Yesterday was World Refugee Day, an internationally designated remembrance of the story of forcefully displaced people around the globe. In 2001, UNHCR set aside June 20th to help us reframe the conversation and take time out to reflect. Yesterday, cultural dances, songs, and bazaars filled city centers around the US as people took time to remember the journey of those who have been resettled and millions still stuck in limbo.
I didn’t go to any of the big celebrations this year but I found my way into an unassuming 6 unit apartment building where my family hung out with a Bhutanese-Nepali family who has been in the country just shy of 3 years. It is only the second time I had been in their home but I found everyone there to be most welcoming. Uncle opened the door and we had never met. He was deaf and unable to speak so the blind guy talking to the deaf guy was miraculous to say the least. Why do these things constantly happen to me? I had Charity get out the phone and show him some pictures and uncle had a grand time playing with Amos throughout our visit.
I have been teaching the eldest son in the family English for about a year now and know him well. Because of that foundation, the relatives were pretty cool with entertaining us yesterday. The father of the home eventually got home and we began discussing life, America, and our past journeys. He was speaking broken English with me and I was encouraging him to speak when his wife walked into the room and said in Nepali, “What are you doing? He knows Nepali.” I interjected and said this was a good opportunity for him to practice his English. Laughter followed.
As we chatted, father became much more comfortable with me and his thoughts went back to Bhutan. Without any prodding or encouragement, he began to share about Bhutan and his siblings that remained there. They somehow stayed during the ousting and remain there to this day. Father said he was 26 when he left and we discussed the farming lifestyle that is true for most people in the country, contrasting that with the urban life he has come to know in Pittsburgh. At one point father said, “We left and we had nothing. No citizenship. No green card. Nothing.” I said in disgust, “They only gave you a red card.” Now the conversation was fully in Nepali as father was very comfortable with me. “Well once we got to the camp in Nepal, we got a rice card. Maybe the rice card was the good card we had.” We both about fell over laughing as one of the only things you can do when reflecting on the crazy situation is to reflect and chuckle at the pain.
By the end of the conversation, I learned that the man sitting across from me was extremely sharp. He spoke broken English as we first started the conversation and to some it would have been assumed that he may not have a good handle on what is going on in our country or the world. Quite the contrary, he knew the political situations of Bhutan, Nepal, and the United States very well. This guy has had to navigate three very different systems in three countries. Three countries. Three systems. Three lives. He knew them all. He knew what was fair and what was not in the US. His last day at his first job in the country will be today and he will start another job on Friday that will hopefully be a step up.
I asked father about how safe he felt in his apartment complex and he did not give me real strong affirmation in that direction. He simply said, “We have to stay busy and mind our own business and we will be fine.” Again, cultural knowledge that is completely contradictory of all he has known has been learned an applied.
“We have to stay busy and mind our own business and we will be fine.” What a sobering testimony. I was likely the first American that father was able to tell his story to. We find, over and over again, that for anyone who grew up in Bhutan, they simply want to reflect. They simply want someone, anyone really, who could possibly understand. And maybe that person may never understand but the generation of former Bhutanese refugees who clearly remember their exit from Bhutan 27 years ago simply want their story to be heard. Their kids have often grown weary from listening and can’t relate. So on World Refugee Day, I can’t think of a better thing than to sit. To listen. To reflect. And the whole rice card comment was definitely worth the visit.
The story of Jesus undoubtedly intersects with this story. Jesus was a refugee. He was unwanted. In His humility though, He laid His life down, served, and gave His life so all would live again. I can’t help but to think that God the Spirit too longs for His story to be heard – a story of grace, acceptance, and redemption. I’m eager in the coming days to tell this story with father and his family.