Like generations of immigrants before them, a minority community of Bhutan has found a new home in the United States. One decade after arriving in the Twin Cities, more than 2,000 Lhotshampa are thriving.
“We find it stable and pleasant here,” said Puspa Bhandari. Most families have settled in St. Paul, Roseville and Little Canada, where they have bought homes, put their children through school and have well-paying jobs.
“Our accent brings challenges, of course, but other than that there really hasn’t been many problems,” said Bhandari, the program director for the Bhutanese Community Organization of Minnesota.
‘We are Americans’
“I’ve seen four generations here,” said Mangala Sharma. “My mom’s generation, they came here and could only speak and write in the native language. My generation struggles and goes to ESL and citizenship classes. My daughters’ generation is going to college. Their kids speak English, are on top of all the new technology and don’t relate to being Bhutanese. They say, ‘We are Americans.’”
While most arrived in the U.S. in the late 2000s, their troubles started in 1989 and 1990 when the Bhutanese government began cracking down on the Lhotshampa, a Nepali speaking Hindu minority in the south of the country. Sharma — a social worker who, with her husband, Chhabilall, and two daughters, was one of the first Lhotshampa families in Minnesota – outlined an escalating series of restrictive laws enacted by the Bhutan government aimed at ostracizing the Lhotshampa. First were laws that increased the difficulty of gaining citizenship, she said. Then came laws restricting whom they can marry, what kind of clothes they can wear in public, then restrictions on land ownership and religion. When the Lhotshampa began arguing for their human rights, Sharma said, they faced imprisonment, rape, torture and murder.
That’s when hundreds of thousands of Lhotshampa moved to refugee camps in Nepal, where they spent the better part of two decades.
Siva Humagai, co-owner of Asian Market and Nepali Grocery on Rice Street in St. Paul, said he arrived in a Nepalese refugee camp when he was 6 months old. He left when he was 18.
‘It was hard, filthy’
“It sucked,” he said. “It was hard, filthy. There were schools and we learned a little English, but it sucked.”
The United Nations helped the first refugees, like Sharma, leave the camps. Many went to countries like the U.K., Australia, Canada and the Netherlands. Sharma arrived in the United States in 2000. It took her three years to successfully get her husband and two daughters to the U.S., a process she said was delayed largely by 9/11. They first settled in Atlanta, where a number of Lhotshampa live. Sharma’s husband, Chhabilall, is a physician and after he became certified to practice in the U.S., his residency brought the family to the Twin Cities.
With her own family in place, Sharma began working with Lutheran Social Services to bring more Lhotshampa to the United States. Minnesota and national immigration laws at the time restricted immigrants from countries like Nepal to those who are related to current immigrants, so Sharma began in 2008 by bringing over members of her extended family. Soon, those immigrants were able to bring over their relatives and the community grew. While nearly 2,000 arrived in Minnesota, about 50,000 live in the U.S. with large communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Sharma said.
Language still a barrier
One decade later, the assimilation of Bhutanese into the Minnesota community has been mostly positive. Language is a barrier, and some immigrants aren’t literate, Sharma said. The older generation wants to keep their traditions while the newer generation, “not so much,” she said. Because of language difficulties the younger generation takes over for their elders, which causes problems, she said. Drug use and other addictions have affected the community, “but considering how short their time in Minnesota has been, we are doing very well,” Sharma said.
Kumar Tamang, the senior program director at the Bhutanese Community Organization of Minnesota, said language is the biggest barrier for the immigrants, along with transportation and navigating the U.S. legal system.
“The young people are doing well,” Tamang said. “The problem is with the middle aged and seniors, so we provide ESL and citizenship classes (at the community center). Not only do they learn English, but they get to socialize.”
“We teach them about how to get health insurance, how to deal with the police if danger comes to them,” Bhandari said. “We make them more educated about the culture and government of their country.”
Young people off to college, careers
The difference in the community between 2008 and today is huge, Sharma said. She cites one child who immigrated to the U.S. who will be a pharmacist soon, and another who was recently granted a full-ride scholarship to Stanford. Of her two daughters, now both in their mid-20s, Sharma said one works for Microsoft and the other recently graduated from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Her job as a social worker brings Sharma into contact with other immigrants to Minnesota like Somalis, Hmong and Latinos. She said the immigrants, especially the young people, share a common bond.
“They may speak a different language at home or wear a hijab, but they are all Americans,” she said.