Ex-refugee takes refuge in music


Manoj Rai was a 17-year-old student in a school in Tashigang, Bhutan in 1990, when soldiers arrived at his dorm and took away all the Nepali books. They piled them high in the courtyard, and set them alight.

A few days later, the boy decided to escape the army’s dragnet and without even returning home he went down to the border, where the Indian security forces were packing other Bhutanese like him into trucks and dumping them in eastern Nepal.

Thousands of refugees from Bhutan lived under plastic sheets by the side of the Kankai River in Jhapa. Many fainted from trauma, culture shock and homesickness. On a single day, Manoj Rai remembers cremating 28 children who had died of epidemics.

Read also: Who stands with Bhutanese refugees in Nepal?, Bhuwan Gautam and T P Mishra

“We refugees know very well the meaning of life,” Rai said with a faraway look in his eyes, at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is among the nearly 95,000 refugees from Bhutan who have been resettled in the United States. Others have gone to New Zealand, Norway, UK, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada.

Rai opted for resettlement after seeing no possibility of returning to Bhutan, and tried to convince as many of his compatriots as possible to take up the offer. Some were resolutely refusing to move, but he tried to convince them that being a citizen of a foreign country, rather than a refugee, could help them return to Bhutan one day. Many third-generation Bhutanese are now studying in the world’s top universities.

Rai has always been interested in music, often taking his small band house-to-house during Dasain and Tihar in Nepal, performing songs of longing for home in Bhutan. Villagers used to give them rice, gundruk and vegetables, which the refugees cooked in the camps by the dusty river banks.

“We were always hungry, but we had to eat to live. And music was a way to feed ourselves,” Manoj recalls. “And now, on the other side of the world from home, we are trying to preserve our culture.”

Read also: The end of the road for Bhutan's refugees,

Jenna Kunze Soon, relief organisations like World Lutheran Foundation, Save the Children, the UN High Commission for Refugees and others came to the rescue of the refugees, settling them in seven camps

in Jhapa and Morang, where 120,000 Bhutanese lived for more than 20 years, until resettlement.

“We were floating like kites. We missed home, and slept in jute sacks on the sand,” remembers Manoj, who could not even go back to Bhutan when his mother died there. “That is my biggest regret -- that I was not there for my mother. There are many Bhutanese like me.”

Manoj came to the US 8 years ago and recorded over 70 songs since then. He has also founded the charity Love and Sports, which supports Nepali art, culture and music with an annual gathering in which the best are honoured with awards.

Read also: Family separation, Bhutan-style, Jamie Piotrowski

Many of Manoj’s Nepali songs are about Bhutan. The translated lyrics of one of them:

‘In the lap of the Himalaya is our

dear Bhutan

We blossom as we live together as


Don’t cry, mother, we will make

you smile

We will decorate our motherland

with flowers.’

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