18 Bhutanese refugees to start a new life in Everett

The government of their homeland claims to be more concerned with the national happiness rating than with its gross domestic product.

One nickname for the tiny Himalayan nation is Shangri-La.

For about 100,000 people, living in Bhutan was more about basic survival than fairy-tale mountain living. They were driven out of Bhutan in the early 1990s, and ever since, they have been living in refugee camps in Nepal, where they aren’t allowed to work and are stuck at the bottom of an intricate caste system.

Now, more than half of those refugees, known as Lhotsampas, “People of the South,” are preparing to come to the United States. The first wave, a trickle of just a few families, came early this year.

Within weeks, 18 Bhutanese refugees are expected to arrive in Everett.

“Nepal is unable to integrate them,” said Jan Stephens of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the organization that will resettle the Bhutanese in Everett.

All but one of the 18 Bhutanese scheduled to come to Everett are under 30 years old, Stephens said. It’s likely that they speak English, which is taught in Bhutanese schools, but their heritage is one of rural mountain culture.

“The one potential downside is that it’s not a group of people who have lived in urban environments before,” said Joel Charny of Refugees International, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Charny visited the refugee camps in Nepal late last year.

About 5 percent of all the refugees that come to the United States make their homes in Washington state, said Tom Medina, the state refugee coordinator. Everett, with language, job training and other assistance programs through Everett Community College and other organizations, is a hot spot of refugee resettlement.

Iraqis, Russians, Ukrainians, Somali Bantu and other groups that number from 100 to 1,000 or more all call the city home.

While some refugee advocates welcome them, others worry that local agencies that contract with the federal government to find housing, jobs and perform other services can’t keep up with the number being resettled here. In many cases, refugees are offered services for a limited number of months, then must fend for themselves.

The process of refugee resettlement, which awards money to local agencies to care for the refugees, is flawed, said Ann Corcoran, author of Refugee Resettlement Watch, a blog that keeps tabs on resettlement trends.

It’s not realistic to expect refugees to become self-sufficient so quickly, she said. Another potential difficulty is if the refugee group rejects American culture. One reason some groups have done well is that they embrace the opportunities America offers.

“The Vietnamese came here and decided to work hard and become Americans,” she said. Others, such as some strict Muslims, are offended by what they find here and become isolated.

In the case of the Bhutanese, resettlement has taken longer than expected because a group of leaders in the Nepal camps are intimidating those who have expressed interest in moving to the United States, Charny said.

The Lhotsampas are ethnically Nepalese. They immigrated to southern Bhutan in the late 1800s, but by the 1980s, the Bhutanese government worried that the group was growing too large and would undermine traditional Bhutanese culture.

Some groups within the camps believe the Lhotsampas should return to Bhutan to fight against the government there, Charny said. There has been violence against those who have begun the process of resettlement, and security in the camps is strained, even for international aid workers.

“The people who are coming do want to come,” he said. “They have been sitting in refugee camps, unable to work, within the confines of a very small space, for 16 years or more now. The whole thing of trying to prevent people from coming is very much a minority view.”

About 60 percent of the Lhotsampas are Hindu. The rest are Buddhist and animist, and a small number are Christians.

Once they arrive, the Snohomish County Refugee and Immigrant Forum plans to help them adjust to the area, said Van Dinh Kuno, the forum’s director.

In most cases, the refugees will have little experience with modern homes, including refrigerators and other kitchen equipment. Polygamy exists among Lhotsampas, but it is not widespread.

Though the first 18 Bhutanese refugees are expected to arrive soon, it’s unclear when more will join them, said Stephens of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The U.S. has welcomed far fewer refugees annually since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks than it did in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Resettlement is fraught with hurdles, including heightened security and limited funding.

Though the U.S. promised to resettle Iraqis displaced due to the war there, very few have left refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and other places.

“It’s a political game,” Stephens said. “It’s just like saying they’ll take all the Iraqi refugees, but those numbers have never really materialized.”

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