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'America Gave Us Our Life Back'

June 29, 2017
Dhan Khatiwoda at work at Bethany

Dhan Khatiwoda at work at Bethany

From June 19-30, we will be sharing stories of Christian Reformed churches and individuals across the United States and Canada who have opened their hearts and homes to those fleeing from war and persecution. The following is one of stories in this series.

Dhan Khatiwoda recalls the Bhutanese soldiers showing up one April day in 1991. They carried guns, and he knew they were there to kill everyone.

Only a teenager at the time, Dhan ran to escape from his village of Suntolay while many others, including family members, scattered as well.

“The government of Bhutan was doing ethnic cleansing against the people in the southern part of the country,” said Dhan, who now works as an adult and refugee foster care supervisor for Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Partnering with the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice, Bethany is the Christian Reformed Church’s refugee resettlement agency in the U.S.

Dhan said people in his village “had first been told to leave voluntarily, and then they imposed the military action to ethnically cleanse us.”

While the majority of people in Bhutan were Buddhists, the members of Dhan’s Lhotshampa ethnic group were Hindus. Hundreds of years ago, the king in Bhutan had invited the Lhotshampa people to come from Nepal and work in the rural areas, but that friendly relationship changed toward the end of the 20th century.

“We could no longer wear our cultural clothes or perform our rituals, and this was very uncomfortable for us,” Dhan said.

Today, some 25 years after becoming one of the more than 110,000 refugees who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s, Dhan’s memories of his escape and of the many hardships he and others had to endure remain sharp.

Two weeks after running for his life in Bhutan, he crossed into India on foot, where he was reunited with family members and where they hoped they could find refuge.

But Indian authorities soon forced them to go to Nepal, which wasn’t keen on accepting so many refugees. Seeing that they had ethnic ties to Nepal, the Nepali government let them stay, but only in refugee camps.

Living conditions were horrendous, said Dhan. Thousands of refugees were crowded into small areas along a smelly river with only dilapidated plastic tenting for shelter.

“There were so many problems and difficulties,” Dhan said. “We had no food, no property, no medications. It was very hot. Hundreds of people were dying every day from starvation and epidemics.”

Dhan couldn’t understand the reasons for so much cruelty — on the part of the Bhutanese who chased them out, the Indians who forced them to leave, and the Nepalese who let them in but ignored their basic needs.

“Life was miserable, desperate, and full of anxiety, and we didn’t know what our destination or future was…. We didn’t have a future. We didn’t know if we would make it through the next day.”

His family endured, but they had no idea how long they would have to be there before finding a permanent place to live.

After a time, an international relief agency stepped in and started providing rice, vegetables, salt, and better-quality plastic for their shelters, said Dhan.

Eventually relief groups helped to build small homes for the families. With a dirt floor, paneless windows that let in mosquitos, and openings through which snakes would crawl in at all hours, their house was as uncomfortable as it was dangerous.

Still, things got better, and eventually teachers in the camp began to hold classes for students under shade trees. A school was eventually built, and Dhan found that he excelled in his studies.

“I was able to start teaching refugee kids. I was very dedicated and was awarded a scholarship to go to India to be professionally trained as a teacher,” he said.

In India he earned a degree and became familiar with the Christian faith, which Dhan found offered compassion that had otherwise been lacking in his life.

“I learned about Jesus every day at a Catholic college in India,” he said. “I had Bible classes and learned more and more.”

When he returned to Nepal after completing his education, he held on to his newfound faith and began teaching. Dhan said that this was a time of “much uncertainty and fear.” Many attempts were made to allow the Lhotshampa refugees to return to Bhutan, but they were all unsuccessful.

Finally, after 17 years, Dhan, who was married by then and had two children living with him in the camp, had a chance to apply to be resettled in another country.

“There were many interviews that seemed like interrogations. They seemed like they were trying to force us to say something wrong,” he said.

Once he and his family and members of his extended family passed those interviews, he said, they were screened by U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials and representatives from other agencies.

“It was very difficult to get through this process to get to the U.S. It took us about two years,” he said. “And I know it can take longer, depending on the case.”

In 2009, Dhan and his family finally flew to Grand Rapids, Mich., where they were helped by Bethany Christian Services to find a home, a job, schooling for their children, and classes to help them speak English.

Dhan said they also soon found a church in West Michigan where he was able to do what he had long hoped for — be baptized.

Still, as wonderful as their new life was, it “was a tremendous culture shock. We came from abject poverty to unbelievable luxury. Instead of sleeping on a dirt floor, I had to get used to a spongy mattress,” said Dhan.

He found a job as a front-desk receptionist at Bethany, “which I did with a lot of joy,” he said, and Bethany has promoted him into different positions ever since.

“I’m thankful to Bethany and the church [where he was baptized] for the wonderful support and love and help they showed, which will remain in my heart forever.”

Dhan also is grateful for being able to become a U.S. citizen in 2015.

“America gave us our life back, our home back, and everything that we have now,” he said. “We feel safe here in America.”

But beyond that, he said, he hopes and prays that the U.S. will keep its doors open to welcome other refugees.

“Our God wants us to reach out to the poor and the needy, to the desperate ones, and give them a better life. Many in the world still need this, and I pray for them,” said Dhan.