DAMAK, Nepal -- Sanjay Deshar has four days to prepare a roomful of Bhutanese refugees for what life will be like in the United States or Australia.
The oldest students in the room at the Beldangi refugee camp are in their 70s and have lived for almost two decades in a camp that has no electricity, no television and few jobs. The youngest were born in the refugee camp and have known little else.
Deshar has a lot of ground to cover today, from how to ride in an airplane and how to pack luggage effectively to how to brace for the sight of bikini-clad beachgoers and public displays of affection.
"Some of the older folks are kind of surprised," he said.
And then he gets to the crux of his lesson.
"We train the participants going to the U.S. to be self-sufficient," he said. "The main thing is, you've got to work over there. In Australia, you first learn English and go for work later on."
In the past two years, more than 30,000 Bhutanese refugees have migrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and five other countries. The refugees, members of a Nepali-speaking ethnic minority, left Bhutan 18 years ago under pressure from the government. Deshar is one of 15 cultural orientation teachers whose job is to smooth what can be a shocking landing.
For a refugee, the instructors often say, U.S.A. stands for "U Start Again."
Some refugees -- especially the youngest -- are more prepared than others. The absence of electricity
Most of the young refugees, unlike their parents and grandparents, are also fluent in English. Those who attended refugee schools in Nepal have been learning English from a young age, giving them an advantage that many other immigrants lack.
Education was never the top priority for the United Nations refugee agency that runs the camps, since it is not a lifesaving activity, but refugees say education had always been a top priority for their people, even before they fled Bhutan.
Soon after, refugees arrived at makeshift camps along the banks of the holy Kankai River in eastern Nepal in the early 1990s, a group called the Student Union of Bhutan created the first refugee school, naming it Pachavati English School, after the forested refuge in Hindu literature where the hero Rama was exiled. On the banks of the Kankai, children used sand beds as chalkboards.
International agencies like Caritas arrived and helped create a more structured education system that met both Nepali and Bhutanese standards. At the height of the student
The number of teachers is rapidly declining as the camps lose hundreds of residents each week. Out of 859 teachers at the beginning of the latest session, 564 went for resettlement. More than 60 resigned in April alone.
Some say the quality of the school system is deteriorating because of this exodus. Illiteracy rates of outgoing refugees are higher now than they were two years ago, said David Derthick, who directs the local resettlement operations for the International Organization for Migration, the agency that relocates the refugees.
"The way they taught us was very good at the time," said Sovit Man Bista, 27, who moved to Tennessee in May. "Now, it is deteriorating. Everybody's mind is on America. They all think about America. They're not thinking that what we learn here is important there."
At the Tri-Ratna school, refugee and math teacher Leela Koirala bikes to his bamboo schoolhouse every morning, and is greeted warmly by three rows of boys and girls in starched white shirts and blue slacks and skirts. Koirala loves to teach math, but he is moving to Australia soon, and he notices many of his students are as distracted as he is.
"These are our children," he said. "They are good students. Because of the resettlement, some of the students are neglecting their studies. They think it will be of no use in the United States. But math is math everywhere."
Refugees say better preparation for life abroad is more important now than ever. Elder refugees, most of them former farmers in Bhutan, are enrolling in English classes for the first time, hoping it will ease their transition, and the migration agency is teaching life skills to adults on topics ranging from child-rearing to the workings of American-style flush toilets.
The teachers have also been tasked to talk a lot more about the refugees' big concerns: the tough economy and crime.
Two Bhutanese refugees who had recently arrived in America were killed after robbery attempts in Florida and Texas. Many more have been mugged, including several young Bhutanese men in Oakland. The refugees are placed in cities where they can find affordable apartments and easy access to public transit. Many of these places also suffer from poverty and crime.
Mugging stories spread like wildfire back in the camps, where they are often tinged with racial stereotypes, fears and jokes.
Agency workers said they have tried to tailor their cultural orientation sessions to respond to fears and misconceptions about life in the United States.