Bhuwan Nepal works on the NICE team as an Employment Specialist, where he helps refugees find employment in Nashville. Like so many other NICE employees, Bhuwan’s decision to dedicate his career to serving refugees and immigrants was a very personal one. When Bhuwan was 3 months old, he and his family were forced to flee Bhutan and go to Nepal, before resettling in the US in 2009. We are grateful for his generosity in sharing his story, which highlights his journey to the US, and provides insight on what can be done to continue making our Nashville community welcoming and inclusive.
In 1990, an uprising started in Bhutan. Tensions had spiked after years of hostility, discrimination, and oppressive government policies aimed to harm the Lhotshampa, otherwise known as the “people of the South.” Those living in the Southern area of Bhutan were mainly descendants of Nepali migrants who traveled to Bhutan in the 1800s in search of better farmland. For several generations, they remained in an isolated area of the country, maintaining their unique Nepali culture, language, and Hindu practices. However, under the 4th Bhutanese King, the government began taking documents from Bhutanese-Nepalis, starting with citizenship, and then bank accounts and land. They faced homelessness and discrimination. As the government suppressed Lhotshampa culture, the community resisted, but were met with violence from the army.
Bhuwan’s father passed down stories about his experience during this period of unrest in Bhutan. It was called an “ethnic war,” aimed to exile all Bhutanese-Nepalis. Although his father was in the North studying at the time, he got news that his mother (Bhuwan’s grandmother) was captured by the militia and thrown in jail. The army had come to their village and killed anyone they found, from children and six-month old babies, to elderly people. The brutal violence and persecution forced their family to flee. Bhuwan’s family was able to find their grandmother, but she died afterwards, due to complications stemming from mistreatment in jail. Despite a dark history ripe with injustice, Bhutan is still considered “the happiest country in the world,” known for measuring “gross national happiness” instead of gross domestic product. “Can you believe it?” asked Bhuwan. “The government hides so much of it now.” The violence, torture, and devastation faced by Nepalis has been mainly censored out of Bhutanese history.
After the exile, over 120,000 Bhutanese refugees ended up in camps around Eastern Nepal. Bhuwan lived in one with his family for nearly 17 years, practically growing up there. Despite their Nepali ancestry, Bhutanese refugees faced discrimination in Nepal, too. Bhuwan explained “We didn’t fully belong there. I had to hide who I was. My grandparents lived in a different camp, and when I would take the bus there, I would always fear someone asking me where I’m from, because they would discriminate. I had to hide my refugee status throughout my life in Nepal.” Since they were not fully accepted in Nepali society, refugees faced a lack of opportunity in the workforce. Although Bhuwan went to school in the camp, he knew there weren’t any jobs waiting for him after graduation. Meanwhile, people began to lose hope in the camps. Bhuwan’s father was a political activist and advocate for repatriation, but after years of government talks and no sign of returning to Bhutan, his family accepted a resettlement offer.
In 2009, tragedy struck Bhuwan’s family. His father was murdered inside the refugee camp. “He was killed by unknown people. April 21st, 2009,” Bhuwan told me. “I still remember we were ready to eat dinner, and I heard a knock on the door. My uncle was supposed to come to dinner and my father went to open the door. There were a maximum of 9 people with guns who grabbed him and shot him five times in front of our eyes. No one could believe that he was killed in such a crowded camp.” After his father’s death, Bhuwan and his family became an emergency resettlement case due to fears of their safety in the camp. Within 21 days of his father’s death, Bhuwan moved to New Jersey, which he describes as a dark period in his life. “We were still recovering from the trauma of my father’s death. I was afraid to go to bed. My father and mom were really close, and they acted like teenagers together. I can’t believe she survived his death. I didn’t sleep many nights because I would keep watch over my mom to make sure she was okay.” At the time, there weren’t many other Nepali speaking families around his community, and Bhuwan struggled to engage his mother. In November that year, Bhuwan’s family moved to Tennessee to live near his sister and other Nepali families. There were only 10 at the time.
Now, the Nepali community in Nashville consists of about 3,000 people. Bhuwan notes the solidarity that exists among the community, where programs are in place to help and care for one another. When asked what he would want someone who is not an immigrant or refugee to know about his community, he responded wisely that “it’s important for people to know where we came from, our past life, the struggles that we had. It’s good if they build relationships with the community and know our needs.” For instance, Bhuwan mentioned that the suicide numbers are growing in his community, mostly among 30-45 year olds. “I remember feeling hopeless after the trauma I experienced, after such a drastic transition. Everything was different, the language and the culture. It’s even harder without English. If you wanna tell someone you have a problem, you can’t even communicate it to them. You don’t know the system. Without the right person to talk with, what can you do? It feels hopeless.”
In Bhuwan’s opinion, the most helpful thing to do for a new immigrant or refugee is to include them. “Some families are isolated, even after 5 years or so living here. So it’s good to volunteer and help a family. Maybe take them to the park. Show them places. It is comforting to know that you have a friend here who understands you. When someone from the community in Nashville says “I am here to help,” you feel safe. Isolation only worsens the effects of trauma, which many refugees or immigrants suffer from due to fleeing violence, torture, conflict, or persecution. Bhuwan says “most refugees have similar stories like me. Many have lost family members. The incident in 2009 (my father’s death) will always stick in my head. It’s been almost 10 years, but when I talk about my father, I feel like it happened yesterday. My body will automatically sweat. If I hear gunshots, my body will shake and my heart beats fast. I don’t go near fireworks. At least I have friends and family I can talk to, but there are many people who don’t have anyone.”
Bhuwan is dedicated to helping incoming refugees and immigrants with their transition. After experiencing his own struggles when resettling in the US, he has a heart for others entering the Nashville community. “All these people came from a similar background I didn’t want them to suffer. I wanted to help their case workers understand what to do. I don’t want them to feel what I felt in the beginning.” Bhuwan’s story serves as a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, and the way refugees strengthen our community through their hard work and compassion.