Elderly left in Bhutan refugee camp

Elderly refugees from Bhutan left behind in Nepal by families who have been resettled abroad (from left to right) at Beldangi camp last week: Liladhar Acharya, Dhamala Adhikari, Man Bahadur Rai, and Mekh Tamang. All photos: MUKESH POKHREL

Thirty years after they were driven out of Bhutan, and after spending all that time in camps in eastern Nepal, elderly refugees are by themselves and hope to see their homeland one last time.

Dambar Kumari Khatiwada and her husband Kharka Bahadur wait away their days at the Sanischare Refugee Camp just as they have for the past three decades in the same bamboo shed, but now without their two daughters and a son who have been resettled in the United States.

“Our children are in the US, but we did not want to go and adapt to a completely new culture again, we want to see our motherland one last time before we die,” says Dambar Kumari. “But we did not realise how difficult it would be for the family to be separated like this.”

The couple are among more than 100,000 Nepali-speakers who were driven out of Bhutan in 1990-91, transported across India and driven into Nepal. Most of them were resettled in eight countries around the world, nearly 96,000 of them in the United States. But there are still 7,000 refugees left in two camps in Nepal, most of them elderly.

Liladhar Acharya is now 75 and all by himself in Beldangi Refugee Camp in Jhapa after his two sons, five daughters and wife all took up the offer to be resettled in America five years ago.

“It would have been good if at least one of them had stayed behind, and they tried to convince me to also leave, but I am not going anywhere. Bhutan threw us out, but I still love my country, and I am waiting to go back,” says Acharya, who has preserved receipts of property tax his father and grandfathers paid to the Bhutanese state as proof of citizenship.

Dhamala Prasad Adhikari was 40 when his family was forced out of its homestead in southern Bhutan in 1990. His wife, two sons and two daughters also decided to resettle in the US. To stave off loneliness and depression, Adhikari keeps himself busy tending a small garden outside his hut in Beldangi Camp.

“I keep myself busy so thoughts don’t play in my head,” he says. “It is a tragedy that our family is on different continents.”

Of the 1,400 families still in Beldangi, many are elderly refugees whose families have left. They all complain of loneliness and mental stress, but say that it is most difficult when they fall ill and the family is not around to take care of them.

Last year, when 58-year-old Mekh Tamang got sick, he was too weak to even cook for himself, and went hungry for days. His wife, two sons and a daughter are in America, and another son in Canada.

“This is the life in the camps, everyone is gone, and even if you fall sick you are by yourself,” Tamang says.

One of them is Bhim Bahadur Gurung, whose mother, father, brother, sister, wife and children are all in the US. He is 50, and we found him bed-ridden on the porch of his hut in the humid heat of the Tarai. “There is no one to even bring me water,” he sighed. “If I die, there will be no one at my funeral.”

Bhim Poudel and his handicapped son are the only two members of another family still in camp. Both were infected with Covid-19, Poudel is in intensive care at the BP Institute of Health Sciences in Dharan. His son died last week, but he has not been told yet. There was no one at his son’s cremation.

Many of the elderly complain that their families abroad have forgotten them. They have their own lives now, and most of them rarely call. Families blame their elderly relatives for refusing to leave the refugee camps with them.

“They never phone, and even when I call they rarely pick up,” says Bhim Gurung. “Maybe they are all busy.”

Now that support from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and others are winding down, the fate of the remaining refugees hangs in the balance. Bhutan has shown no interest in taking them back, the Nepal government has also abandoned them, and they depend on charities.

The International Welfare and Support Foundation of America has built a senior citizen home in Sanischare which is already caring for 95 elderly refugees, and another is being set up in Beldangi.

“We are registering them, and will take care of the seniors who do not have family here,” says Ram Baniya of the Foundation. “At least they will have each other when they spend time together at the shelters.”