Far from home

Former Bhutanese refugee Tara Dahal chairs Nepali language and Arts Centre in Cincinnati, which teaches Nepali to families from Bhutan and Nepal, facilitates citizenship applications, voter registration, and helps those with language difficulties.

On 1 August 2022, Tara Dahal’s inbox pinged with an email. It would have been like any other morning had the senders not been the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Association of Immunisation Managers (AIM).

The emails named him among 28 community health workers across the US to receive the country's 2022 Immunisation Champion Award.

Each year, an individual from every US state is honoured with the award. Dahal, who works at Healthy Home Care was awarded for spreading awareness and actively contributing to the vaccination campaign during the Covid-19 pandemic. He was also delivering essential materials to individuals and families in isolation at a time when anti-vax disinformation was at its peak.

“The news brought me immense joy," the says the 48-year-old, who was among the 100,000 Nepali speaking people that Bhutan evicted in the early 1990s, and whose family spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before coming to the United States in 2012.

Dahal has lived in Cincinnati for eight years, and chairs the city’s Nepali language and Arts Centre, which teaches Nepali to families from Bhutan and Nepal, facilitates citizenship applications, voter registration, and helps those with language difficulties. The Centre has even built a cricket ground for the Nepali community in coordination with the township.

Dahal was born in Dorokha Gewog in Bhutan’s Samtse district. Around 1990, as anti-government protests heated up in Bhutan, Dahal was in 8th grade, living in a hostel of two days walk away from home at Samtse High School.

Recipients of US Immunisation Champion Award 2022.

News of the protests, reports of repression and of resistance, reached the school and the students were fearful of being targetted. Dahal had to flee to India from his hostel early one morning, on the pretext that his older brother was ill.

“I left clad in shorts, a t-shirt and my bakkhu," recalls Dahal, who crossed the Suketi River into India trying to hide from sentries along the way. He stayed for a few months at a refugee camp in Garganda in West Bengal along with prominent dissidents from Bhutan.

Tara Dahal with mother Laxmi Dorokha Gewog in southern Bhutan before they fled their homeland.

Back home, Dahal’s escape from his hostel had increased the pressure on his family. His father was forced to do labour without pay for several months by the police. His mother, who had learnt where he was, came looking for him in India one day, having told the authorities that she was going to the market.

Mother and son later joined other refugees from Bhutan who were being transported across India to be dumped in Nepal. Back in Dorakha, Dahal's friends and neighbours were also leaving the country as the repression intensified.

The rest of his family received orders of deportation if they could not present Dahal, so they too, left home, with no idea of what the future held.

“Just like that, our middle-income family was stateless, and we plunged into poverty,” Dahal recalls.

At the refugee camp in Nepal, Dahal passed his high school exam, started teaching other refugee children at the camp school. The bamboo huts in the camp were crowded, there was no clean drinking water and garbage piles were as high as the huts themselves. The summers were sweltering and in monsoon, the rains drenched everyone. Disease stalked the refugees, and many died.

“We barely survived,” Dahal says matter-of-factly. “It was what it was.”

Dahal wanted on to pursue further studies, but he had no money. So he left the camp to go to Sunsari distirct in Nepal, where he taught for a few more years. In 1997, he saved enough money to come to Kathmandu and enrolled at the Pashupati Campus while continuing to teach. His family, still at the refugee camp, relied on the money he sent back for everyday expenses and to put his siblings through school.

Dahal eventually got married in Kathmandu, and in 2007 had a son. By that time, the refugee resettlement program had begun at camps in Jhapa and Morang. So Dahal returned to the camp with his family and began working as an Assistant Program Manager at the Refugee Women's Forum.

The camp began to empty slowly, as refugee families who had spent two decades started leaving for third countries with children born in the camp. The turn for Dahal's family came in May 2011. They were resettled in Colorado, where he worked in a hotel for two years. In 2014, he moved to Cincinnatim, becoming a US citizen three years later.

“A roof that didn’t leak, enough food not to go hungry, and a good education for my children,” Dahal says simply, voice thick with emotion when asked what dreams he had when the family flew to America.

Grander dreams had withered away somewhere along the journey from that hostel in Bhutan to Ohio. “It gets hard to breathe when I remember what I had to go through while I tried to make a life as a refugee," he says.

“Whenever I felt my thoughts hurtling towards the dark, I told myself that even if all else was lost, the future was still in front of m,” Dahal says. “I just hung on to that tenuous thread of hope and pushed ahead.”

Now, thousands of miles away from his home in Bhutan, Dahal remembers the unmade bed he left back in his dormitory, the books on his desk, his clothes hanging form a hook on the wall — a life suddenly cut off. He remembers his friends and relatives who were also forced to leave their homes abruptly in Dorokha, and the bustling Samtse market.

His voice takes on a childlike cadence as he speaks of his family’s beloved cow Jhilku, born at the same time as his sister. When his family left home, they set all their livestock free but had left Jhilku in the care of a relative. Jhilku is long gone now, but Dahal has not forgotten her, paying tribute to her during yearly memorials to his late father.

“I may be here physically, but I left my heart with the people and my home back in Bhutan,” Dahal says. “You can take a boy away from his home, but never his home away from the boy.”

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