On a weekday morning later this month, Bishnu Adhikari will stand on the deck of the USS Little Rock, a visible and constant reminder of America’s sacrifices and loss, and for one day will set aside his own lifetime of loss and relish the return of something he once treasured but was taken away from him.
“That will be my day,” Adhikari says with a genuine joy you don’t always hear in his voice. “That will be my second birthday.”
With his right hand raised, he will grab back something he lost more than two decades ago when his native Bhutan, as part of ongoing, decades-old cultural and religious persecution, stripped him of his citizenship, seized his family’s land and ordered them out of the country.
Adhikari, like millions of other Bhutanese, is of Nepali descent, a segment of the population targeted for expulsion in the late 1980s and forced to flee for refugee camps in Nepal. It was there that Adhikari, after being jailed and tortured in Bhutan, spent the next 17 years of his life.
“I was a citizen in Bhutan right up until 1992,” he said. “And then I was kicked out of my own country. I lost everything.”
There’s no shortage of sadness or despair in the accounts of Adhikari’s journey to citizenship. He is currently dealing with an unusually high number of suicides among his people.
But he would be the first to tell you that his journey made him appreciative of what he lost.
He will look you in the eye and tell you that he means no offense, but many Americans don’t appreciate the importance of citizenship, of being part of a country.
“You don’t know the value of citizenship until you’ve lost it,” Adhikari said.
The story of his time in the camp and his journey to Buffalo six years ago is filled with tales of Adhikari’s leadership, at both the camp and now as a teacher and leader in the growing Bhutanese community here. There are an estimated 3,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Buffalo.
It was that sense of ownership of his new home, his work with other refugees and his six-year quest to become naturalized that made him an ideal speaker for this year’s New Citizens Day, a national celebration of America’s diversity.
Here in Buffalo, the day will be marked by a public celebration from noon to 4 p.m. June 28 at the International Institute of Buffalo, 864 Delaware Ave.
Well known in the refugee settlement community – he works as an employment specialist at Journey’s End Refugee Services – Adhikari is widely respected for his commitment to other Bhutanese refugees, a community that has struggled at times with the transition to life in Buffalo and other American cities.
It’s no secret that the suicide rate among Bhutanese refugees in the United States is almost double the rate for the population as a whole. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has studied the problem, says the suicide rate is also equal to the rate among Bhutanese still in Nepal’s refugee camps.
“Why there are suicides? I don’t know,” Adhikari says.
Adhikari says he wants the story of his people’s transition here, the good and bad, to be told, but he struggles when asked about the suicides. He acknowledges there is a problem in his community and thinks much of it is due to the obstacles his people face when they arrive – language, education and jobs.
There are other chapters in Adhikari’s life he knows need to be told but, even now, years later, he’s not sure he’s the one to tell them. They include his time in jail in Bhutan.
He had pleaded with his father not to sign a paper giving away their land and agreeing to leave. He soon found himself jailed and tortured. He won’t talk about the details of what happened to him, except to acknowledge it happened.
“I do not want to take my mind back there,” he said when asked about the torture. “I just want to forget about it. That’s all I can say.”
Adhikari made it out of Bhutan alive but his family’s 17 years in the refugee camp took its toll. He lost his mother, who had been ill, while they lived at the camp.
“We struggled a lot,” he said of his family’s time at the camp. “There were some happy times, but the situation was intolerable. There was always a crisis of food. There were times we couldn’t put anything on the table.”
In the midst of all this, Adhikari continued what seems to the one constant in his life – his role as a teacher. Even then, he was teaching English and preparing other refugees for a life, a better life, somewhere else.
“I taught my students under a tree,” he said with a smile.
Now, his classroom is at a home on the West Side. He and his students – there are about 15 – meet for three hours each Saturday and Sunday.
Wherever Adhikari finds himself, whether it’s at a refugee camp in Nepal or as a new arrival in Buffalo, he emerges as a leader in his community. Part of it is his Bhutanese background, including his family’s high standing in the caste system there, and part of it is his education.
But talk to the people who work with Adhikari, who see his work with the refugees who came after him, and you will hear stories that suggest it’s not just education and heritage that make him a respected figure.
Jeff Ogilvie, director of employment services at Journey’s End, said he knows of up to 20 other refugees who came to Buffalo from other cities because of Adhikari. He has heard his co-worker tell his life story numerous times and, yet, he always comes away impressed by the depth of his devotion to his people.
Ogilvie says he thinks of Adhikari’s life as “so many adjectives” and then reels off three – modesty, curiosity and generosity.
“I think those three characteristics drive people to him,” he said. “There is just instant respect when people meet him, and it’s all earned.”
He is also someone who has embraced Buffalo as his new home, the kind of new citizen people like Brian Brown-Cashdollar thinks we should be celebrating.
“These are people who have made the community fully their own,” said Brown-Cashdollar, development director at the International Institute of Buffalo.
In his eyes, Adhikari represents everything that is good and vital about the refugees coming to Buffalo.
“This is their home,” he said. “And that’s something they haven’t had since the 1980s. And this is his home.”
When you ask Adhikari about his family’s decision to settle in Buffalo – his wife and sister are also here – he tends to talk about the people who helped them make the transition. He is careful to mention by name the numerous volunteers who helped him learn how to get around the city, find a place to live and pay a bill.
“I don’t where they are now,” he said, “but they made a home in our hearts. They will not leave us.”