adjust in this new environment, where people were speaking Malay, Tamil, Bengali, and a little Hindi, but no Nepali. After more than a year, Karna negotiated his way out with one of the bosses and immediately looked up the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. They reviewed his documents and called their counterparts in Nepal. His story was confirmed and Karna was soon on a plane back to his family and his hut in Beldangi I.

Three years had passed since he left in 2005, and a lot had changed for the refugees still in the camps. The resettlement program had begun, and many of his neighbors were already gone. At the same time, the UNHCR had instated another census in 2006 in order to re-identify all of the refugees present in the camps. New ID cards were administered, and to Karna's befuddlement, only those with one of the new cards now had refugee status.

He took his old ID card and a laminated letter from Malaysia to the UNHCR office and told them his story, but his case is still pending. It has been pending for a year and a half.

There are many more like Karna who, for various reasons, were not in the camps for the 2006 census. Many were working in India, Kathmandu, or other parts of Nepal, but all of them who didn't make it back were denied refugee status after already obtaining it once.

TB Gurung, Camp Secretary of Beldangi I, estimated that there are over 3,000 refugees who missed the 2006 census. "Those who were once refugees are now asylum seekers," TB explained. They have to go back to the UNHCR, present their papers, and go through the interview process again. The UNHCR's tentativeness is a result of fraudulent cases, TB said.

Poor Nepalis from the local community began posing as refugees in an attempt to gain access to the weekly food rations provided by the World Food Program. It was under these circumstances that the UNHCR decided to institute the 2006 census.

Further construing the identification of refugees are cases of mismarriage, in which a Bhutanese marries into the local community. The refugees share a similar Hindu heritage with Nepalis, and it is difficult to determine who becomes a refugee when intermarriages takes place. Pratibedan Baidhya, External Relations Assistant at the UNHCR in Nepal, attributes these cases of mismarriage to delaying the process for people like Karna. "Several certificates must be verified when [mismarriages] occur, which makes everything take longer," he said. In some instances the Nepali wants to gain refugee status, while other times the Bhutanese wants to gain Nepali citizenship.

Unfortunately, Karna's case may be far back on the UNHCR's to do list. The agency is currently in the throes of resettlement, interviewing an endless queue of families and arranging travel to western nations every day. When there is time to devote to unregistered refugees, UNHCR staff must first wade through the cases of fraud and mismarriage before getting to straightforward cases like Karna's.

Fortunately for Karna, he is able to survive in the camps without having official refugee status because his wife and son can both receive food rations, but they won't be able to apply for resettlement until his new ID card comes through. Karna is not too optimistic. "My beard will be gray by the time I get to resettle. I will be finished. My life will be finished here," he said.

Karna Rai displays a laminated letter issued by the UNHCR office in Malaysia that reads 'Rai, a citizen from Bhutan, is an asylum seeker in Malaysia.'

Bhutanese children are often left temporarily fatherless due to migrant work, leaving families under the care of mothers and older brothers.

Ram Chandra Mishra (left), a Bhutanese refugee in Beldangi-II, was working in India during the UNHCR's official census in 2006. After several years away, Ram was reunited with his family in the last week of August. Like Karna, Ram has yet to be registered as an official refugee.

Ram's daughter the day after his return to Nepal.

Many huts were gutted because of resettlement, like the one below left, during the years that Karna and Ram were absent from the refugee camps.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The missing generation

Times they are a changin' in rural Nepal as young people leave their villages for the city.

Benjamin Graham
Published in The Kathmandu Post
October 2, 2010

Aahale village in Dhading district is like many villages across the hills of Nepal. Families grow their own rice on terraced fields; children walk uphill to school each morning; and grandparents sip tea on their porches while sharing local gossip.

But as I walked through Aahale with my friend and travel companion Raj Sadaula, I realised something was different.

Raj, 27, is an English teacher in Kathmandu, but was born in Aahale. He makes the 150km trip to visit his relatives every so often, and this time I was invited along. A muddy two-day bus and truck ride dropped us at his village after dark, where all of his relatives were still up waiting for our arrival. Aunts and uncles greeted us with namaste while children opted for hugs, but not a single person Raj's age was present. An entire generation was missing.

Raj has nine paternal cousins, but his younger brother is the only one of his relatives in his generation that still lives in Aahale. The rest are either in Kathmandu or have married and moved out.

Although Nepal is one of the least urbanised countries in the world, the phenomenon of urban migration is nothing new here. People have been leaving their villages in droves for the last 50 years, seeking better opportunities in Kathmandu and other urban centres. The effects of the ensuing demographic change are easily visible within the Capital, where the population has increased from 200,000 in 1952 to more than 1.5 million today. New housing projects continue to pop up among lands that were once paddy fields and traffic congestion somehow increases by the week. This rapid development in urban areas is marked by less drastic changes in rural areas, where the reasons for migration and the ramifications it has on daily life are more subtle.

In Aahale, education is one of the driving factors that lead young people to leave. The local primary school is a ten minute walk up the hill. Its mud and stone walls protect students from the weather, but the packed classrooms don't provide the best learning environment. An English teacher who actually speaks English is difficult to find. This is where most children growing up in Aahale begin school, but the trend recently has been for them to finish somewhere else.

"I encouraged each of my children to study in Kathmandu because education in our village can only take a person so far," says Ram Sadaula, Raj's uncle. His daughter is 22 and now pursuing a journalism degree in Kathmandu. A university degree doesn't do much good out here, Ram adds. It's more convenient to know how to harvest rice.

Others have left the village for financial reasons. Narayan Nepali, 19, is the son of the village tailor, but rather than follow in his father's footsteps, he now drives a bus in Kathmandu. He was back visiting his family in Aahale at the same time we were.

"I try to visit when I can," Narayan says, "but I can usually make it back only during the festival season." Indeed, many of these children-in-absence attempt to visit regularly, but the trip home is far from convenient.

The road that Raj and I travelled to get to Aahale is the only road that leads from Dhading Besi (Dhading district headquarters) to the village. Like 57 percent of Nepalis, the residents of Aahale do not have access to an all-weather road. Remnants of pavement lie like a patch-work quilt near the beginning, but that soon gives way to half-metre ruts and small boulders—more of a river bed than a highway. The path becomes nearly impassible during monsoon, and people are beginning to find it easier to leave the village long-term than to continue coming back.

This trend has started to worry village elders. The land is important to them. "We have been living here since before Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Valley," Ram explains. That was nearly 300 years ago. To this older generation, this land is more than just their property; it is their life-line.

Land and land ownership have always been of central importance to life in Nepal. Centuries of operating under a feudal system have left a small number of people owning a large amount of the land, making ownership all the more valuable to those who can afford it. With roughly three-fourths of the population employed in agriculture—producing a third of Nepal's GDP—the old axiom still rings true: having land means having a job. In Aahale, it is no different.

But times are changing. In 1971, there were 16 urban centres in Nepal, compared to 58 at the turn of the millennium. The movement towards urban life is slow, with more than 80 percent of Nepal's population still living in rural areas, but it is irreversible. The elders in Aahale wonder what will become of their village when they are no longer around to take care of it.

"My brothers and I are worried that our land will go unused," Ram says. "We want our children and grandchildren to take over. Yes, the land has been in our family forever, but more than that, it is all we have ever had, and all that we have invested in," he says.

Ram says he originally hoped that his children, along with his nieces and nephews, would leave only to get an education, and then return with new skills to help improve conditions in the village. But this hasn't worked out, as many of their children have begun to put down deeper roots in Kathmandu. Now, even Ram spends a significant amount of time in the city visiting them.

One solution that all of the elders proposed is to fix the road, making the village more accessible and therefore easier to visit from Kathmandu. They acknowledge that there is no turning back modernisation, and that migration to Kathmandu will only increase. But, they say, the ideal situation is when a person can have a foot in both places, and a better road would make that possible, or at least more feasible.

"I am not opposed to my children moving to Kathmandu," says Raj's eldest uncle, "In fact, that may be better for them, but it would be nice if they could travel back and forth; maintain our land here and still live there."

The road to Aahale is haphazardly repaired each year by the government of Nepal, rendering it nearly impassible during monsoon season.

Dipa Nepali's eldest grandson is 19 and drives a bus in Kathmandu, but her younger grandchildren still live in Aahale and attend the local school.

Village life continues in Aahale, despite the absence of young adults.

Raj's aunts and uncles continue to work the land well into their 70's.

Students hang out of a packed classroom at Aahale primary school. Many of these students will finish school elsewhere, and the more studious ones aspire to attend college in Kathmandu.

Raj's father leads us through rice paddies before sunrise. Opting to hike rather than ride in a truck for two days, we get an early start on the 12 hour walk back to Dhading Besi.

The bus ride is from Dhading Besi to Kalanki Chowk in Kathmandu is a short four hour nap.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Separated by resettlement

As the Bhutanese resettlement effort gains momentum, some families are left stranded.

Benjamin Graham
Published in Bhutan News Service
September 25, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal - Devika Pradhan rises early each morning to stoke the open flame of her cooking fire, boiling enough tea for her three grown children still asleep in the next room of their bamboo hut.

8,000 miles away in Carl City, Minnesota—literally the other side of the world—her fourth child Jeeban, 22, rolls out of bed around the same time, microwaves an old cup of coffee, and catches a city bus from his apartment to the restaurant where he works.

Nearly 20 years ago, Devika, Jeeban, and the rest of their family, alongside 105,000 other Bhutanese refugees, fled their homes in southern Bhutan to seek refuge in the jungles of eastern Nepal. At the time, the growing population of southern Bhutanese, who are mostly Hindu and of Nepali origin, was viewed by the Bhutanese Government as a demographic threat to the nation's traditionally Buddhist society. Using threats, imprisonment, and torture, the Bhutanese regime coerced the refugees into leaving.

In 1992, after the mass exodus, the refugees were organized into seven refugee camps by the UNHCR. The Bhutanese lived with little hope of a solution until 2006. It was then that the UNHCR, in collaboration with several western nations, initiated a third-country resettlement program with the goal of moving all interested refugees to new homes in participating countries.

Devika's son Jeeban was the first from their family to take part in the program, which has already moved 37,000 plus Bhutanese to new homes in the west, 30,000 in the United States alone. This first wave of resettled refugees has passed the message along to those still in the camps that resettlement is tough, but its better.

Jeeban called his mother at least once a week from his apartment in Minnesota. "He always tells us to come quickly; that life is better in the US," Devika said. She imagined her son's life is pretty simple in the US; watching TV, working hard, and continuing to eat rice two times a day.

But the refugees still in the camps rarely hear the details about resettled life. Many of them can't name the exact job that their relatives are working abroad or what the living conditions are like. Often times the employment available to refugees in the west is scant and anything but glamorous, and so relatives are not eager to share the details of their new lives abroad, but rather the generalities—that life is better and that now, finally, there are opportunities.

As a result, the popularity of resettlement has grown wildly, with more than 70% of the remaining refugees expressing interest in leaving camps. While this momentum is positive for the UNHCR overall, the increasing number of Bhutanese filing their cases for resettlement has created a backlog, slowing down the processing.

The result for many has become a waiting game.

Mongali Maya Mongar is a resident of Sanischare camp, but is also the coordinator of a women's advocacy group (the Bhutanese Refugee Women Forum) that operates in each of the seven camps. "People are always coming to me telling me they are depressed and frustrated because of delays in their cases," she said, adding, "I applied to go to the US myself but my case has been delayed for months and no one will give me a straight answer as to why."

The UNHCR holds a daily inquiry session in every camp for people with questions about their cases status. The refugees are able to ask the UNHCR directly about how close they are to being able to resettle, but even the line to ask questions is backlogged. The queue of people runs out of the door and into the streets.

The UNHCR's official answer for all of the delays, as told by External Relations Assistant Pratibedan Baidhya, is that, "processing requires a lot of verification, there are a lot of security clearances."

Though not a satisfying answer to a frustrated refugee, Baidhya is referring to the specific reasons that cases can be held up, the most common of which is family separation.

Among the Bhutanese communities, especially the communities in exile, family ties are strong. In some cases, family is all a person has. As such, the UNHCR has adopted an unofficial policy in which all families must be kept together while resettling. "It's not acceptable for an elderly person in a family to be left behind just because he or she doesn't want to resettle," said Baidhya.

It is usually the uneducated and elderly refugees who are hesitant to start over in a new country, and often times a family must convince or coerce the whole family into going together. But this is difficult to do if a family member is missing from the camps.

The longevity of the refugee crisis (nearly 18 years) and the lack of employment opportunities for refugees have led many fathers and brothers to leave the camps in search of work to support their families, often landing them in India doing physical labor.

Devika's husband, Ratan, began leaving home to work in northern India in 1995. Arjun, Devika's oldest son, said, "Our father would come and leave, and beat us in between, but when he heard about resettlement in 2007, he never came back." He probably snuck back to Bhutan to live with some remaining relatives, adds Arjun.

Initially this was not a problem, but once resettlement started, many families, like Devika's, were left stranded. That is why the whole family was happy when Jeeban's name was called, even though it was only him. At least a part of their family could have a chance at resettlement. So against UNHCR norms, Jeeban left for Minnesota by himself and has been supporting the family through remittances for a year.

Back in the camps, Arjun was busy trying to convince the UNHCR that his father was gone for good and that the rest of his family should be able to move on with their lives and resettle. In August, it finally worked.

With fifty USD sent from Jeeban, Arjun and Devika went on a last minute shopping spree at the local market, one day before they would board a plane bound for the US. Though the future of the resettled Bhutanese community remains unknown, Devika isn't worried. "If I can't get a job in housekeeping or child care, I'll make food for my family. We will be together," she said.

Arjun and Devika pack their bags outside of their hut in Beldangi I camp, Nepal.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Behind the nanglo

Nanglos leave the kitchen to find new significance on the streets of Kathmandu.

Benjamin Graham
Published in The Kathmandu Post
August 20, 2010

KATHMANDU, Nepal - Countless families for countless generations have used nanglos to winnow through their rice and pick out the small stones that like to hide between the grains, but it has only been over the last half-century that these woven bamboo platters have gained wide spread popularity as ‘nanglo shops.’

Women, and a few men, can be seen sitting on every street corner from the downtown area to the far reaches of the Valley, their nanglos piled high with candy, cigarettes, churpi (hard cheese), parag (spiced tobacco), and even fried peanuts in the winter. Despite the popularity that these mobile convenience stores enjoy with pedestrians and bus riders, the development of the nanglo shop and the stories of the people behind them go largely unnoticed amid the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s streets.

There are not many written records available on the evolution of the nanglo shop in the Kathmandu Valley, but the memories of a few local residents are just as helpful as an anthropological study.

Ram Prasad Sharma, an 85-year-old resident of Babar Mahal, remembers seeing his first nanglo shop after the 1934 earthquake. “Many shops and buildings were destroyed, so a few people turned to nanglo shops as a way to make ,” he said. Achyutananda Baskota, who has been living in Kathmandu for the entire 65 years of his life, has memories of buying chocolates from a nanglo shop on his way to school as a kid. “Even then, I always thought of nanglo shops and the women that run them as a representation of our country’s poverty,” he said.

Regardless of the exact time period in which the nanglo became widely used as a road-side store, it is true that many of the people who run them are not doing so by choice. Dire family situations and extreme poverty levels push many shopkeepers, most of whom are immigrants from outside the Valley, to exchange the rice on their nanglos for candy and cigarettes. Yet it is the allure of the streets of Kathmandu that inevitably acts as the pull factor. The persistent cacophony of honking, hollering, and haggling represents a good business environment to nanglo shopkeepers, and in this way, nanglo shops can be seen as an indicator of growth in the Valley.

Several decades ago, maintaining a nanglo shop would have been a difficult task. In the 1950’s, only one paved highway ran through Nepal and the 1952 census counted roughly 190,000 people living in urban settlements in the Valley. Fast forward to 2010: Kathmandu is a bustling metropolis of over 1.5 million people, all going through the growing pains of rapid development. Nanglo shopkeepers depend on the increasingly congested urban sidewalks and streets for their daily income, and Kathmandu’s rapid urbanisation, though not very well-guided, indicates a growing private sector and a growing market for the nanglo shop.

Because of the demographic growth in the Capital, people from across Nepal continue to come to Kathmandu in hopes of finding employment, but jobs remain scarce. Opening a nanglo shop often provides an income for those who would otherwise face unemployment or a menial hourly job. Nanu Shrestha is originally from Sankhu in the north-eastern outskirts of the Valley, but she has run her nanglo shop outside Bal Mandir in the same corner of Naxal for the past seven years. Like many other women who share her plight, circumstances outside her control have driven her here.

“I never had a job before my husband died; after that I had to work hard to keep myself and my four kids afloat,” she says. After a failed business venture in opening a teashop, she saw this as her only alternative. Working from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening, Shrestha has been able to make roughly Rs. 400 in sales a day, with her best-selling product being cigarettes. She lists her other job opportunities as perhaps being a housekeeper or working in a carpet factory, but she enjoys being her own boss and keeping her own hours. “I’m able to give my kids food and shelter, but I can’t support their education this way,” she adds.

With few services set up for widows and other underprivileged women like Shrestha, nanglo shops provide a permissible employment alternative in the ever-shrinking job market of the Valley.

Bimala Pokharel has developed various employment and job training programmes for underprivileged women like Shrestha at her coffee shop, Higher Grounds Coffee in Jawalakhel, by teaching them how to bake bread and make jewelery. She has heard the same story repeated time and again from the women she assists. “When a girl comes from her village to the big city, it’s extremely difficult for her to get a job without having any qualifications, marketable skills, or connections,” she says, adding that, “a lot of the girls get trapped in unsafe work places: cabin restaurants and dance bars, even bonded labour.”

Pokharel has dedicated her personal time and resources to providing better opportunities for some of these women, but the reach of individuals like her can only go so far and many women aren’t fortunate enough to find programmes like hers. At the same time, the government’s lack of infrastructure and political floundering have made the future look bleak for the creation of solid public safety nets for at-risk mothers, widows, and girls. Thankfully, many women have grabbed on to the nanglo of their ancestors as at least a temporary savior from the clutches of unemployment.