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Buhtan Working to Help His People, Again

Working to help his people, again

Thursday, October 23, 2008

By Maureen Sieh

Urban affairs editor

Hari Adhikari nearly lost his life when he began advocating for the more
than 100,000 Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese deported from their homes.
He was imprisoned seven times in the 1980s and early 1990s, tortured and
beaten for opposing the government's decision to force his people to leave
the only home they had ever known in Bhutan, a small South Asia country
bordered by India and Tibet.

Adhikari next helped his people find food, shelter, health care and
education in seven refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. He traveled
internationally to raise awareness of their plight.
When the effort to bring his people home failed, Adhikari urged the
international community to take in the refugees. The United States agreed
to take 60,000 refugees.

After fighting for his people for years, Adhikari is now their man in
Syracuse, the first person who greets his fellow Bhutanese when they
arrive here to start a new life.

Catholic Charities, which has resettled 115 Bhutanese, hired him as a case
manager after he moved here in March to help settle the refugees, many of
them he knew from the camps.

More than 200 Bhutanese have arrived here, more are expected. It's the
latest wave of refugees who have resettled in this region.
In the last three months, Adhikari, 47, has put in some long hours. He
made trips to the airport to pick up new families. He scrambled to find
them a place to stay. He takes them to the grocery store and medical
appointments.

He's also learning a lot about the American system
and the amount of paperwork needed to process the refugees through the
Department of Social Services, Social Security and other agencies. Last
week, he traveled to Buffalo to help some of the Bhutanese families.
"I feel it is my duty as a community man, not only as a staff member, to
see that our community is doing well," he said.

A familiar face

When Kazi Gautam, 27, arrived at Syracuse Hancock Airport on May 19, he
was thrilled to see Adhikari's familiar face.
Adhikari took Gautam and his wife, Santi, who was pregnant with their
first child, to his home on the city's North Side for a traditional
Bhutanese dinner - hot curry made with chili and cheese, chicken, rice and
vegetables. After dinner, Adhikari took the couple to their apartment on
Elm Street.

"I was exhausted from a long distance (journey)," said Gautam, whose wife
gave birth to their son, Bassan Ethan, on July 15. "When he was there to
receive us, we were happy."
Kip Hargrave, director of the Catholic Charities refugee program, said he
was all set to hire someone else for the job, but Adhikari came up to him
one day and said, "you should hire me."
"He just knows the culture and he knows all these people because of his
work on the international level," Hargrave said. "He's gone to all the
different camps and he's met all the Bhutanese refugees. He knows them all
and he's brought them together as a community."

An activist is born

In Bhutan, Adhikari quit his teaching job to open a footwear store.
In the mid-1980s, he took up the cause for his people when the government
started a campaign to suppress the Southern Bhutanese because they were
prosperous farmers. The government tried to convert the Nepalese-Bhutanese
from Hinduism to Buddhism and imposed a national dress code on all ethnic
groups.

Women were required to wear the kira, a thick floor-length rectangular
piece of cloth wrapped around the body over a blouse and the men wore the
gho, a long robe-like dress that extends to the toes.
Many of the poor villagers who sold produce in the markets couldn't afford
the national dress, Adhikari said. The dress, he said, is heavy and would
be too hot to walk around in the summer months when people are carrying
large bags of produce on their heads.

Street vendors who wore shorts and a T-shirt were harassed, fined and
jailed for failing to wear Bhutan's national dress, Adhikari said.
"You can make this compulsory for people who work in offices, why do you
make it compulsory for people in the market and all public places?" he
asked. "This is how I got involved in the movement of human rights for the
people."

The dress code was just one of the tactics the government used to deport
the Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese - descendants of Nepalese agriculturalists
who migrated in the 19th century to Bhutan, a landlocked country that sits
in the middle of the Himalayan Mountains.

Bhutan granted them citizenship in 1958, but the government revoked it in
the early 1990s and called them "Lhotshampas" or illegal immigrants.
They had to prove their citizenship by showing 1958 tax receipts, an
impossible task for most, Adhikari said. Those without tax receipts were
considered second-class citizens, he said.

In 1975, the government tried to deport Adhikari's parents, but they
appealed and were allowed to stay in the country.
"We have sacrificed a lot. My parents didn't want to leave everything
behind. My fathers' brothers and my grandparents were given 13 days to
leave the country," he said. "They're in Nepal."
During the 1990s, some families were split up - parents were considered
Bhutanese, but the children were not, he said.

"Many families got this decree that they didn't pay their taxes, they made
them second-class citizens," said Adhikari, whose parents were born in
Bhutan. "How can members of one family be separated? We raised the issue
with the king and they started arresting people, and they arrested me."
Arrests, beatings
The first time Adhikari was arrested was in 1984. He spent three days
locked up in the bathroom of one of the government offices.
There would be six more arrests from 1984 to 1991. The longest time
Adhikari spent in jail was 18 months. During that time, he was beaten and
tortured for telling the guards that they couldn't make people cut fire
wood for the army and not pay them.

"The police constable was asked to jump on my legs," Adhikari said,
talking about his arrest in 1991. "The pain was so much I would cry like a
goat. Some people were killed. They beat me in the back with a cane, those
were the kinds of torture.

"They hanged me upside down and blood came from my nose and mouth and they
still wanted me to be hanging there," he said. "They used to (say) that if
we're hanged and three quarters of blood is taken from our body, you will
die."

A year later, he was released after Amnesty International visited Bhutan
and urged the government to release all prisoners.
After his release, the government forced Adhikari to sign a statement
saying he would stop speaking against the government. Then, the police
took him to the India-Bhutan border, beat him and forced him to sign
another statement saying that he was voluntarily leaving the country and
had taken all his belongings. The government took over his store and sold
everything in it.

Continuing the fight In Nepal, he got involved in a human rights group that advocated for the Bhutanese people and worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which managed the camps.

He started classes to offer refugees computer training, teach them weaving
and tailoring. He helped enroll children in school.
In between his human rights advocacy work, Adhikari organized peace
marches to Bhutan in 1995 and 1996. About 35,000 people participated in
the marches.

When those efforts failed, he began pushing for refugee resettlement in 2002.
Not everyone was pleased with the resettlement idea. Adhikari was
threatened and beaten by an armed rebel group that wanted the refugees to
stay in Nepal to help mount an uprising against the Bhutanese government.
"I was thinking I couldn't do much more for the people to establish peace
and a democratic culture in Bhutan," Adhikari said. "The camp is not a
secure place for people to live."

Adhikari stressed that he was committed to finding a peaceful solution to
the refugee problem. On May 27, 2007, he was at a meeting when rebels blew
up his hut in the camp and beat his parents.

A May 29, 2007, article in The Times of India reported that "a mob of
refugees attacked Adhikari" and set fire to the camp office as well as a
police station."

"My family had to leave the camp," said Adhikari, who last September
received the Ambassador for Peace Award from the Universal Peace
Federation, an international organization which works to foster world
peace and freedom. "They believed that if they kill me, nobody will be
talking about resettlement."

Syracuse: a new homeOn March 4, Adhikari arrived in Syracuse with his wife,Uma, and their twoteenage children, Heman, 17, and Leena, 15. Three months later, his
parents, a brother and two sisters arrived.

Adhikari was still looking for a job when he found out about the vacancy
for a case manager at Catholic Charities refugee program.
He used to volunteer and paid attention to what the case managers did. He
applied for the job because he thought it would be a natural fit.
As more families arrived, Adhikari has gathered them on Saturday mornings
at Rose Hill Park on Lodi Street to meet new families, talk about their
adjustment and learn about American life.
He runs the Saturday meeting the same way he ran meetings in the refugee
camps. He gives people a lot of helpful information, but he also lectures
them about the importance of helping each other and working hard to
succeed in America.

But he's worried about the refugees' future because of the economy.
Refugee resettlement agencies are trying to help people find jobs, but
it's not easy, he said.

"Everyone is saying the U.S. economy is down. This is not going to help
the refugees that are coming," Adhikari said. "Come on, do something that
brings the economy up. These are people who will be contributing to the
society. We're hardworking people, peaceful people."

ENDS

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