KATHMANDU, Nepal -- In a compound tucked into a residential neighborhood in this mountainous country’s dusty capital, an official waves a metal-detecting wand while interrogating a woman in a blue shawl.
“What is this?” the official barks, holding up a plastic bag full of leaves. “No, miss, you now must go for questioning by the police, please step to this side.”
The woman cracks an embarrassed smile and shuffles to the back of the room, clutching the bag of what appears to be homegrown tobacco. Why is she smiling, rather than look guilty or angry at having been waylaid? Because none of this is real. The metal detector that she and her fellow “passengers” must pass through is made of two-by-fours nailed together, and the angry security officer is an employee of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who isn’t really angry at all, though she has only a few hours to teach two dozen Bhutanese refugees how to fly.
The refugees assembled on this particular morning are part of one of the world’s largest -- and by some accounts, most successful refugee resettlement programs, which requires them to do something utterly alien to them -- board an airplane and fly. Details as simple as buckling a seatbelt -- which for most air travelers is a tutorial that takes place without even their peripheral attention -- are important to the refugees, who may not have used safety belts in cars.
Most are enthusiastic, though, because their flights will take them to a new life after having been in limbo for quite some time. In 1990, thousands of ethnic Nepalis (also called Lhotsampas) fled Bhutan in the wake of new citizenship laws and threats from the Buddhist palace to conform to a monolithic national dress, language and culture. In response, refugee camps were set up in eastern Nepal to house a population that would eventually swell to more than 100,000. While Bhutan has cultivated its image as an idyllic kingdom that measures its “Gross National Happiness” (a takeoff on GNP, or gross national product), 15 rounds of talks between the two countries’ respective governments in Kathmandu and Thimpu in the 1990s failed to resolve the issue. It became clear there was no going back for the Lhotsampa, and despite ethnic and linguistic ties, Nepal likewise refused to recognize them as citizens, citing its own poverty and land shortage.
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Then, in 2007, a group of donor governments -- initially, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and the United States, and today including the UK and New Zealand -- announced that they would resettle “a substantial number” of these refugees. Technically no one would be left behind, but because the resettlement would be voluntary, exact numbers were then unknown. As of December 2013, 86,068 have been resettled -- 72,592 to the U.S alone.
“Cooperation between Nepal, international agencies, and resettlement countries has underscored the success of this operation,” explained Maurizio Busatti, IOM’s chief of mission in Nepal. “But it’s important to remember that things here also happened in a discrete order that’s uncommon in refugee situations.” That order was necessary to deal with a mass of refugees arriving at a single location and required an initial census before the resettlement plan itself could be discussed (which UNHCR did in 2007 in Nepal). Afterward, recipient countries were identified. Around the world, refugee resettlement programs moved 33,700 people to new homes in the first half of 2013. Nepal accounted for 5,400 at that point, followed by Malaysia with 5,200 and Thailand with 4,300. All of the programs include travel preparation modules, many of which feature “flight lessons.”
Finding homes for the refugees was the primary challenge, and on paper one might expect that once that was accomplished, transporting them would be comparatively simple. Yet the logistics of transporting tens of thousands of people, many of whom have never boarded a plane, to the other side of the globe is complicated. Every step of a process that most travelers could do in their sleep is new and, in many cases, confusing. How does a person physically board a plane and find a seat? What can passengers carry with them? When is it appropriate to sit or stand? All of that was compounded by anxiety on the part of many of the passengers.
In the classroom set up by IOM, refugees prepare for an audacious transition to a new life, one step at a time.
All of the soon-to-be passengers in today’s class arrived in Kathmandu the day before from the camps in eastern Nepal, where some have lived their entire lives in bamboo huts that were intended to be temporary. For the first phase of the journey, IOM -- an international humanitarian organization specializing in migration management -- charters flights on Yeti Airlines, a Nepali domestic carrier that shuttles groups from the Bhadrapur air strip to Kathmandu in J41 turboprop planes.
That link of the trip will set the stage for what follows, though as Tshiring Sherpa, the IOM trainer in charge, notes while small groups of “passengers” huddle on the floor around worksheets that list airplane signs, “A 45-minute flight on Yeti is no preparation for a trip halfway around the world on a commercial airliner, so we’re trying to bridge that gap.”
As the passengers peruse their worksheets, a young man with spiked bleached-orange hair sporting a leather jacket playfully snatches a pen from his teammate’s hand and says: “No! That’s the green toilet sign, which means you can go in, there’s nobody inside.” His team nods, and he adds with pride: “And remember, every airplane toilet has a different door, so you have to study how to open it correctly.”
Even wandering eyes can't escape the classroom’s lessons. The walls are covered with posters depicting airport signage with Nepali translations written underneath. Others show planes, trains, trucks and cars labeled “Transportation in the USA.”
After Sherpa calls the class to order, she hauls out a large blue rolling suitcase and instructs everyone to take out one item. She places a backpack next to it and puts a garbage bin to the opposite side.
“Now, come up and put the item in your hand where it belongs,” she says.
One by one the refugees approach. Diapers go in the backpack -- the “hand luggage” -- but the rice cooker goes in the large suitcase to be checked. An elderly man approaches and places a rusty sickle in the garbage.
After watching a short video, edited in the style of an in-flight safety film but in the Nepali language with Nepali actors, the group gets to their feet and forms a queue. IOM staffers bring out a mock airport X-ray portal made of wooden 2x4s and place a stack of cafeteria trays on a table to the left of it.
“Now we have arrived at the Kathmandu airport and we are going to get on the flight,” Sherpa says, circling the room to hand out a stack of laminated boarding passes with one hand and holding a GARRETT brand metal detector wand in the other. The queue shuffles toward Sherpa and she waves the wand around the contours of their bodies as other IOM staff instruct in stern English: “Sir, please take your watch off, put it on the tray, and step forward.”
Fortunately, the refugees’ journey to the U.S. won't be as fraught with confusion as it once might have been, thanks in part to the numbers of resettled Bhutanese already living there and to the availability of the Internet in the camps set up by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Explained Cecile Fradot, UNHCR senior protection officer in Nepal: “There are computers with Internet facilities where refugees can talk with their resettled family members, learn about life in the resettled countries through the books at the library or watch films screened at the center regularly.”
But the messages coming back aren't always encouraging. In recent years, reports of high suicide rates among resettled Lhotsampa have emerged; other research found that significant community-based coping strategies were needed to ward off feelings of isolation after resettlement. Partially as a result of this, resettlement for some living in the camps has become a less attractive option. Questions loom regarding what will happen to those who opt out.
The Lhotsampa (which means “people from the South”) were recruited from Nepal by the Bhutanese government in the late 1890s to clear the jungles in the south of the kingdom. By 1988, according to the national census, 45 percent of Bhutan’s population was Lhotsampa and some held high government positions.
Bhutan’s expulsion of the Nepali-speaking Hindus took place in stages. First, in 1958, Thimpu passed a citizenship law and began to encourage intermarriage between Lhotsampas and other Buddhist ethnic groups. Then, in 1988, a census targeting the south of the country reclassified Nepali-speaking Hindus as “illegal immigrants” and a year later the “One People, One Bhutan” policy removed Nepali language from schools and mandated a national (traditional Himalayan Buddhist) dress code. Torture, arbitrary arrest and rape were reported, and police cracked down on protests in the south fighting to retain cultural rights -- prompting the Lhotsampa to flee in droves.
The IOM’s Busatti sees the pre-travel trepidation as natural.
“They have lived here for so long, in a place where they share culture and language, and now after years of having a glossy and sort of distorted image of the American Dream, they’re getting the mixed messages,” he said. “Of course some get nervous about leaving.”
As a Duke University researcher who worked in the camps wrote: “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.”
IOM staffers remind the group to eat and drink, emphasizing that they must overcome whatever fears they may have about not knowing how to use an airplane toilet or not being able to speak English well when asking for water from flight attendants. “All of the food and drinks are free on the plane,” Sherpa emphasizes, then asks: “And what have you heard about American food?”
“It’s too sweet, not enough salt,” a woman in a yellow fleece jacket cradling an infant replies, causing the group to chuckle.
This batch of resettled refugees is headed to various parts of the U.S. -- Nebraska, North Carolina and Vermont, among other places -- via Hong Kong. Throughout the training session, Sherpa repeats questions to keep details on everyone’s mind. She asks: “So after your transit in Hong Kong, where are you going?”
“Los Angeles!” a young woman replies.
“Hollywood,” says another.
“No, it’s called LAX,” a third scolds earnestly.
After touchdown in California, they will fly to their final destinations across the U.S.
The woman pulled aside during the security exercise smiles sheepishly as she rehearses to the group why her attempt to smuggle tobacco in her shawl was wrong. But as Busatti observes, it's understandable why the passengers might want to carry prohibited items aboard.
“After living in a camp for so long they’re being transported to an entirely different world with a different set of expectations and stimuli -- it can be the smallest thing they put in their pockets to provide some sort of continuity and connect them with home,” Busatti says. “The logistics of travel are complicated. We do a good job getting them ready for that down to every detail, but the prospect of facing this type of world-shattering change in their lives goes beyond training drills.”