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The story of the forgotten people: The Bhutanese Lhotshampas

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 Rizal

Hemlal Rizal

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.

Kamla Rizal with her 7-year-old son Monish

Kamla Rizal with her 7-year-old son Monish

“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.

icon for podpress  Bhutanese Lhotshampas: Hemlal and Kamla Rizal tell us their story: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

7 Comments on “The story of the forgotten people: The Bhutanese Lhotshampas”

  1. #1 Anna
    on May 13th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    A beautiful story.

  2. #2 lalitha ravi
    on May 14th, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    a truly well written story. very glad that refugees have been accepted into mainstream life in the netherlands

  3. #3 N.Ramamoorthy
    on May 15th, 2010 at 1:39 am

    a very nice story. it seems to reflect a true incident. could not belive it as story.

  4. #4 renukamurali
    on May 15th, 2010 at 8:03 am


  5. #5 Meenu Subba
    on May 15th, 2010 at 9:11 am

    My name is Meenu and I am currently finishing my Masters in India. Born to an Indian father (who I have not seen for over 10 years ) and a Bhutanese mother, life has been difficult.

    My mom lived at the capital so she was left behind while the rest of the family fled to Nepal. Life was about getting food on the plate but today food does not bother me, not belonging anywhere does.

    India has been good to me, it has given me some good friends and education. But I miss my country. I am a daughter of the mountains and I do want to go back and work back home.
    I believe I can do wonders back home. I may not know how to speak the language but I know that I have in me to help the country go places.

    I have never blamed the country, always thought of myself as a global citizen. Wanted to work all around the globe, still do.

    But today I am getting angry. I am stateless, cannot travel, cannot get a driving licenses, … I am put into a box and I am getting very angry.

    I am glad for the refugees at Nepal and glad that they have a home now. God bless them.

  6. #6 Gayatri Rai
    on Mar 29th, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Hi this is me gayatri i am really happy to listen your sorrowful story

  7. #7 Gayatri Rai
    on Mar 29th, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    because i was searching about the refugee past life its one of good example for me to do my project thanks for sharing

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