Who are they?
Around the world people are forced to flee their homes due to war, political violence, exclusion, and the competition for scarce resources in troubled states. Those who have sought refuge in another country are refugees, a status which entitles them to certain rights under international law. Houston is one of the busiest resettlement cities in the US, and the thousands of refugees welcomed to our city each year face a number of barriers. Many arrive with little to no English proficiency and minimal education. Some lived upwards of 18-20 years in refugee camps, with no legal right to employment, and often faced dismal health and housing options.
The Community Cloth currently serves refugee women artisans from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and Rwanda.
Get to know a few of the artisans participating in The Community Cloth!
Nar stands around joking with a few friends as they feast on Chinese take-out in a two room apartment at Sun Blossom Mountain, a cheerful if somewhat sketchy apartment complex that is home to hundreds of international refugees who have resettled in Southwest Houston. Sitting in chairs against the wall, two of Nar’s Bhutanese colleagues knit and chat, while the women in the next room engage in the traditional art of Karenni weaving.
When The Community Cloth came along, Nar and several friends from a nearby apartment complex were already knitting together to share ideas, tradition, and friendship. For these Bhutanese refugees, The Community Cloth is a natural fit. Most women from their culture learn to knit as young girls. Nar started at the age of 13, and learned to crochet at 17. With a working husband and three school-age sons, Nar has a busy schedule, but her boys pitch in wherever they can. “My husband helps out around the home,” says Nar, “and my oldest son helps with the cooking and cleaning, and looks after his younger brothers.”
She joined the knitting circles at The Community Cloth headquarters, and has attended training workshops, shopped in fabric stores for materials, and participated in sales events. “The Community Cloth has been good for me,” she says. “It has helped because we got some income from it, and I met new Nepali friends.”
Nar is just one of more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis from Southern Bhutan who were expelled from their homes 18 to 20 years ago. These ethnic Nepalis began immigrating to Bhutan in the late 1800s, and became known as Lhotsampas (“People of the South”). In the 1950s, they were granted citizenship by the Bhutanese government, and enjoyed a peaceful co-existence with native Bhutanese until the mid-1980s, when the monarchy, worried about the rapidly growing Lhotsampas population, enacted a law retroactively tightening citizenship requirements. The act required persons living within the borders to prove they were domiciled in Bhutan in 1958 (not before, not after) with documentary evidence such as land tax receipts from 1958, and for those born after 1958 to maintain their legal status, both parents had to be Bhutanese. As a result, many ethnic Nepalis were automatically denaturalized. Additionally, many ethnic Nepalis left the country temporarily to assist friends or family in their exodus. These helpful individuals returned home to find that the government had revoked their citizenship and that of their families.
In addition to the onerous citizenship requirements, the government began to crack down the traditions and culture of the ethnic Nepalis through as series of policies known as Bhutanization. “They burned our Nepali books and forced us to speak Bhutanese, which is very difficult,” Nar says. “We had to wear the national dress of Bhutan, or would be fined, and they arrested people who had repeated offenses.”
Large protests by the ethnic Nepalis in 1990 were met with intensified oppression – prohibitions against assembling in the streets, violence, mass arrest, and torture. Schools were turn into jails, relatives were disappeared, and “then the army came in and raped girls,” Nar says.
Those who had fled immediate danger returned to the burned out remains of their houses, set afire by neighbors. “Political issues forced us to leave Bhutan,” Nar says. She and over 100,000 ethnic Nepalis who had lived in Bhutan for generations were suddenly displaced, compelled to leave the only home they had ever known. They trekked through India (but were not allowed to stay), finally resettling up in their ethnic Nepal.
Nar, her parents, brother and seven sisters were relocated to one of seven refugee camps where they were provided with bamboo and plastic with which to build shelter. “We used plastic for a roof, but the wind and water would blow it off,” she says. “It was cold. My father was very sick, and my mother was very weak.” No one in her family knew a thing about building homes, but their neighbors from Bhutan had landed in the same camp, and the son helped her to build a sturdy home made of bamboo. He and Nar were married a year later.
Day to day life in Nepal was a struggle, physically and emotionally. There was no running water. The refugees had to stand in line three times a day to collect water from one of several taps that supplied the 22,000 person camp. Eventually, Nar and her husband, Kumar, dug a well at their home that was used for bathing and washing clothes. The UN provided a few staples – 350 grams of rice every 15 days, cooking oil, salt. Otherwise they were left to fend for themselves.
Nar laughs as she reflects on her first difficult months as a refugee in the United States, but is indignant about her 18 years in Nepal. Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal are second class citizens, facing discrimination on all fronts. “There was no life for us in Nepal. We had to stay as refugees,” she says. People would tell them: “You are a refugee, you don’t have anything, you don’t have a home, you don’t have money.” She recalls an incident in which a farmer selling vegetables in the camp exclaimed: “We are going to give some food for cows!”
Finally the international community concluded that there is no future in Nepal for the Bhutanese languishing in the refugee camps there, nor is there any future for them in Bhutan, as those attempting to return have all been denied entry. In early 2008, the United States began the process of resettling the first of several waves of Bhutanese refugees, with the expectation of eventually absorbing 60,000 individuals from the seven camps in Nepal.
Nar, her husband and two sons arrived in the United States on October 31, 2008. Coming from a forested region in Nepal where she lived among thousands of refugees with a shared experience, those first months in her Southwest Houston apartment tested Nar’s mettle. Referring to herself as Nepali rather than Bhutanese, Nar says there were no other Nepalis in her apartment complex at that time. “I cried for eight days,” she says. “There were no children to play with my kids. They would cry with me.” Accustomed to relative safety and openness back in Nepal, Nar was shocked when the caseworker told her: “Stay inside and lock your doors or someone might hurt you.” Then there was the matter of transportation. With no car, a one-way trip to Walmart took an hour and 15 minutes. Nar bursts into laughter recalling the family’s fear of Houston traffic. “There are very little cars and buses in our country,” she says. “But here, there are so many. We used to run when we were crossing the road. My husband says ‘in Houston, there is car in front of us, behind us and on the sides of us!’”
Those days are now far behind her. She now lives among many Nepalis, and has become friends with her American neighbors and folks from other countries as well. Nar gave birth to her third child, another boy, eight months ago: “Made and born in the USA,” she gushes. And, in addition to learning to speak and write English, Nar is on her way to becoming a certified nursing assistant. She completed all of her classes and her practicum earlier this year, and just learned that she passed the state examination – the final step to obtaining her license. She looks forward to finding a job where she can utilize her education and skills.
If time allows though, Nar will continue to participate in The Community Cloth. “It was my first job in America, so I don’t want to quit it,” she says. “The Community Cloth showed me a dollar!”
Devi was born in Bhutan, a small not-well-known South Asian country. She is 26 years old, has been married four years and has an adorable 10-month old daughter, appropriately named Angel. Devi’s middle name, “Maya”, means “Love” in Nepali, her native language. She has an innocent, warm face and beautiful smile that matches her name – but life has not been easy for this young woman.
In 1990, the Royal Government of Bhutan began an initiative to create a unified society. This new society restricted freedom of religion, required everyone to dress in traditional garb worn in Northern Bhutan, and removed the Nepali language from schools, along with a variety of other measures. In response, the Bhutanese Nepali ethnic minority in Southern Bhutan held public protests, which were answered with violence, rape, groundless arrests, and forced migration. By the end of 1992, more than 120,000 Bhutanese Nepali were forced to flee to refugee camps in Nepal.
Devi’s family was one of the many who fled to a refugee camp in Nepal in 1992, living there until 2008. She, her parents, two sisters and one brother experienced a difficult life in the camp, where they all lived in a small bamboo hut no larger than 15 x 15 feet. The hut had a thatched roof, walls patched with cardboard and mud floors.
Conditions in the camp were not what you would wish for any young girl growing up: sanitation was spotty, food was incredibly expensive, safety was always an issue, with instances of kidnapping, trafficking, harassment and threats just around the corner. A lack of sufficient income was also a hardship as the camp had strict rules against leaving the camp, so refugees were not allowed to work “on the outside”.
Devi began adding to her family’s meager income by weaving and knitting. She learned these skills as a child, with her mother patiently teaching her. She began by personally selling items to neighbors in the camp, then moved up to working for a contractor based in the camp who sold the goods the women made to customers outside the camp. The women, however, received a rate of only about 60-70 rupees per day (or less than 1 US dollar).
In 2006, about 60,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled to the US, with hundreds of families coming to Houston. It was in 2008 when Devi and her husband received news of their admittance to the United States. She left her family, and started on a new journey across the ocean. When she landed in Houston, she was 7 months pregnant. She wept for three days straight, worrying about how they were going to find work, how they would get the money to pay the bills, and generally missing her family in Nepal and feeling isolated and lonely. They knew nobody.
She then made up her mind to “be strong”. She started to make friends with others at her apartment complex – other refugees, and other Americans who wanted to help. She shares that she has met many “helping hands”. Although Devi still cites challenges, she is hopeful for the future. She is excited about the opportunity to use her knitting, weaving and crafting skills as a member of The Community Cloth.