Origin and Ethnicity
The Nepali speaking Bhutanese in Iowa originated from their home country in Bhutan. Sandwiched between China to the north and India to the east, west and south, Bhutan too, like the United States, is a land of immigrants which comprise the ruling class, the Ngalongs or the Tibetan origin clan inhabiting the west and northern part, Sarchops, the earliest settlers occupy the east and the Nepali speaking Bhutanese also termed as Lhotsampas are predominant in southern part of the country. They can be traced back to 1864 AD when Bhutan’s theocratic ruler Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel signed a friendship treaty with King Ram Shah of Gorkha, Nepal and the first 50 Nepali families migrated to Bhutan. In the years that followed, Nepali-speaking people from adjoining Indian states moved into Bhutan. This is reflected in Lord Curzon’s letter to the Queen of England that Bhutan was fast becoming a Gurkhali state.
Influx of Refugees to Nepa
Having been expelled from their generation of ancestral homes in Bhutan, the refugees arrived in Nepal after being further pushed away by India. With the invitation of the Nepali government the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] quickly came to provide the needed humanitarian assistance. Camps were eventually set up in seven different places in eastern Nepal. The implementing partners of the UNHCR included Lutheran World Federation, Save the Children Fund [UK], OXFAM Nepal, Nepal Red Cross Society. There was a total of more than 100,00 Bhutanese in the camps in Nepal, 1/6 of Bhutan’s population, which is the world’s highest per capita flow of refugees from any country.
What happened in Bhutan ?
In what began as an unprecedented spate of human rights violation targeting the Nepali-speakers, southern Bhutan saw the most horrendous of the state sponsored crimes in the early 90s in the form of arrest, imprisonment, rape, loot, torture, demolition of homes, arson, plunder etc. Many southern Bhutanese fled the country fearing persecution while the others were systematically driven out of the country coercing them to sign the so called ‘voluntary migration forms’ mostly at gun-point. The Bhutan government also extensively used its tool of disenfranchisement by retroactively implementing its 1985 Citizenship Act turning citizens into illegal immigrants overnight and enforcing the so called ‘One Nation One People’ racist policy since 1989 thus rendering cultural genocide on its southern Bhutanese masses. A US lawyer after an intense study of the situation in Bhutan concluded in his book, Bhutan: Cultural Cleansing that Bhutan’s Citizenship Law is a prescription for statelessness.
Initiatives for a solution
There has been a numerous attempts on the part of the refugees to go back home. Bhutanese refugees organized programs like lobbying governments, UN, peace marches to Bhutan, rallies, peaceful demonstrations and scores of other peaceful activities. The Nepalese government held eight rounds of bilateral negotiations with Bhutan while a lot of efforts have also been made by the US government and the European Union. All these have been turned down because of the adamant attitude of the Bhutanese government.
Bhutanese Refugees’ Resettlement
Following a massive diplomatic endeavor, the UNHCR proposed its third country resettlement as the most viable option for the resolution of this almost 18 years problem. Governments supported the UNHCR and offered a third country resettlement scheme for the refugees. The prominent among them were the United States, Canada, Australia and Denmark. The US alone declared resettlement of 70,000 Bhutanese refugees in the United States. Promptly hundreds of thousands of refugees applied for third country resettlement.
Equipped with a new perspective for the refugees, the UNHCR invited the governmental representatives [Department of Homeland Security - US] Non-governmental organizations and most importantly the International Organization for Migration [IOM] which began the process of documentation of refugees for their resettlement and thus the refugees moved into their new homes. The process still continues. Reportedly, there are only some 15,000 refugees in the camps in Nepal.
Nepali –speaking Bhutanese in Iowa
Since 2008, Bhutanese refugees began trickling into Iowa. Many of the refugees have become productive members of the society. With a new sense of security here, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese have spread into different kinds of entry level and professional jobs besides sprouting up of a number of self employment jobs too. Children learning in schools have kept the parents busy. A considerable number have not only become a part of the Iowa family and but have also secured the US Citizenship. The others are in the waiting list.
Bhutanese in Iowa – Constraints
Bhutanese in the United States face a suicide rate almost double that of the US population. There is a high rate of depression; nearly three times the overall rate. Nevertheless, refugees in Iowa are not so affected as in other states. In order to avoid these problems and pave a pathway to the American mainstream, the BCI seeks to ease the burden and provide help. BCI likes to address some of the following problems and challenges.
Who is BCI ?
Bhutanese Community in Iowa [BCI] founded in September 2011 is a non-profit, non-political, welfare organization of the Bhutanese living in Iowa. The community seeks to work for the religious, charitable and educational welfare and the promotion and protection of the rich culture of the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people living in Iowa. Presently, about 5000 people live in Des Moines and its outskirts and the influx from other states and the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal continues.
The BCI is composed of nine Board of Directors who are also cultural representatives from Bhutanese Hindu in Iowa [BHI], Bhutanese Association of Buddhist Society in Iowa [BABSI] Ray of Hope International [Christian] and the Kirat Society in Iowa [KSI] and six Executive Directors who are the bearers of the mantle of the organization.
What do we do?
The BCI’s broad aim is to provide resources for the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese to integrate into a new and mostly an unknown way of life in the United States. In the process of achieving this, the BCI strives to provide :
The mission of the BCI is to enhance the quality of life of all the Bhutanese refugees living in Iowa through empowerment, collaboration and cooperation; and to promote, protect, and preserve their distinctly rich cultural heritage in order to help maintain their identity as Bhutanese Americans.