BELDANGI REFUGEE CAMP, Nepal -- Bishnu Maya Mainali wondered if her sons were right about California, but it was too late to fret.

She would find out soon enough.

Neighbors hoisted her luggage onto a bicycle. Boys gathered around, eager to steer the cargo down the long dirt path. At the end of the road, outside the barbed-wire gates, a bus waited to take her away from the refugee camp that had been home for 18 years.

It was time to go to Oakland.

"I've heard nothing of the place. My son told us we don't have to worry," she said, speaking through an interpreter. "He said, 'Relax. Eat whatever you get there. Eat well and you will be calm.' "

Well-wishers were milling around the bamboo hut as dawn brought another 100-plus degree day to Nepal's Terai, this humid lowland region at the southern foot of the Himalayas. Her husband, Devi Charan Mainali, poured water from a pitcher over the family garden, nourishing the potted tulasi plants one last time. Bishnu plucked one of the sacred herbs, placing it by a lamp for prayer.

Soccer star David Beckham seemed to watch benevolently from a faded poster as the Mainalis made their final arrangements inside the dark hut. Devi dressed in a prim kurta and then sat on the bed, thinking about what else to do. He turned around, lifted the pillow, confirmed there was nothing he left behind.


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Former farmers, the couple never intended to spend so many years living in Hut No. 50 of Sector G, Subsector 3, Beldangi Refugee Camp No. 2. They fled their birthplace, Bhutan, with tens of thousands of fellow Lhotshampas, a Nepali-speaking ethnic group, in the midst of a political and ethnic conflict. They left behind a better house, a slightly cooler climate and the pride that came with self-sufficiency and living off the land.

The Mainalis counted on returning to their homeland when the tensions calmed. Their old village was slightly more than 100 miles away in southern Bhutan, across a narrow arm of northeast India that separates Nepal from Bhutan. Hopes of going back faded as the government of Bhutan, for two decades, resisted calls for repatriation. And the refugees' dreams moved elsewhere when a coalition of foreign nations, led by the United States, opened their doors to the stateless Lhotshampas.

The camp had served its purpose, but was now being depopulated. About a thousand refugees move out each month, heading to new homes in new lands.

On the morning of May 13, it was the Mainalis' turn.

Bidding adieu

For all those years, they made a decent home out of their tiny plot in the United Nations refugee camp, getting by in the four-room hut that was surrounded by others like it.

They raised a family here, but now their youngest daughter, 24, was moving to Tasmania and two other children left last year for upstate New York. How far was "Buffalo City," as the refugees called it, from Oakland? How far was Australia? Would they all see each other again, and how often? Would they be lonely in their new home?

"I am told I cannot meet all the neighbors," said Devi, a 67-year-old who liked to meander languidly around the refugee camp, talking to friends. He knew most of the families in Beldangi camps 1, 2 and 3, a sprawling collection of huts that house more than 30,000 people. Who would he know in Oakland?

Bishnu, a chatty 62-year-old, had similar worries.

Neither of them spoke a word of English. The couple could not read or write in any language.

"I think I'll have problems," she said. "I also heard we're not supposed to open the door. If somebody knocks on the door, we won't understand. To spend the whole day not speaking is not good for us. I'm kind of talkative, so I'm nervous about that."

With a steady stream of casual visits from friends and neighbors in Beldangi, there was no need for doors or locks or safety protocols.

"I would be so happy if some neighbors or friends would visit us or talk with us," Bishnu said with a grin. "Anyone: Americans, Nepalis, anyone who comes."

Click on imgae for larger version
Click on imgae for larger version

But the most pressing concerns were practical in the week before their departure as they packed their belongings or gave them away.

"Don't play in the dust. Don't get it dirty," Devi told a 10-year-old neighbor he called Ghauntauka, the boy with the big head. The child politely tried on a polo shirt, a gift from the Mainalis, that was several sizes too large.

Mainali consulted several sources to find out how many packs of Bijuli cigarettes, his favorite cheap Nepali brand, he could take in his luggage without breaking any rules.

His wife was nervous about the upcoming flight. They had never seen an airplane up close.

"I heard that when we go to the toilet, if you press a certain button, people get stuck in the toilet," she said, as eavesdropping children laughed. She joined them in the laughter.

Fortunately, they had Benu, their 28-year-old son, and his 20-year-old wife, Leela, coming with them. The younger couple spoke near-perfect English they had learned in the refugee camp schools.

Benu was sophisticated in the ways of urban life, and once left the camps to work at a call center in New Delhi, India, introducing himself to foreign customers as Stephen. He was a go-getter, his parents knew. He earned a scholarship to study math and science at a private Indian college and, after graduation, taught the subjects in high school. He would lead the way in America, where he could apply all his skills.

But on the morning of May 13, as the crowd around their hut bloomed with neighbors, relatives, and curious children, it was Bishnu who finally made the move to leave Nepal forever. Her youngest daughter was inside, too tearful about the pending send-off to come out. She and her husband and baby would take over the family hut, but soon would leave it behind in exchange for a new life in Tasmania.

"Let's go," Bishnu said, propelling herself down the road toward the gates. Wrapped in an elegant pink sari, one of her finest, she walked past the towering sal tree that loomed above the block. The tree was a survivor from the days, just 20 years ago, when all of this land was a forest, not a labyrinth of crowded bamboo walls and thatch roofs.

"Goodbye, Beldangi!" she said. She thanked everyone for all their help over the years, apologized for any past slights.

A caravan of people and bicycles followed. It was then, as she led the pack, marching forward with two friends by her side, that Bishnu finally put her hands over her face and cried.

More than 100 people would be leaving the camps that day for North America, Australia and Europe. Hundreds more had come to bid them farewell. The crowd gathered around several parked buses and many helped to load luggage on the roof racks.

This was nothing new for the camp. Since early 2008, an organized resettlement coordinated by the International Organization for Migration had been plucking out willing families, several at a time, and sending them abroad. More than 30,000 have moved to the United States in two years, out of a total camp population that surpassed 108,000 at its height. By 2014, resettlement workers expect the camps will be cleaned out of everyone who wants to leave. Abandoned huts are already being dismantled.

It was a familiar, fine-tuned operation, and yet for everyone who boarded a bus that day it was also a life-changing moment. As the vehicle parted through the throng and then bounced down the road to Bhadrapur airport, there was a chorus of sobs inside the bus, and then, for a while, silence.

Bishnu Maya, already recovered from an uncharacteristic burst of sadness, was first to break the solemnity.

"Did you pay the Subedis for the milk we took from them on credit?" she asked her family, loudly.

Yes, her son assured her, they had paid back their neighbors.

Across the aisle, two boys, 5 and 8, on their way to Salt Lake City, looked out the window. The youngest was under the impression they were all taking a trip to the local market, until his mother corrected him: They were going on an airplane.

"They will remember this, I think," said Benu. "That's how old I was when I left Bhutan."

Flight from Bhutan

The Mainalis could not have imagined, when they fled Bhutan in a panicked rush in 1992, that the journey would ultimately take them to California.

If they had their way, they would be back in Bhutan. Life was good in the village of Ittaghare in Tsirang district, where they made money selling cash crops, mostly oranges.

"I was very happy. I could cook myself, eat the things I made. I could eat milk, ghee, curd, everything was made by ourselves," Devi said.

They had a brick farmhouse surrounded by an orchard with hundreds of orange trees. When the monsoon season came, water trickled down from the roof to sustain a vegetable garden on the sloped grounds below.

"Everybody knew it if you said the brick house," Bishnu said. "We had very good cultivated soil, good land, you could say the best one in the village. We had a big orange grove. We had a small garden. We had a cow -- a good cow -- that gave lots of milk."

Born in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, the Mainalis practiced Hinduism and were of Nepali ancestry. That, and their proximity to the Indian border, characterized them as Lhotshampas, Bhutan's word for the people of the south. In their village, they said Lhotshampas coexisted peacefully with the Buddhist Drukpa people who were Bhutan's dominant ethnic group. The family was too busy to pay attention to the festering political and cultural tensions between the two groups, spurred by a 1988 census that stripped many Lhotshampas of their citizenship.

The Mainalis stayed away from the 1990 protests when thousands of Lhotshampas protested the government's moves to disenfranchise them. But as the political crisis mounted between Lhotshampa dissidents and the royal government, it became harder to avoid. Armed police began patrolling their village. They were threatened and told to leave the country.

"They told us we are Nepali. Go back to Nepal," Bishnu said. "They told us we are Nepali people. I told them I don't want to go. I don't know where Nepal is. I didn't like to leave the place. I was crying. But every day the (Drukpa) people were coming to my house, ordering us to leave the country."

They left in 1992, crossing the border into India. Their youngest child, Yadhu, was 5 at the time. Benu was turning 10. India did not allow Bhutanese refugees to stay, so the Mainalis took a taxi to Nepal where thousands of Lhotshampas had already gathered.

They moved into a makeshift camp along the banks of the Kankai River, using tarp as shelter. The available food was meager and sometimes rotten. Camp residents became sick with dysentery and diarrhea, and some died. Benu grew severely ill. His parents feared he might not survive.

The United Nations had already begun setting up a cluster of refugee camps nearby, and once the Mainalis moved to the Beldangi camp in fall 1992, their lives vastly improved. The food and shelter were adequate, and their children -- whose schools had been shut down during the crisis in Bhutan -- were able to enroll in new classrooms built with bamboo for the refugees. No one was pleased to be living in a gated camp, surviving on weekly rations of rice, lentils, water and kerosene, but for 18 years they made the best of it.

Failed diplomatic talks between Bhutan and Nepal offered little hope that the Lhotshampas would ever get out of their camps. At first, when the United States and other wealthy nations offered to take them in 2006, there was little about these foreign places that attracted Bishnu and Devi, but their children envisioned great opportunities there -- and the parents wanted nothing more than to be with their children.

"I thought I'd be living in an 11-floor building," said Yadhu, 22, their youngest son, who was first in the family to sign up for resettlement. His parents expected to join him, but a health complication -- and then, Benu's surprise engagement to a pretty refugee from a nearby camp -- delayed their departure by a year. How about San Francisco, Yadhu was asked when he visited the resettlement office in Nepal. He knew of Hollywood, and California seemed an alluring destination. Sure, he said.

He moved to Oakland more than a year ago, found a job at a Hayward thrift shop and beckoned for the rest of his family to join him. He was struggling, he told them in desperate phone calls, to get by alone.

Final Nepal days

In the days before it was time to leave Beldangi, Benu had much to do. There was the funeral of Tilla Rupa Poddyel, his wife's aunt.

The 80-year-old woman spent more than three quarters of her life in Bhutan, and nearly a fourth in exile. Family members carried her body a half-hour's walk through the woods to the Ratua River to be cremated.

There were classes to take, taught by Nepalis who had spent time in the United States, that would orient the emigrants to American life. The discussions were practical but also philosophical. Would they assimilate? Lose their culture? Benu and most of his classmates hoped for some kind of balance. His parents declined to take the class, leaving the responsibility to their son and his wife to absorb and pass on the knowledge they acquired.

There were things to buy -- Benu bought gold jewelry for his wife and mother, an investment worth more than the paper cash he would bring. There were friends and relatives to visit. Fortunately, some came to him.

Bishnu Bhakta Kadraya, 45, bicycled six hours and 40 miles from the Khudunabari refugee camp -- in the midst of a Maoist strike that had shut down almost all business and motor vehicle traffic in Nepal -- to say goodbye to the Mainalis, his cousins.

"A little bit sad, I am feeling," Kadraya said. "I have requested to go to the same place, but what will happen, I do not know."

Peers who looked up to Benu were sad to see him go, but were convinced he would do well abroad -- he was a natural leader.

"From childhood, he was quite talented in his study," said Pancham Tamang, a close friend since fourth grade. "In the absence of the teacher, he used to teach us mathematics, science. We requested him instead of the teacher. 'You teach,' we said. And we understood him clearly."

Tamang remembers when, in 1994, he and his friends watched as a patch of forest was leveled to build a soccer field. He said Benu was "good in football, good in study, simple. He helps other people."

"We are going to miss him when he's gone. He's my best friend," Tamang said. "But we'll see him in the U.S., maybe. Hope so."

Yadhu was waiting in Oakland for his brother and parents, as was Kapil, 40, the oldest brother who arrived early this year with his wife and three children. The brothers were living in a Laurel district apartment complex, struggling to pay rent and navigate a strange city, but they knew if they were all together, their roots firmly planted in a new place, it would be easier.

Interpretation in Nepali was provided by Pasang Sherpa from the International Organization for Migration. Read about the Mainalis' arrival in America on Sept. 5, when our two-part series continues.

About the series
Bay Area News Group staff writer Matt O'Brien and photojournalist Jane Tyska traveled to Bhutan and Nepal in the spring to report on the little-known experiences of Bhutanese refugees who'd left their homes amid a political and ethnic conflict. This is the first of a two-part series exploring the conflict and the experiences of the new immigrants. The series, funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association, continues Sept. 5.

life in the camps
About 78,000 Bhutanese refugees live in seven camps in the southeastern corner of Nepal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has run the camps since establishing them between spring 1992 and early 1993. The agency gets most of its funding from member nations, including the United States.
The largest camp, Beldangi, which is actually three connected camps, houses about 38,000 people. The smallest camp, Goldhap, has a little more than 5,000 residents, in part because a fast-moving fire in 2008 destroyed most of the huts there. The farthest camps -- Sanischare in the west and Timai in the east, near the Indian border -- are more than 40 miles apart from each other. The camps are all situated in the eastern Terai, part of a fertile plain that stretches from the southern foothills of the Himalayas to the Ganges River in India.
Each refugee family lives in a hut made of bamboo walls and a thatch roof. Although the huts are packed tightly together, many refugees have room for a small garden outside. The United Nations World Food Programme provides basic food rations, such as rice and lentils, that refugees take home to cook. Refugees also get drinking water and fuel rations. They do not have electricity or running water. The Association of Medical Doctors of Asia provides them medical care. The Lutheran World Federation helps refugees with supplies and assistance to repair their huts. There are Hindu and Buddhist temples and other places of worship in the camps.
Refugees are allowed to walk in and out of the camps freely, and they often visit the nearby towns but are not allowed to work legally in Nepal outside of the camps. Because they are hard to distinguish from the local Nepali population, many still work in nearby farms, businesses, construction sites and schools, where they are prized teachers because of their English-language skills. Some have found work in India.
The UNHCR maintains security for the gated camps and funds the primary education of refugee children. Caritas Nepal, part of a Catholic international aid group, runs the secondary schools through the help of foreign donors. Some refugees have studied at private schools in India, usually with help from donors.
Most refugees have signed up to be resettled. What will happen to refugees who wish to stay after everyone else moves is unknown. It is predicted that Nepal will allow some refugees to locally integrate into the communities that surround the camps. Nepal also continues to hold diplomatic talks with Bhutan, pressuring the Bhutanese government to take back some of the refugees.