Bhutanese refugee captures experience of refugee in diary

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WORCESTER (AP) >> He thought he had nothing to say. After all, helping support a family of 11, translating for local refugees and taking a full course load meant Ganesh Gurung was unfamiliar with the pop culture his journalism classmates reviewed for assignments.

But Mr. Gurung, 33, found he could tell his own story, publishing "A Bhutanese Refugee's Resettlement Diary" in his university's literary magazine as an education exercise for himself and for the Worcester community.

"I want to write more about the things that will help our youth to get connections to the different offices, so they can find helpful resources in the city," said Mr. Gurung, whose work appears in the Worcester State University online news and literary magazine The New Worcester Spy. "I want to write more about the facts of people being resettled and what are the challenges they are facing."

Mr. Gurung and his family fled Bhutan in 1990 when he was 9 during the Bhutanese government's "One Nation One People" campaign, a nationalist movement targeting Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, a community that had been living in Bhutan since the 1600s.

Mr. Gurung and his family, who identify as Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, eventually settled in a 20-by-16-foot bamboo hut in a refugee camp in Nepal, where Mr. Gurung would live for the next two decades. A good student, Mr. Gurung taught in the camp school and used his salary for tuition at Tribhuvan University, where he received the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.

On Aug. 30, 2012, Mr. Gurung and his family arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, then moved to Worcester in May 2015. Mr. Gurung's intelligence and English skills have made him a go-to translator and liaison for people in the local Bhutanese refugee community.

But Mr. Gurung said he realized he could help his community even more by improving his English and earning a college degree. So in January he enrolled at Worcester State University.

It was "a struggle," he said. Financial aid, terms such as "freshmen and sophomore" and the educational expectations were completely different than in Nepal, Mr. Gurung said.

He has other commitments as well. He works weekends to help support his extended family, attends school meetings for his niece and nephew because his brother (their father) doesn't speak English, and is a director in the Bhutanese Community of Massachusetts Inc. in Worcester.

It didn't leave much time to absorb the popular culture his Interpretive Reporting classmates wrote about in art and movie reviews.

"The students over here, they talk about different political issues, cartoons, movies, arts, I don't have the knowledge about those things," Mr. Gurung said.

But with the encouragement of his professor, Hugh "Cleve" Wiese, Mr. Gurung took the common advice for writers to "write what you know."

"He was talking to me about the Nepalese-Bhutanese community in Worcester and his experience, and I felt it was a story that hadn't been told, that people weren't aware of, and I thought, that would be great," said Mr. Wiese, an assistant professor at Worcester State. "Even though it wasn't exactly what the class had been focused on, he started writing about that, and it was wonderful."

It is a powerful story.

Mr. Gurung shares moments of deep pain and sorrow — discussing suicide among the refugee community and the desperation of a refugee camp. But he also demonstrates optimism and amazement at what many might consider some banal aspects of America.

In an entry comparing Nepalese and American higher education, for instance, Mr. Gurung concludes with a plea that Nepalese universities "justify the enduring affection of those students who risk their lives to reach the schools by crossing a huge river on single cable rope way."

But what is "the most amazing of all" demonstrations of the "very strict" and serious American college system? "Smoke free, Breathe easy" signs around Worcester State buildings, which Mr. Gurung said "reflects the discipline and best policies of the college management."

"The way he writes has a unique gravity that comes from his experience, but he has a way of wording things," said Mr. Wiese. "He is still mastering English, but he has an innate ability with language, and he is getting better and better at adapting that to English."

The stories are also — while intensely personal — generally relatable.

Few people have endured Mr. Gurung's experience of being considered Nepalese by the government of Bhutan, Bhutanese by the government of Nepal, and now a Bhutanese refugee and resident in the United States. Like many, he writes about the search for identity, particularly in the first semester at a new school.

Unlike others, his rock band began in a refugee camp and now rehearses via Skype because its members have been resettled across America. But how many people can relate to music as a way to "bring light in times of a crippling situation," as Mr. Gurung writes.

Mr. Gurung said his goal for his future writing is simple.

"I just want to get all the knowledge that I can to share with my community, newcomers and friends," Mr. Gurung said. "I'm going to write more articles."

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester), http://www.telegram.com


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