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New to America, Bhutanese refugees face suicide crisis

Many have waited decades to come; so why are they now committing suicide at almost double the national rate?

PORTLAND, Ore. – Som Subedi’s goal right now is simple: Make sure no one commits suicide on his watch.

Subedi is one of almost 76,000 Bhutanese refugees who have come to the U.S. since 2008. He’s now a naturalized American citizen, who helps Bhutanese refugees adjust from life in a refugee camp to life in Portland, Ore. 

Suicide is not usually associated with Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation of legendary beauty that measures its success in gross national happiness. But Subedi and the other Bhutanese refugees are not technically Bhutanese, according to the country’s government. Known as Lhotsampas, their ancestors migrated to Bhutan from Nepal in the 17th century. And in the 1990s, more than 100,000 of them – one-sixth of the country’s population – were trucked out of Bhutan as part of its “one-nation-one people” policy, effectively an exercise in ethnic cleansing. They’re now one of America’s fastest-growing refugee populations.

They’re also committing suicide at a rate higher than any other refugee group in America, according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. For every 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, 24.4 commit suicide, almost double the rate of 12.4 for the general population. Twenty-one percent of Bhutanese in America are also depressed, nearly three times the national rate. According to the Wall Street Journal, since November 2013, there have been seven known cases of Bhutanese refugees taking their own lives.

“It’s an epidemic,” Subedi said.

The suicide rate in the camps in Nepal is similar to the rate among resettled Bhutanese in America, according to the CDC. But Subedi believes the promise of the American dream is part of what’s killing his people. Many are excited to leave the Nepalese camps, where a generation of children have been born and raised in legal limbo with “no hope,” “no future” and “no identity,” said Subedi. But he said many Bhutanese refugees arrive in America  believing there’s “money in the streets,” and instead end up isolated, unemployed and in debt.

Arriving in America

At 8 p.m., Subedi’s evening has just begun. A case manager for Lutheran Community Services in Portland, he left his house to greet the Bistas, a family of five, who are arriving at the city’s airport. After 22 years living as refugees in camps in Kathmandu, Nepal, the Bistas, a family of five, each brought with them one small bag. Subedi greets the dazed family with $100 “seed money,” part of the federal support the Bistas will receive to start their new life. 

Ismirti Bista stares in awe at her family's new two-bedroom apartment. All she has known is a thatch hut in a refugee camp, with no electricity or running water.
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Just two days earlier, the Bistas were living in a thatch hut with no electricity or running water. Subedi introduces them to their new two-bedroom apartment, provided and paid for by American taxpayers for up to an eight-month grace period. The Bistas have never seen a washing machine or a refrigerator before, and Subedi has to show the family how to flush a toilet, turn on the shower and in case of an emergency, borrow a phone to dial 911.

“The people they told me that life in America would be good comparing refugee life and it will be good for the kids,” said Sabrita, the mother.

The struggle of adjusting has been apparent to Anne Downing, a local high school teacher who teaches English as a second language.

“The kids – their culture shock was complete,” Downing said. “…They didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have computers. They needed help in just living in this modern world.”

The Bistas signed up to receive food stamps, English classes, a medical screening – including a new mental health assessment -- and employment training. And in less than 14 hours, and despite federal support, the Bistas are already running a sizable tab. They have to pay back the $5,000 travel loan they received from the International Organization for Migration within six months. Durga, the husband and father, is expected to find work almost immediately. He already feels the burden.

"Whatever we borrow, we have to pay,” said Durga. “And after I work, I will pay and I have to pay.”

The major language barrier compounds the stress and difficulty of finding a job. Subedi said that explains why the majority of suicides have been unemployed males. Before the family leaves his office, Subedi gives the Bistas the number for the suicide prevention hotline.

The refugee culture

A male refugee, who we’ll identify as Kumar, strongly considered killing himself in 2012 after just three months in America. Disoriented by the culture and concerned about the bills piling up, he told his wife he was planning to hang himself, so she called Som.

“I felt not peace in mind,” Kumar said. “It was all bad, bad, bad life.”

Kumar had already attempted suicide four times at the refugee camp, which suggests the heart of the problem isn’t simply stress and shock in the U.S. For decades, the Bhutanese refugees have been unable to return home.

“We have a culture since the refugee life,” Subedi said. “It’s [a] dependency kind of culture.”

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Many refugees still dream of returning to Bhutan. But the Bhutanese government has remained silent on the prospect of repatriation, leaving the Llotsampas stateless. Although by many measures a refugee success story, Subedi still says he would return home to Bhutan if he could.

But he has made an effort to create a new community for the refugees in Portland, who now total more than 2,000 in the metro area. Newly-emigrated refugees are often tempted to cocoon themselves in their new homes, which can lead to depression, Subedi said.

Tapping into the agricultural roots of Bhutan, Subedi introduced the Bistas to the community garden where they can rent a plot of land, work the soil and speak the familiar language of planting and weeding. Here, Subedi plants the seeds for a community that no longer sees itself as dependent refugees, but part of a more self-sufficient and connected community.

In the garden, the Bistas looked visibly relaxed for the first time since arriving in the U.S. two days earlier.

“Onion, cabbage, tomato, potato,” Sabrita said, reciting the little English she knows.

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