Damodar Khatiwada, 23, a Bhutanese refugee.
Photo by Samantha Neville
By Samantha Neville

Bhutanese refugee Damodar Khatiwada, 23, experienced culture shock when he came face to face with the American value of consumerism.

“Back then (in Nepal) we didn’t know any brands,” Khatiwada said. “We only had one brand, that is whatever (donation) comes in.” 

Damodar’s experience is not unique among the refugee community. After living in camps around the world, coming to the United States was a rocky transition, said refugees who now live in Tucson, Ariz.. 

In 2011, 499 refugees resettled in Tucson, according to Georgia Eddy, a program and project specialist for the Refugee Resettlement Program in Tucson.

Of the 4,740 refugees that arrived in Arizona in 2009, nearly 20 percent were Bhutanese people of Nepali descent. After 2009, the percent of Bhutanese refugees began to decrease, parallel to the 46 percent decrease of refugee arrivals in Arizona, according to the Refugee Resettlement Program. 

Damodar and his 19-year-old sister were two of the refugees that came to the U.S. in 2009, after spending 16 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.

They form part of the 1,300-strong community of Bhutanese refugees in Tucson, said Natalie Brown, resource coordinator for Iskashitaa, a local organization dedicated to helping resettle refugees.

“It was in 2007 that the International Organization for Migration …  set out in Nepal and started accepting applications and was willing to bring refugees to a few different countries,” Damodar said.  

“The U.S. was willing to bring 60,000 (refugees) and we applied without knowing which country would accept us, and we were accepted by the U.S.,” Damodar said. “It took us about a year to finish all the paperwork. We didn’t get a chance to choose where to go, or which country. They decided for us.”

As crises shift around the world, the homeland of new refugees shifts accordingly.

The native countries of most of the refugees who arrived in Tucson this year are Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Iraq and Somalia, according to the Tucson branch of the Refugee Resettlement Program.

“There will be different waves [of refugees coming in],” said Marge Pellegrino, director of the Owl and Panther Project, a local refugee support group. “Right now there seems to be a lot of Nepalis coming.” 

Keshavi Khatiwada, 19, a Bhutanese refuge.
Photo by Samantha Neville
Keshavi said that while she was living in a bamboo shelter in a displacement camp with her family in Nepal, they depended on donations to survive.

 “We didn’t have anything for ourselves,” Keshavi said. “We didn’t own a house. If we were hungry we had to thank (the donor) as a god.” 

The family became refugees during a civil war between the residents of the south and the monarchy, said her brother Damodar.

The people in southern Bhutan of Nepali descent originally immigrated there in the 17th century to work as skilled laborers. 

The Nepali people in Bhutan had kept practicing their Hindu religion and speaking the Nepali language, and were viewed as a menace by the monarchy in the 1990s, said Natalie Brown, resource coordinator for Iskashitaa. She said that because this population could not prove that they were descendants of Nepalis, they were not accepted back into their native country. 

Damodar said that celebrating traditions is more difficult in the U.S. than it had been in Nepal. 

In Nepal, Diwali is an outdoor celebration involving the whole community. In the U.S., this is more difficult, because neighbors might not be aware of the festival, and family members aren’t always able to get time off work to celebrate together, said Damodar. 

Keshavi misses the decorating opportunities that her home in Nepal offered. 

“My house was made of bamboo and mud and I used to decorate my house with different rainbow colors,” she said. “Because (the walls) were made of bamboo, we had to cover the bamboo with newspaper or paper so the wind didn’t come through the holes. So I miss decorating my walls, I miss plastering the floors.”

Along with moving to the other side of the world, refugees face the challenge of learning English. Usually, children master English faster than their parents, and they end up translating for the family, said the refugees.

“It’s kind of hard and sometimes easy, and sometimes I don’t even like it,” said Isho Muktar, a 14-year-old Kenyan refugee. “But I still have to do it. I have no choice, my family doesn’t know the language.” 

Refugee children also must work to fit in at school. Some Tucson educators lament that students are not more welcoming to refugee classmates. 

As Grace Lena, an English language development teacher at Doolen Middle School, pointed out, misconceptions about refugees persist.

“If they really understood why these kids are coming here, and why these families are happy to be here, maybe they would have more of an open mind about accepting them,” Lena said. 

Though the Khatiwadas have had many challenges while becoming accustomed to the United States, the siblings said the use of technology is one of their favorite parts of being in the U.S. 

“I feel like the world is in my hands right now,” Keshavi said. 

Using technology like the Internet, the Khatiwada siblings can communicate with extended family members in Bhutan, something they weren’t able to do in Nepal. 

Damodar said that the relationships among himself, his siblings and his parents have improved since their arrival in the U.S. 

“In Nepal, we were very limited,” said Damodar. “It was a very small house, and we didn’t even have a sitting room… But here, just having a sitting room gives us so much time and so much room to sit down and talk about our feelings and everything we want to talk about.”

The Khatiwadas also revealed that they felt independent and free in the U.S., as opposed to the resentment aimed toward the refugees by the Nepalis. 

“I like it here because everyone is equal here, and everyone respects each other,” Keshavi said.   

The Khatiwada siblings plan to continue their higher education. Damodar wants to pursue an associate’s degree at Pima, while his sister wants to study medicine in the hope of becoming a pharmacist.

“I want to use my skills that I’ve learned here...to help [in Nepal],” Keshavi said. 



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