From the Himalayas to the Alleghenies

Rain forest

 

By KIMBERLY WEINBERG 

Portraits Editor 

 

Yadhu Dhital was born on a river bank but has crossed oceans.

            Conceived in Bhutan and carried by his mother through India, Dhital was born on the bank of the Mai River in Nepal among a sea of blue-tarp shelters.

            One day he would leave Nepal, come to the U.S., study at the Pitt-Bradford and see the world on the SS Explorer, but that was many, many years in the future.

Then, in the early 1990s, it was not just the newborn his parents had to worry about, but also the five young children they already had, whom they’d uprooted from the only country any of them had ever known – the Kingdom of Bhutan.

They were on the run from a country that had inexplicably chosen to forget they were citizens. The family traveled by bus with other members of a large ethnic minority who settled in southern Bhutan in the late 19th century to work in the rice fields. They had come from Nepal and spoke Nepalese, but after a century in Bhutan, they considered it their home. They are called Lhotshampas.

            Even after a century, Bhutan did not consider the Lhotshampas fully Bhutanese, and in the mid-1980s, passed a new citizenship act and began requiring Lhotshampas to prove that they had paid taxes.

            Then the Bhutanese government required that the Lhotshampas wear the traditional dress of the majority and stopped teaching school in Nepalese.

            As the situation in Bhutan deteriorated and persecution increased, more and more Lhotshampas began to leave the country. They were not welcomed by India, which occupies a tongue of land between Bhutan and Nepal, and so kept going back to the country of their ancestors.

            It was as part of this human flow that Dhital’s family found itself camped on the bank of the Mai River in the place where he was born. A couple of months after his birth, the family moved on, this time to one of seven refugee camps established by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in southeastern Nepal in the early 1990s.

            Little did they know, it would be their home for the next 17 years. This was at the height of the Lhotshampas’ migration from Bhutan to Nepal, and up to 600 people a day arrived in the camps, according to the website Bhutanese Refugees, a collaboration between the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group and PhotoVoice, a nonprofit organization that documents the lives of disadvantaged groups.

            Eventually, more than 100,000 people would be resettled from Bhutan to Nepal, living in plastic huts with thatched roofs. Fire from the kerosene cooking stoves, Dhital said, was a constant fear.

            Dhital’s younger sister was born, and all nine members of his family lived in one hut. His parents always talked about and believed they would be going back to Bhutan. They listened hopefully to the BBC World News on a small battery-operated radio as Bhutan, Nepal and various third-party countries held fruitless rounds of negotiations about repatriating the Lhotshampas.

Listening to the radio was about all there was to do besides sleep at night in the camp, where there was no electricity or running water. During the day, Dhital and his siblings played with a tire, marbles and a coin, and they did their homework.

            Dhital went to school in the camp beginning when he was 7, and he tells the story of when he first saw a globe and looked for the camp on the globe, not realizing it was too small to be pictured there. He asked adults about the different countries on the globe, but few could answer his questions.

            His mother smiled, but had no answers, not wanting to encourage or discourage her son’s dreams of seeing those places.

            Dhital did well in school, finishing his secondary schooling in 10th grade (it went no further) with the highest academic average of any student in all of the refugee camps. But there was nothing else to study until, in 2006, the international community gave up on the repatriation negotiations and began offering asylum to the refugee families.

            There was a split in most households, Dhital explained, between his parents’ generation, who wanted to wait and return to Bhutan, and children who had never known anything but the camps and wanted a chance to live and work in the outside world. Dhital and his siblings convinced their parents to accept the offer and, in 2009, they moved to Jacksonville, Fla.

            Some of the things that were hard there surprised him. He had thought he spoke English well, but no one could understand him. He had thought that coming to America would mean nothing but freedom and opportunity, but his father could not find a job.

            Some people took advantage of the immigrant family. A classmate of Dhital’s would steal his school work and put his own name on it.

            But there were kindnesses, too, Dhital said. Catholic Charities helped feed and clothe the family and find them a home and English classes for his sisters.

            The family heard from another resettled group in Pittsburgh that they had been able to find work without knowing English, so they moved. Dhital’s father took a job at a packing company, where he needed minimal English, and his older brothers found work also and could help the family.

            Dhital continued on with his schooling, excelling academically at Baldwin High School, but still struggling with his English, which made it hard to make friends. “I spoke with my teachers, but I was lonely,” he said. “I used to count how many words I had said in a day – they were so few.”

            Good grades, he said, were something he could get by working hard. His hard work paid off when he was inducted into the National Society of High School Scholars, which later sent its members an invitation to apply for a scholarship for Semester at Sea, an educational voyage on board a floating university where students travel the world while taking classes.

            This, he thought, was his chance to see the world. During his freshman year as a biology major at Pitt-Bradford, he applied to Semester at Sea and for several scholarships to cover his bases. The National Society of High School Scholars chose him and fully funded his trip in fall 2012 around the edges of the Atlantic Ocean. 

            His favorite ports of call, he said, were Brazil, South Africa and, most of all, Ghana. “There I saw my previous life – my childhood,” he said. Children told him their dreams of further education knowing that they were statistically impossible. The words they used were very nearly the same as the ones he used at the same age to describe his desire to see the world.

            Dhital returned to campus for Spring 2013, still glowing from his trip, promising to someday return to Ghana and more dedicated than ever to his studies as a pre-medicine student.

            His dream now is to be a doctor, work with non-governmental organizations like the ones that have helped him succeed, and to travel across oceans again, brining hope with him.