The Netherlands is one of the countries that takes in refugees from around the world - mostly from places like Somalia or Afghanistan. But these days, another tiny immigrant community has joined the list - the Lhotshampas from Bhutan.
An ethnic group originally from Nepal, the Lhotshampas moved to the southern lowlands of Bhutan in the 19th century; and made the Himalayan kingdom their home. But in the 1980s, the Bhutanese government decided to evict the Lhotshampas, who couldn’t prove citizenship of the country. This despite the fact that many of them had lived in Bhutan for generations.
In 2009, more than 90,000 were still languishing in the seven refugee camps administered by the UNHCR in Nepal. In recent years, some of these refugees have been resettled - some by invitation - in Western countries. Around 85,000 refugees have applied for resettlement in other countries.Among the rest, while some are yet to make up their minds, others hope to head back to Bhutan someday. Since 2008, just over 100 have resettled in the Netherlands. I spoke to Hemlal and Kamla who’ve now made Holland their home.
Hemlal and Kamla were born and brought up in Bhutan. While Hemlal always dreamt of playing in the Bhutan national football team, his wife Kamla had pictured herself as a teacher. Hemlal says these dreams evaporated after they became refugees. Their lives underwent a dramatic change.
“Bhutanese robes were made compulsory and we couldn’t speak the Nepalese language even if we were at home,” Kamla recollects.
Back in the 1980s, a frightened 12-year-old Kamla would hide herself in the toilet when she heard firing outside the house where she lived. She explains:
“There was a rule that the females should come to cook for the policemen. And during that time they were raped.”
Hemlal was jailed because he participated in the peaceful demonstrations. He was tortured for 11 months. He then moved to a refugee camp in Nepal. Meanwhile, his brother, too, was expelled from Bhutan. Why? Because his watch was ‘Made in Nepal’.
What followed was a frosty reception in Nepal - an aspect that was even more painful than having to live in the refugee camp there, under difficult conditions.
“When we ventured out of the camps we would lie that we were from some other part of Nepal. We were humiliated if we revealed we were refugees.”
Kamla and Hemlal met and were married at the camp. They worked as teachers to support their families. They moved to the Netherlands in 2008. But adjusting to the fast-paced life in this country was not all that easy, as Kamla explains:
“I didn’t know how to buy vegetables here as I had never seen a supermarket in the refugee camp [...] the roads, trains, buses… everything was new to me.”
But their son Monish - now seven - already seems to have made the transition. In the accompanying audio, you can hear Kamla and Hemlal tell all about their experiences.