DAMAK, Nepal -- They were told they might go back to Bhutan someday.

So every morning before class, tens of thousands of refugee children and teenagers stood up in their schoolyards across southeastern Nepal and sang the Bhutanese national anthem.

"Our whole education became geared to repatriation," said Father P.S. Amalraj, who directs a seven-camp refugee school system run by international aid group Caritas. "Our students should know Bhutan history, Bhutan geography and the Dzongkha language."

The preparation was based on the hope the young refugees could one day return to the kingdom their parents fled to escape a surge of ethnic nationalism against Bhutanese of Nepali descent. The exiles have spent nearly 20 years stranded in refugee camps in southeastern Nepal near the Indian border, just over 100 miles from their homeland. Bhutan, after years of negotiations, wasn't going to let them return.

The first crop of students became adults. A younger generation with no memories of Bhutan -- those born and raised in the refugee camps -- took their place. Repatriation became a distant dream, hinted at by political leaders, debated for 15 years behind closed doors by South Asian heads of state, but never realized.

"We all expected repatriation but it did not happen," said Amalraj, a Jesuit priest from India. "Fifteen rounds of talks. Nothing happened. All the countries pressurized. Nothing happened."

Then came Ellen Sauerbrey. With a few choice words delivered at a United Nations meeting four years ago, the Bush administration official triggered an end to repatriation talks and put the American dream on the minds of thousands of refugee children and their parents.


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The United States would take them -- up to 60,000 of the more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees stranded in Nepal -- and find homes for them in American cities and suburbs. That was the surprise message Sauerbrey brought to a meeting of diplomats in Geneva in fall 2006.

Some in the audience were stunned. Sauerbrey knew her words would put immediate pressure on other wealthy countries to act, but she did not tell many of them in advance.

Like most Americans, the former Republican state legislator from Maryland spent most of her life knowing little about the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, home to fewer than 700,000 people. That changed when President George W. Bush nominated her director of the State Department's refugee division in 2005, brushing aside Democrats -- including then-Sen. Barack Obama -- who argued at hearings that Sauerbrey lacked experience for the job. She was appointed in early 2006. Bhutan quickly became a priority.

"I remember saying to some of my heads, some of my offices, we're going to settle this," Sauerbrey said in an interview this year. "Next year is going to be the year of Bhutan. We're going to settle this problem."

Sauerbrey said getting the refugees to "third countries" -- someplace other than Bhutan and Nepal -- was the best and only remaining solution to an intractable humanitarian crisis in the Himalayas. Bhutan refused to recognize as citizens those who fled in the early 1990s, arguing their departure was voluntary and permanent. Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, did not have the economic capacity to integrate them. The United Nations could not run the camps forever.

Observers also worried the situation in the region might grow dangerous as refugees, frustrated by years living in limbo, looked to radicalism or political violence, Sauerbrey said.

"My perspective became, we could be arguing about who's to blame for 100 years," Sauerbrey said. "The U.S., we're not here trying to make political statements about who's right or wrong. There's a big problem, a humanitarian problem, when children are born and raised and have never seen anything but a refugee camp."

Before Sauerbrey's words broke through a 15-year logjam, there were fewer than 200 Bhutanese exiles reportedly living in the United States. Today, there are nearly 31,000, making them America's third largest newly arrived refugee population after Iraqis and Burmese. Another 1,000 refugees move out of the seven camps in Nepal each month.

State Department officials predict the U.S., by 2014, will be home to at least 60,000 Bhutanese refugees, more than half the total. Seven other countries, led by Canada and Australia, have accepted the rest.

"When I made the statement that the U.S. was willing to take 60,000," Sauerbrey said, "it was with the knowledge that between Canada and Australia and to a small degree, European countries, we could almost clean out the camps."

But would these refugees want to come to America? Sauerbrey offered her welcome in fall 2006 and visited the camps in 2007, when many refugees still resented the thought of moving anywhere but Bhutan.

"There were a lot of refugees who say for the first time there was a solution," said Sauerbrey, who resigned at the end of 2007, just as the resettlement began. "There were other refugees who wanted only one solution, which was to return to Bhutan. It started a real debate."

A contracting agency, the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, was met with resistance when it arrived to the town of Damak to organize the resettlement in 2007. Some refugees enthusiastically took buses into Damak to sign up for resettlement and be interviewed. Other refugees pelted those buses with stones. Families known to harbor thoughts of leaving the camps faced death threats. In one nighttime attack, assailants lobbed small explosives over the gates of the IOM office, injuring no one.

The most influential protests came from refugee political leaders and their allies in Nepal who wanted to keep the pressure on Bhutan to take the refugees back.

"Instead of pressurizing Bhutan, which violated our human rights, America initiated the resettlement process," said Tek Nath Rizal, an exiled Bhutanese politician who now lives in Katmandu and opposes the mass resettlement to the West. "We have to go there like beggars. We cannot live in dignity."

Thousands of others welcomed the chance of escaping from their long internment. As more signed up to leave, the furor over the resettlement gradually faded. Political activists who fueled the calls for repatriation lost power and influence as their constituents moved away.

The pioneers of the resettlement began arriving to the United States in early 2008. Two years later, more than 40 states are home to a burgeoning Bhutanese refugee community. Texas has the most, more than 3,000. California, the most populous state, has a comparatively small Bhutanese population of roughly 1,000 refugees, and the East Bay is their biggest hub.

The East Bay became an early destination because the city of Alameda was one of the few places in the United States that already had some Bhutanese exiles, though there were just a handful of them. Several of these exiles had been human rights activists who came to California during conferences in 1999 and 2000 and sought political asylum. By the time a formal resettlement program began in 2008, they were already adjusted to East Bay life and had formed organizations to help the incoming refugees get on their feet.

Oakland has also been a longtime destination for refugees because of the strong local network of support organizations and social services, though the recession has battered some of these advantages. The federal government relies on local organizations it partners with to assess how many refugees a region can truly handle, and has been dispersing the Bhutanese fairly evenly across dozens of states.

Many of the early arrivals knew little about where they were going as the State Department dispersed them across the country from Twin Falls, Idaho to Concord, New Hampshire -- places where rents were low, jobs were more plentiful and organizations were waiting to help them.

Stories of their successes and failures spread quickly across the camps. Ganesh Rana, 23, a resident of the hot and humid Beldangi camp, said this spring he hopes to migrate to Anchorage, Alaska, to join his mother, brother and two sisters who moved there this year. The stress of getting his paperwork finalized has left him little time to think about what life in Alaska might actually be like. About 100 Bhutanese refugees have already moved there.

"Cold? I don't know about that, if it's cold or not," Rana said, surprised to be asked a question about Alaska's weather. "Our mother said it's a nice place."

Two years into the resettlement, most refugees who leave the camps today are seeking to join family and friends who have already settled. Others hear through the grapevine what states might offer the best opportunities, and make requests to go there.

Lokesh Mainali, 22, of Sanischare camp, aims to move to Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

"In other states, it's quite difficult to find a job," Mainali said. "In Pennsylvania, it's easier compared to others. That place is a quite suitable place to live."

Those who work with Bhutanese refugees say the group is doing remarkably well in the United States considering the cultural shock they often face upon arrival and the poor economy that coincided with their migration.

"The more well-educated Bhutanese were confident they could make it in third countries, so they were the first to sign on," said David Derthick, the director of the IOM's resettlement operation in Damak. "They are perhaps not as demanding as other refugees arriving in the United States, but it's tough because of the economic times."

Reporting for this story was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.

  • Total estimated number of Bhutanese refugees: 108,000
  • Most are still living in seven United Nations-run camps in eastern Nepal
  • 35,541 have voluntarily resettled from the camps to other countries since early 2008
  • About 1,000 refugees leave the camps each month and most go to North America
  • 30,496 have moved to the United States
    Top states:
  • Texas: 3,247
  • New York: 2,510
  • Georgia: 2,229
  • Pennsylvania: 2,081
  • Arizona: 1,731
  • Washington: 1,396
  • Ohio: 1,355
  • Colorado: 1,334
  • New Hampshire: 1,102
  • Virginia: 1,091
  • North Carolina: 1,012
  • California: 976
    Other countries:
  • Canada: 1,872
  • Australia: 1,785
  • New Zealand: 461
  • Norway: 335
  • Denmark: 329
  • Netherlands: 226
  • United Kingdom: 37 (the UK welcomed its first Bhutanese refugees in August)
    Source: International Organization for Migration

    Refugees in America
  • The U.S. typically accepts refugees in groups and welcomes certain groups each year based on special humanitarian concerns. More than 11,000 Bhutanese refugees have arrived since October 2009, the third-largest group after Iraqis and Burmese.
  • Refugees have a special place in the American immigration system. Refugees can live permanently in the U.S. and can work and pay taxes immediately. Unlike other immigrants, they get financial support from the government in their initial months
    of residency. They can become American citizens after about five years.
  • Refugee status is legally different from political asylum, although the criteria -- that a person would face persecution in their native land -- is the same. A refugee is selected, classified and screened abroad before being welcomed into the United States.
    Costs of resettlement
    The U.S. government spends an estimated $4,200, on average, to relocate and resettle each Bhutanese refugee. This number includes an estimated:
  • $1,100 to process the refugees for resettlement while they are still abroad. Most of this money goes to a contracting agency, the International Organization for Migration, which works in Nepal.
  • $1,300 to transport refugees from Nepal to their new homes on commercial airlines. Refugees must pay back their travel loans within 3 years.
  • $1,800 to help each refugee upon arrival to the United States, but not all of that money goes directly to the refugee. The money is provided to local agencies -- such as the International Rescue Committee, which has offices in Oakland and San Francisco, and Catholic Charities of the East Bay -- that help refugees get started in their new homes.
    How refugees get by
    Refugees are eligible for other social services:
  • Cash assistance: Up to $561 per month (for an employable family of two) for the first eight months after arriving in the U.S.
  • Food assistance: Up to $367 per month (for a family of two) in federal food stamps.
  • Health care: Refugees are eligible to be covered by MediCal for their first eight months.
  • Jobs program: Certain qualified, employable refugees enroll in a four-month jobs-training program instead of depending on refugee cash assistance. They are expected to be self-sufficient within four months. If the program doesn't work, they can apply for the eight-month assistance instead.

    Sources: California Refugee Programs Bureau; U.S. Department of State; International Rescue Committee; United Nations High Commission for Refugees