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Video report: Fleeing Bhutan for a better life in Minnesota

WHY WE ARE HERE

Krishna Humagai and his wife, Nar mya, are happy to be in Minnesota. Their smiles are frequent and genuine, but their faces also reflect the hard times they've seen. 

Originally from the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, the Humagais and their four children, ranging in age from 18 to 24, arrived in Minnesota eight months ago after living in a refugee camp in Nepal for 17 years.

I met the Humagai family at Bhutan Day at the International Institute of Minnesota in St. Paul. It was a chance for nearly all of the approximately 120 members of "the newest community in Minnesota" to gather for informational workshops, food, music and cultural celebration.

Governments worldwide have use ethnic cleansing to marginalize or rid a country of racial or cultural "undesirables." In Bhutan, these people are the Lothsampas, an ethnic Nepali cultural group that had been living in southern Bhutan for more than 200 years.

In 1988, the Bhutanese government imposed a policy called "one nation under law," which prohibited minority groups from practicing their religion, culture and language.  In 1990, the Lothsampa people protested against the initiative and the government cracked down, arresting leaders and causing most others to flee. More than 100,000 Lothsampas, or about one-sixth of the population of that country, became refugees.  Most of them ended up in the camps in Nepal.


At the Bhutan Day event, Mangala Sharma, organizer and matriarch of the community, seemed to be everywhere at once.  At one moment she was greeting people in the lobby, then performing a mock job interview at an employment workshop, making sure the food table was set up correctly, speaking from the podium in the auditorium, giving interviews for the press, interpreting for families, and generally attempting to make personal contact with every one of the several hundred people in attendance.

Because she had been a political activist in the 1990s, and thus in danger, Sharma obtained political asylum the United States in 2000.  Later, her husband, a doctor, was able to join her.  They lived in Atlanta until he took a position at Hennepin County Medical Center in 2007.  They were the first Lothsampa refugees to come to the Twin Cities.  Since then, she has made it her mission to help as many Bhutanese refugees as possible get out of the camps and have a chance to make a better life in Minnesota.

Growing population
The Twin Cities' Bhutanese population has grown from a mere half-dozen people a year ago to about 120 today.  Sharma expects this number to continue to grow, perhaps doubling in the next year.

Sharma organized Bhutan Day to allow the Bhutanese to get to know each other.  "We're really not a community yet," she said.

She said they need to come together more often, so they can build relationships to support each other and learn out about resources that are available. They also need a place to do that, so Sharma and others have recently founded the Nirvana Center, "the first Bhutanese center in Minnesota," which will soon take on many of the practical as well as cultural functions of acclimating Bhutanese refugees to life in Minnesota.

Sharma wants others to know that these refugees are reliable, responsible and hardworking and will be good for Minnesota. They are all thankful for the help they have received from individuals and various agencies, she said. The children have only known life in the refugee camps, and are "really motivated to contribute to Minnesota society."

The Humagais are trying to learn more English by attending ESL classes through Adult Basic Education in Minneapolis. Krishna Humagai, 49, says that the No. 1 priority for him and his children is obtaining employment.

Nar mya, 47, says that while she misses her homeland, she is grateful to be in Minnesota and wants to spend the rest of her life in the United States to make a better life for her children.

"I hope they will do something good in America," she said.

This report is part of an ongoing MinnPost video series — called "Why We Are Here" — about immigrants who tell why they left home and came to Minnesota.

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