Resettlement, Education, and Anxiety
The number of Bhutanese refugees leaving Nepal increases every week, and the process of resettlement impacts every aspect of camp life. Those departing leave behind friends and neighbors who anxiously await the day that they, too, will leave the life they have known since the early 1990s and resettle to an unknown country. Some refugees still hold out hope for the slim chance that they may return to their native Bhutan or be fully incorporated into life in Nepal. More than twenty years after a well-founded fear of persecution forced them from Bhutan, these refugees face a different type of fear as migration is once again altering the course of their lives. Resettlement weighs heavily on refugees’ minds and often leads to anxiety.
Many seasoned international refugee resettlement professionals describe the Bhutanese refugee resettlement operation as an unprecedented success. Several factors have contributed to the operation’s notable achievements. Most of the refugees arrived in 1992, and the population has remained stable since then. In addition, many of the Bhutanese in the Nepali camps have prima facie status as refugees, meaning their refugee status is determined based on their having arrived in Nepal as part of a mass exodus fleeing ethnic violence in Bhutan. This expedites the verification of their refugee status and helps their approval for resettlement be processed more smoothly in comparison to other populations. There have been few reported cases of legal trouble from Bhutanese resettled in third countries. In addition, many reports from resettled family and friends are positive, decreasing the resistance of Bhutanese to resettlement.
Personal preferences, community resources, and location of previously resettled family are all taken into account when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) makes decisions concerning the resettlement destination of a refugee. While it is easy, as an outsider, to see the Bhutanese resettlement operation as a seamless narrative of success, the refugee perspective is much more complicated, with some members of the population adapting more readily than others to the prospect of dramatic change in their lives. In particular, educated refugees tend to view resettlement in a positive light, while uneducated refugees view the process more negatively and express more concerns about their potential to have successful lives after resettlement.
The power of education
Education is highly valued in the Bhutanese refugee camps. School administration officials within the camps tout the high matriculation and graduation rates of their schools. Young people are proud of the language skills they gain through the camps’ English-medium schools and often point out the exceptional nature of their schools when compared to Nepal’s government-run schools. The camp schools are staffed almost entirely by “volunteers”—refugees who work as teachers or administrators and are given a very small monetary compensation. Many of these workers were themselves educated in the camp schools.
“Without education, we will get lost…we literally won’t be able to read.” These are the words of 32 year-old Pranita. When asked to draw three important places, moments, or transitions in her life, she included the camp school and talked at length about its significance to her. She described how her family felt lost when they first arrived in Nepal with no food, no house, and no idea of what their life would become. Pranita matriculated in the camp school where she became involved by planting a flower garden and learned important skills like reading and writing. With her camp education, Pranita felt she was finally able to “move forward.” She now anxiously anticipates resettlement as a time when her children, too, will have the opportunity to become educated and “be secured.” She is confident that she and her family will be able to find stable employment and have a good future.
Gita is another refugee who sees education as a vital component of a successful life. From the moment we met 27 year-old Gita at a gathering of several women from the Bhutanese Refugee Women Forum, it was clear that her education was at the forefront of her mind. When the group activity ended, she asked privately, in nearly fluent English, about the possibility of continuing on for a Master’s degree after she resettles in America. When we interviewed her several days later, she spent much of the conversation talking about her past education and hopes for the future. Completing her camp education was one of the most significant moments of Gita’s life. Upon its completion, however, she was unable to leave the camp for her Bachelor’s degree because she could not afford to lose the small income she got from teaching at a local school. Instead of giving up on her desire for higher education, Gita studied independently after work and then travelled fifty kilometers to sit for the exams for her Bachelor’s degree.
Gita’s determination to continue her education was matched by her parents’ regret that they never had the chance to go to school. They worried about their lives after resettlement because of their illiteracy. Gita observed that their lack of education prevented them from fully assimilating into camp life, spending most of their time together in their hut, reluctant to go out. Gita plans to continue her studies in sociology and eventually become a social worker after resettlement. Knowing about sociology is extremely important, she says: “All people live in a society,” so we ought to know how society functions. She is confident that as an educated person she’ll be able to support her illiterate parents after they resettle.
Education and post-resettlement goals
Kamala is another young woman who is extremely grateful to have graduated from the camp school. She drew a map of her school as one of the three most important factors in her life. She then described the camp school as a “temple” that taught her, “In life we decide what we want.” Her schoolteachers were her “second parents” who taught her English, math, and health, among many other things. In her school, teachers also encouraged students to pursue careers that matched their educational interests. For example, students who liked science were encouraged to consider studying medicine. Kamala’s education makes her confident that she could identify a suitable job for herself after resettlement. Furthermore, she believes that the English language skills she acquired through her English-medium school provided the skills with which she can succeed in any potential job or school interview. Kamala’s schooling gave her both the ability to identify what she wants out of the rest of her life and the confidence to achieve it.
Khem is a young, male refugee whose enthusiasm for education is apparent almost immediately upon meeting him. As he described his first home, he quickly transitioned to education, beginning with his primary school in the camp—a school he attended through “Class 8” (approximately equivalent to middle school). After finishing class eight, he left the camp to continue studying at a school in Darjeeling, India. He identified his graduation from his school in the camp and his school in Darjeeling as two of the most significant factors in his life. After graduation, Khem became extremely interested in studying biblical texts, and he now spends a significant amount of time reading and interpreting Christian teachings. His siblings and friends have already resettled in different parts of America. They’ve told him they enjoy their lives and that he will “live a beautiful life” once he resettles. He, too, looks forward to living in America, but he is determined to resettle independently so that he can “go wherever he wants” and achieve his dream of starting a Bible study group for Bhutanese—work inspired by his interest in teaching others about the Christian religion. With this work, Khem is confident that he can “bring all the people of America together in God,” become busy and engaged in American life, and “be an American like you all.”
Refugees without education
In general, those Bhutanese refugees who have taken advantage of educational opportunities within the camp see themselves as well prepared for resettlement. On the other hand, uneducated refugees – those who did not have educational opportunities in Bhutan and who did not become educated in the camps – hold a noticeably different perspective on the resettlement process. Some older, uneducated people were less confident expressing their feelings due to illiteracy. Others, like Gita’s parents, had a difficult time adjusting to camp life, making yet another move to an even more foreign environment more daunting.
Hearing several older refugees describe their lives, it became obvious that educational opportunities on par with those in the camp were far from the norm for this community when they were growing up in Bhutan. Some lived in rural areas with no schools nearby, while others’ household chores left no time for studying. Educating females was not a priority, so some women were never given the chance to attend school. Whatever the reason, these elderly people often expressed regret that they were not educated.
Many people of lower socio-economic status did not have the chance to become educated in Bhutan. One such person is 60 year-old Mitra. When asked to draw a map of his first home, Mitra drew a school just down the road from his family’s farm. He explained that when he was 13 years old, the government asked him to help build this school, the first in his town. Mitra was never able to attend the school because his father died when he was young, and he had to take over as head of the household, leaving no time for school. To this day, Mitra can’t read or write. He works as a tailor in the camp, but sees his illiteracy as an impediment to using his skills after resettlement. He fears being unable to pay rent, water, and electricity bills. Mitra told us that ideally he would go back to Bhutan and avoid the anxiety that weighs on his mind about how he will earn a livelihood and support his family in a new country.
Barsha and Susila are two other interviewees who lacked formal education and worried about their future after resettlement. As a 35 year old mother of three, Barsha never had the chance to be educated in Bhutan before coming to Nepal when she was 13. She spoke at length about the “embarrassment, regret, and sadness” she feels about her lack of education. She believes her illiteracy has caused her to miss out on opportunities in life. For example, she is hesitant to speak in front of her friends in the camp because she “never knows if what she’s saying is right or wrong.” After meeting us, Barsha apologized profusely for her inability to write her signature. Several times during our discussion, she attributed her inability to answer a question to her status as an uneducated person. For example, when asked to name some personal values or significant moments in her life, she said she could not answer the question because she is illiterate.
Barsha said her “heart breaks down” every time she thinks about resettlement because she wants her children to become doctors or engineers, but she does not have the money to finance the necessary education. Her husband provided her with some money, but he is not likely to resettle with her because he took a second wife, a local Nepali woman. Barsha knows she needs to divorce her husband in order to move forward with resettlement and continue her dream of a good future for her children. At the same time, however, she believes she needs her husband’s support because her inability to read, write, or speak a foreign language will prevent her from earning a living.
Susila, a 71 year old woman, also referred throughout her interview to the difficulties she faced as an uneducated person. When asked to draw a map of her first home, Susila insisted that her granddaughter draw the picture while she described it because she “doesn’t know how to draw.” Susila holds no job in or around the camps, and she is anxious about resettlement for a number of reasons. While she now collects camp rations and prepares food for several grandchildren, she worries about being able to support her family after resettlement with no education or employment potential. She has heard a story about one of her camp neighbors who hung himself after resettlement, and she speculates that this was probably because he “could not pay his rent.” Both Barsha and Susila face anxiety at the thought of supporting themselves and their families in new home countries. They know very little about the opportunities that will be available to them, but they see their lack of education as a marked disadvantage, further compounding the stress they feel about their uncertain futures.
Aside from those who never had the chance to be educated in Bhutan, there are refugees in the camps who lack a full education because they did not take advantage of the camp schools for a variety of reasons. For example, children are often distracted and don’t want to study when they are in limbo, waiting for resettlement. Gita described this problem by saying that many people struggle with different life aims and objectives, and it “zigzags in [their] brain…Refugees nowadays, they are mentally disturbed.” Additionally, many people wonder what value their camp education will have in a new country, so they struggle with the decision of whether or not to stay in school. Of those who have begun school in the camps, some drop out while waiting for resettlement, opening the door to problems such as boredom and risky behavior. Thus, dropping out has consequences that extend far beyond a mere lack of education. Refugees drop out partially due to their doubts that a camp education would prepare them well for resettlement, but as a result, they tend to feel even more unprepared and doubtful about their ability to succeed.
Omnath, a 19-year-old man, is one such refugee who dropped out and now questions his post-resettlement future. He stopped going to school when he was 15 because he “just did not like going to school.” He felt lazy, and he saw no point to school. He then worked occasional construction jobs around the local community as he waited for resettlement. He knows that in the US there will be “broad roads and electricity,” but other than that he is unsure of exactly what life after resettlement will entail. He hopes to continue his education once he has resettled, but he’s not sure how his decision to drop out will affect his education and job prospects in his new country. Omnath isn’t completely content with his life in the camp, but he is also worries about his future in an unknown country with unknown challenges.
Camp organizations’ view of resettlement and mental health
Camp service providers recognize the mental health impacts of resettlement on all refugees and have taken steps to accommodate those negatively affected by it. We met with staff at several camp centers such as the Youth Friendly Center (YFC), the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), and Happy Nepal, who stressed the need to provide adequate support for those struggling with the resettlement process.
TPO deals with 30-45 clients on a weekly basis, most of whom identify themselves as depressed. The TPO staff reports that generational problems stemming from resettlement are the biggest contributing factor to clients’ depression. Specifically, one staff worker discussed the struggle faced by older people attempting to get their children and grandchildren to stay in school. Because many of the older people have seen or experienced the effects of illiteracy and lack of education, they often see education as more important than do younger generations. The disagreement over education’s value leads to intrafamilial “quarreling” and “mental anguish.”
Many parents and grandparents lose the fight to keep their children in school. The Youth Friendly Center (YFC) attempts to mitigate some of the effects of dropping out among the large number of young people who choose to stop attending school and the growing problem of “idle youth.” “Idle youth” are students who stop going to school while waiting for resettlement and then become bored and anxious as their family members and friends leave for different countries. Without the structure of school, idle youth often engage in self-destructive behavior such as gambling, drinking, or drug use. YFC seeks to provide a safe place for children and young adults to socialize and participate in structured activities that discourage formation of unhealthy habits.
Organizations such as TPO and YFC work hard to treat depression and boredom before they lead to unsafe behaviors. Nonetheless, Happy Nepal works with hundreds of substance abusers throughout the camps, offering treatment and counseling to overcome their addiction. Their staff told us that conflict with friends and family about resettlement can lead to quarreling, separation, and divorce, which in turn can lead to depression and mental anguish. Substance abuse is commonly a result of camp residents trying to cope with this emotional distress.
The mental well being of those in the camps is an extremely important component of the refugee experience as a whole. Recent reports have indicated that resettled Bhutanese refugees suffer from depression at a much higher rate than the general US population. This depression can have disastrous and permanent effects on the whole community, as the suicide rate for this population is also much higher than the overall rate in the US. While it is impossible to identify the exact roots of this depression, it is vital to examine the resettlement experience where it begins: in the refugee camps in Nepal.
From the highly educated to the completely illiterate, the Bhutanese refugees we met in the camps continually demonstrated the important role they expect education to play in their post-resettlement lives. For those who have it, education provides a feeling of security in an otherwise seemingly insecure post-resettlement life. On the other hand, those lacking education seem less sure about their futures abroad. In both cases, for better or worse, education affects the mental status of the Bhutanese living in Nepal, waiting for resettlement as the family and friends scatter around the globe. Some people cling to their education as one of the few stable factors in their camp life – a life that can and does change forever at a moment’s notice. Those without education are left to wait and wonder what their lives in the camp will become as well as what resettlement will hold for them. As resettlement sparks anxiety and corresponding mental health concerns, camp resources mobilize in an attempt to help refugees overcome the consequences of this stress. As more people become aware of the refugees’ specific situations, it is important to bear in mind that the relationship between education and mental health is merely one facet of the unique story each refugee possesses – a story with distinctive chapters of camp life, experiences after resettlement, and well being.