Starting over

Brothers Chitra (left) and Hem Bhattarai

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series about Bhutanese refugees living in Henrico County.

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Hem and Chitra Bhattarai were finishing each other’s sentences, doubling over with laughter as they recounted a story from their childhood.

The men, natives of the Asian nation of Bhutan who now live in Henrico’s West End, were discussing the punishment levied against them years ago by the Bhutanese government for their father’s role in protesting laws that discriminated against Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people.

“I was a school boy, in grade four, and I had to gather two truck loads of gravel!” Hem said.

“I helped him,” Chitra added, with great animation. “I too was a little boy, but they gave us the punishment, so we had to do it.”

The gravel-collection mandate was meant to help the government build new roads. The passage of time has allowed the brothers to view the episode humorously and to laugh at the outrageous men who doled out ludicrous punishments to young boys.

Hem and Chitra are among the thousands of Bhutanese refuges who have arrived in Virginia during the past decade. Hundreds have settled in Henrico County, and as they have learned the language, found jobs, enrolled their children in schools and pursued citizenship, the days spent crawling through the woods in Bhutan – when they hoped to find enough pebbles to avoid imprisonment – seem far away.

Through conversations with the Bhattarai brothers, other Bhutanese refugees, government agencies, the Human Rights Watch and local non-profit charities, the Citizen has pieced together the steps of the journey taken by a typical refugee, beginning in the fields of south Bhutan.

‘A familiar story’
Residents of the Nottingham Green and Cloister neighborhoods in the Near West End represent numerous strife-torn corners of the globe, including Sudan, Bosnia, Cuba, Nigeria and Bhutan. A recent influx of Bhutanese refugees in Henrico is the result of events taking place thousands of miles away. The story begins in Bhutan in the 1980s.

Hem and Chitra are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese; their ancestors emigrated from Nepal to Bhutan in the late 1800s. The Nepali people settled in the south and came to see Bhutan as home while at the same time maintaining their own culture. The Nepali people became citizens of Bhutan, but as their numbers grew and they became more and more successful, the Bhutanese government began to see them as a threat.

“It is a familiar story, where there is a successful minority and you see a backlash against them,” said Tejshree Thapa, senior researcher in the Asia division of the Human Rights Watch.

As the Nepali population in Bhutan grew, the Bhutanese government enacted a series of laws in the 1980s that restricted the rights of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese.

“There was no rational explanation for it,” Thapa said. “It was simply racism, nothing more complicated.”

Laws were passed that stripped Nepali-speaking Bhutanese of the right to own a business, buy and sell land and receive education in their native tongue. Additionally, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were expected to adopt the cultural traditions of the native Bhutanese in the north. This meant that any resident of Nepal who did not eat and dress like a native was considered a seditious threat to the government.

Kanchi Monger, another resident of the Nottingham Green neighborhood who grew up in Bhutan, recalled the laws restricting culture.

“It was crazy,” she said. “The government wanted us Nepali people to speak their language all the time and wear their clothes all the time. They bend our culture.”

According to Tharpa, Bhutan – a small country that stays out of the international spotlight – was able to pass these measures with minimal outcry. As a result, there was little intervention as Bhutan continued to disenfranchise the Nepali speaking citizens, eventually passing citizenship acts that required extensive documentation to prove true citizenship.
Hem Bhattarai

“The way you proved citizenship became an impossible process for the Nepali population,” Tharpa said.

The Bhattarai brothers remember life under the brutal Bhutanese monarchy as being one in which Bhutanese soldiers took advantage of their Nepali speaking countrymen.

“If they saw a young a girl, they were going to do whatever they liked to her,” Hem recalled. “But some of the Nepali, young boys like us, we decided we are not going to tolerate these things, these nonsense activities.”

‘They killed many people’
Not tolerating such “nonsense” led Hem and his father to the protest that eventually resulted in their punishment of picking up gravel. At the protest, according to Hem, the Bhutanese military fired upon sleeping protestors.

“When everyone was asleep, the army fired.”

Such accounts are typical of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees.

Hem and Chitra never finished filling the two trucks with gravel.

“We only got half a truck filled when they called my father and said, ‘You are not allowed to live in this country any more. You have to go back to Nepal.’”

The indignity of being marginalized and eventually exiled from his homeland still stung Hem.

“Our forefathers lived there and died there,” he said. “They built the roads, they sweated, gave their blood and made it a good country. After all that, the government gave us two or three days to leave the country.”

More than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people escaped from Bhutan in the early 1990s. They represented roughly one seventh of the population at the time – the equivalent of America exiling more than 40 million legal citizens due to their ethnic heritage.

The brothers remember the escape from the increasingly hostile country

“We had six families in one truck.” Chitra said. “Forty-seven people total. I counted.”

“We sat on the roof of the truck, and we went from one country to another country,” Hem continued. “It took 12 hours.”

“We rode on the roof of the truck,” Chitra said with a laugh. “We never had been on a long journey in our life. We were very excited.”

The memories of a childhood journey across India on the roof of a pickup truck elicited laughter in the same way that the memory of the two truckloads of gravel punishment did, but the brothers grew serious when asked what would have happened had they remained in Bhutan.

“People who didn’t leave? Many were arrested. They killed many people.”

The journey brought Hem and Chitra to a refugee camp in Nepal, the land of their ancestors but one that was still foreign to them.

This camp would be the place in which Hem and Chitra grew into men, married and began families. They would remain there for 18 years, all the while hoping to return to the land of their birth, the country that had rejected them.

Why would they want to return to Bhutan – the country that had systematically oppressed their people during their entire lifetimes?

“Mother and motherland is greater than Heaven,” Chitra said, with firm and simple conviction.

In part two of this series, the Citizen will analyze the refugee camp experience.
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Henrico Schools to host College and Career Night Nov. 1


Students of all ages are invited to investigate options for life after high school at Henrico County Public Schools’ 2017 College and Career Night. The annual countywide event offers a chance to talk with representatives of more than 100 universities, colleges and professional programs, as well as about 50 representatives of career options such as businesses and branches of the military.

College and Career Night will take place Wednesday, Nov. 1 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Henrico High School, 302 Azalea Ave. > Read more.

Business in brief


Henrico-based nonprofit Commonwealth Autism recently received the Standards for Excellence Institute’s Seal of Excellence for successfully completing its accreditation program. Commonwealth Autism voluntarily opened itself to analysis by a peer review team during the last 18 months that examined the organization’s compliance with the “Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector.” These standards cover areas such as: mission, strategy and evaluation; leadership – board, staff and volunteers; legal compliance and ethics; finance and operations; resource development; and public awareness, engagement and advocacy. Commonwealth Autism was one of six organizations in the Richmond region to be recognized and the first in the region to achieve full accreditation. In addition to this accreditation, Commonwealth Autism is recognized as an Accredited Charity with the Richmond Better Business Bureau and holds accreditation from the Code of Ethics for Behavioral Organizations (COEBO). > Read more.

Purify Infrared Sauna opens at GreenGate


Purify Infrared Sauna recently opened its second Henrico location at GreenGate Shopping Center in Short Pump.

Owner Mary Woodbridge opened her first Purify location on Patterson Avenue in July 2015. The new store is located at 301 Maltby Boulevard, Suite C, west of Short Pump Town Center. > Read more.

Henrico Master Gardener training program accepting applications through Oct. 27


The Henrico County Office of Virginia Cooperative Extension is accepting applications for its next volunteer Master Gardener training program, which provides instruction in all aspects of horticulture.

Applications for the 2018 training program will be accepted through Friday, Oct. 27. Classes will be held from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays from Jan. 16 through March 22. > Read more.

Henrico Schools to host Oct. 30 job fair


Henrico Schools will host a job fair Oct. 30.

The event, to be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Fairfield branch library, is designed to attract potential full-time and substitute registered nurses, instructional assistants, bus drivers and school nutrition workers. > Read more.

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October 2017
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The JDRF One Walk will start at 2 p.m. at Anthem, 2015 Staples Mill Rd. The three-mile walk benefits JDRF and has one goal - to create a world without type 1 diabetes (T1D). To register, visit http://tinyurl.com/diabeteswalk2017. Full text

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