Former Bhutanese refugees settled in Vancouver often find it hard to adjust to a new language and life. But elder members of the community frequently come together to support one another and combat isolation.
Four Bhutanese seniors who relocated to Canada during the past three years, recently gathered in one of the men’s Coquitlam apartments to swap stories. The group sat together on Laxmi Narayan Subedi’s living room couches and sipped tea. They told tales of their past lives in Bhutan and Nepal, and of their latest adjustments in their new country.
Gatherings like these are a frequent ritual for many elderly here.
Their stories ranged from tragic to nostalgic. Subedi, 96, recalled how a fire in a refugee camp in Nepal gutted everything in 2008, including his bamboo hut. His nephew, Parmananda, 81, shared fond memories of life on his farm in Bhutan, rising at 5 a.m. to plow the fields with his pair of oxen.
But health issues dominate the conversation when these seniors meet.
Subedi’s asthma has been keeping him awake at night.
“Maybe death is calling me,” he said to the group. “I could not sleep even for a while. Sometimes it feels like my breath is going to stop.”
Subedi fled his home country of Bhutan in the early 1990s, when the Druk government outlawed thousands of Nepali-speaking people like himself. He was 76.
Almost 100,000 ethnic Nepalese fled Bhutan to Nepal as Subedi had. More than 44,000 of them found a home for a third time after the United Nations introduced in 2006 a plan to help Bhutanese refugees resettle permanently in other countries.
Subedi arrived in Canada last December.
“I did not decide to come here,” he said. “It’s destiny that brought me here.”
Senior citizens like Subedi and his new friends, face exceptional challenges as they near the end of their lives in an entirely unfamiliar atmosphere.
In addition to natural health problems, they are frustrated by a lack of access to religious services, grapple with a foreign language, and more than anything, they must learn to cope with the greatest pain: loneliness.
By the time Subedi and his family arrived, a Bhutanese community, albeit small, had already formed in Vancouver.
Meetings like this help make life in Vancouver tolerable, Subedi said.
The resettlement program
Before arriving in Canada, Subedi suffered a traumatic journey of struggle, uncertainty and statelessness that lasted almost 20 years.
He and his family escaped Bhutan after their government cracked down on the country’s ethnic Nepalese.
“Everything was good in Bhutan,” Subedi said of the time before the crackdown, “but something went wrong behind the curtains and we were forced to flee.”
They then spent nearly two decades struggling to survive in one of Nepal’s seven refugee camps.
When the UN launched the third-country resettlement plan, Subedi jumped at the opportunity to relocate to North America.
The United States accepts the majority of Bhutanese refugees, and has offered to resettle up to 60,000 of them. It has welcomed 37,000 so far, according to the International Organization of Migration.
Canada has pledged to accept up to 5,000 Bhutanese refugees under its government-assisted refugee settlement (GARS) program. It provides financial support to the new immigrants from the federal government in the first year and from the provincial government thereafter.
It is one of nine countries to have invited these refugees for permanent settlement. Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, the UK and Sweden have also opened their borders.
Nearly 2,500 former Bhutanese refugees have resettled in Canada. Over a hundred have landed in British Columbia. Of them, only five are over 65 years old, and 33 are children under 15, according to the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC).
The nonprofit organization helps the new immigrants adjust to their new setting through orientations and counseling, said Subrath Shrestha, a counselor with the society.
Of the nearly 20 Bhutanese interviewed for this story, each said they were grateful to the Canadian government.
“We had brought nothing with us,” Subedi said. “They (the government) have provided us with food, clothes, shelter and everything.”
Subedi`s neighbour, Kharsila Kafle agreed. “It is perfect here. We have come to the right place. We have left all the suffering behind.”
Kafle.67, is among the first group of Bhutanese refugees to have resettled in Vancouver in March 2009.
“It would be ungrateful if we start complaining,” she said.
Yet despite that they appreciate the country’s support, starting a new life has had its challenges.
A new language, limited access to religious services
Parmananda Subedi, 81, wishes he could talk to the people living in his building. But his inability to speak or understand English prevents him from being able to get to know them. His interaction with his English-speaking neighbours is limited to brief exchanges, a mere “good morning” and “good evening.”
It’s unlikely that the elders will learn English.
Unlike the children of the Bhutanese community, who learn to speak English quite quickly, or the adults in his family who attend ESL classes, seniors generally stick to Nepali.
“We elderly cannot learn a new language,” Kafle said. “Over time, we may learn a few words, but that won’t be of much help. This is reality and we have to live with it.”
Parmananda has developed a better strategy. He has learned a few English words: “hello,” “yes,” “no,” “good morning,” “good evening,” “good,” “fine,” “okay” and “thank you.”
He pulls out one of these phrases whenever someone says something to him. He guesses at a person’s intention based on their gestures and tone of voice.
“That is all I have learned so far,” he said.
With many Bhutanese families living in clusters, the seniors rely on the younger generations to learn English.
Many of the Bhutanese who have settled in Vancouver have said they are also somewhat disappointed by the lack of access to religious services.
They wish they could have a temple and a pundit – that is, a Nepali priest – in their community.
At home, Laxmi Narayan begins his days with a morning worship ritual. Unlike in Bhutan and Nepal, he doesn’t have a temple to go to nearby, as there is no Hindu temple in Coquitlam.
He recites the Hindu epics like Ramayana and Krishna Charitra in the afternoon whenever there is no one to talk to or nothing to do. Reading religious books is also a favourite pastime of his nephew Parmananda, especially on afternoons when his family members go to work or school.
Seniors who cannot read have an alternative: they can watch DVDs of films based on the epics.
“It is sad that without a Nepali priest we cannot properly perform life rituals,” Kafle said, including naming ceremonies, weddings or death anniversary rituals.
“In a new place we knew that we would not be able to perform elaborate rituals,” Kafle said. “But we have not been able to perform even the minimum either.”
Some members said they are thinking of raising funds to establish a temple but the idea has not taken shape yet. Perhaps over time as the community grows.