Mother-Daughter Team Helps a Bhutanese Family Start Over
Americans across the nation are volunteering to help recently arrived refugees begin a new life in the United States. Two such volunteers, Leigh Williams and her daughter Camille, help a Bhutanese refugee family from Nepal start over in Vermont. Some 110,000 Bhutanese refugees, most of whom fled ethnic cleansing in their homeland in the early 1990s, continue to languish in refugee camps in Nepal. Leigh shares her volunteering experience with USCRI.
Nepal is a place where a pervasive spiritual happiness exists despite the lack of material wealth. It is a way of being and a way of life I have never experienced anywhere else. I spent time there in college and again in 2005 when my daughter Camille was three. The Nepalese are poor but happy and always optimistic. They need very little and will give away anything they have without expectations. Everywhere I went in Nepal, I was met with unconditional hospitality from people who, by western standards, don’t have much to offer.
Camille and I spent a recent Monday afternoon getting ready to meet a Bhutanese family arriving from Nepal to Vermont. It was an exciting day. As new volunteers with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP), we didn't know what to expect but were thrilled to make new friends. We planted fresh cilantro and basil and shopped for a Ganesh statue to make their new home feel more welcoming. With only a few more hours until the family's arrival, we carried heavy boxes of food and bags filled with towels and clean linens up the stairs and straightened up around the apartment as fast we could. Camille helped make all the beds and put away the groceries. It was a warm evening and the apartment was stuffy and still.
At 8:30 p.m., we met the Vermont resettlement Director, Judy Scott, and the interpreter at the airport. Minutes later, the family stepped into the terminal. The father and mother first, followed by the grandmother. The four-year-old clung to her mother while the eight-year-old hid behind her father's leg. It’s difficult to guess what they were each feeling at that moment, but it was clear they were relieved to see us, knowing that their long journey has come to an end and a new beginning awaits.
The first few days we walked around the neighborhood with the family and tried to help them figure out the bus system. The family was quietly observing and absorbing everything. We showed them how to cross the street, watching for traffic lights and walk signals. In Nepal you can cross the street wherever and whenever you want and expect vehicles to simply swerve around you. The streets there are congested with pushcarts, bicycles, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, buses, pedestrians, and cows. But there is an observed pecking order in this mayhem: Cows always have the right of way. Pedestrians are second.
When we talked about loved ones left behind in Nepal, the Bhutanese family became sad and said that they felt lonely. They told us about life in the refugee camp and how they were used to having people around them at all times, which made it all the more difficult to suddenly be on their own in unfamiliar surroundings. They showed us pictures of friends and colleagues taken during a going away ceremony in light of the father's leaving his teaching position at a school of 400 students. In Nepali, the closest translation for the verb "to miss" is "to remember." The only way to say "I miss you" is to say "I remember you fondly"--a wonderful example of the perpetually optimistic Nepali spirit.
One day out of the blue, the mother presented me with a gift: two traditional bangles, which we admired together as she slipped them on my wrist. This is the hospitality and the generosity that makes me question our own ways. How can they be so generous when they seemingly have so little to give? Perhaps they have so much to give and teach us.
During their first week in America, the family met other Bhutanese refugees from Nepal and were slowly adapting to a new way of life. "In America are there open markets?" one of them asked me, still trying to figure out if there is something that can't be found here. They wanted yogurt, so I drove them to an Indian grocery store and a chain supermarket in the middle of the thunderstorm. When we returned to the apartment, the mother put on a pot of chia, a traditional Nepali milk tea commonly served to guests and visitors. This was the first time I had chia--symbol of Nepali cultural pride--In their home. It was a great honor for me to share this special custom with their family. This moment marked the true beginning for them and it was magical to be a small part of it.