Sudarshan Pyakurel

Sudarshan Pyakurel is the executive director of the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio (BCCO). He and his family escaped from the systematic and forcible exile of the Lhotshampa people of South Bhutan in 1992 and spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He resettled in the U.S. and moved to Cleveland in 2010. He now resides outside of Columbus and, besides supporting refugees and immigrants with resettlement support, continues to advocate for linguistically- and culturally-relevant mental health services for underserved communities like his own as well as the active preservation of the Lhotshampa history.

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Sudarshan and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 22, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.

Ruth Chang (RC): Tell me about yourself. So where were you born? What was it like growing up where you were?

Sudarshan Pyakurel (SP): So I was born in Bhutan and I spent my first 11 years in Bhutan. I have a good memory of where I was born. I attended a primary school in Bhutan, but I didn’t complete the primary education because the schools were shut down in the ’90s. I was born in a rural village called Surrey. We are primarily rice farmers all from the rural countryside — all refugees who end up coming here; my parents were one of them. The only year that I remember, maybe ’85, ’86 or ’87, is when I started going to school, and everything was normal. Just like every other kid would go to school, we would attend school and come home, help parents do chores, and try to understand farming because we were pretty much a farming community. 

Things began to get a little bit murky in the late 1980s. As you know, we were still young and didn’t figure out what was happening, but there was ethnic tension in Bhutan. Ethnic tension was not so obvious and pronounced, but more so was an “illegitimate government prosecution” as my parents would translate it at the time. We were fearful of government officials, especially police in the army.

Then in the ’90s — I was in third grade at the time — full-fledged conflict broke out between the people who are living in the southern border of Bhutan and the government of Bhutan. What happened was, we were living in the southern part of Bhutan — we were minorities in some way. Bhutan, traditionally, a Buddhist country, was ruled by the Ngawang family. They have descended from Tibet in the 11th century, [and] were also outsiders in some ways. We also moved into Bhutan. The first official migration happened during the 1600s. But my ancestors, in particular, moved in the late 1800s when a lot of people from Nepal were in search of agricultural land; we were farmers, and so we needed more land. So for economic opportunity, we ended up going to Bhutan at that time. That reason, if you really pick into the history — it was under British control. But Nepal and Bhutan both were independent of a princely state and not directly under British control. And so, people would move from Bhutan to Nepal instead of going to India, because if you go to India, you will be subject to British rule — taxes and whatnot. So to avoid that, [there’s] this opportunity in Bhutan, where they don’t have to deal with the British. So, Bhutan was also opening to the outside world, and people were allowed to settle into southern Bhutan, primarily, clear the jungle, start farming, whatever you need to do. You were given a domicile as you show proof of land or possession of the land. So it’s where my ancestor got a domicile in return by having a piece of land and then having documentation. 

So, my grandfather was born in Bhutan. My father was born in Bhutan. I was born in Bhutan. We were Bhutanese in many many ways. And we do have some ethnic Nepali identity, but in Bhutan, we were referenced as Lhotshampa, which means people of the South.  We knew ourselves as a Lhotshampa people [rather] than Nepali people, and we spoke Nepali. We do still speak Nepali but had a Lhotshampa identity as southern Bhutanese. 

I didn’t understand the whole complicated nature. Even today, I didn’t understand why this conflict started. But in the ’90s, the government began to mobilize [the] army and police and began to arrest men specifically from the villages. Anyone who was older than 16 could be arrested for any reason. I wanted to give you a quick context: Bhutan imposed “one nation, one people” policy in 1985, and that policy dictates that every Bhutanese was a resident in Bhutan, or citizens need to follow a certain cultural code called Driglam Namzha. It’s a Dzongkha word or Bhutanese word Driglam Namzha, which means a national discipline. They begin to impose the ruling class’ cultural traditional language upon everybody else; although it’s a small country, but it’s very diverse. Like in the southern part, we were Nepali minorities. In the eastern part, there were Sharchops. And only in the western part, the ruling class was sort of dominant. But they began to sort of impose their culture, language, religion, way of life as a national discipline — as a national model. Those who don’t adhere to the national code of ethics, they will be punished and you will be punished for just crossing the highway without having a proper uniform. The proper uniform to wear is a Bhutanese dress, a traditional dress now. It’s ironic that their traditional dress comes from Tibet — we have nothing against the traditional dress — but that itself was designed in a very cold place and was meant to be worn in a very cold climate. And the southern part of Bhutan is a relatively warm and moist climate, and you cannot just survive having a big coat in southern Bhutan. So people could just, you know, wear half and you would be arrested. And then that prompted protest. People went into the street and said, “This is too much. You already took away our culture, identity and language. Now we have been arrested for no reason, just walking on the street or crossing the street.” When people peacefully protested and demanded the King for hearing, and asked the King for modification in that rule, Bhutan mobilized the army, and anyone who has seen, heard or accused of involvement in that peaceful protest was put into jail. You just have to be 16 years old. Then somebody just needs to say that you’re a 16-year-old who was in the protest, [and] you’d be arrested. 

Then the whole village turned into a ghost town. There are only women and children. Men either flee to the jungle or flee to India, if possible, or they were in jail. Imagine a village with just women and children, and then there are thugs coming in, we don’t know who, they would come to during the nighttime to loot, rape and all kinds of atrocity begin to happen; it became such a place that you would be entrapped. From my village’s perspective, it’s in the middle of the mountain so it will take a three-hour drive to the nearest town where you can access the outside world. Now, my parents will not be able to get out of the village because there’s only one road that leads to this town that goes to India and their checkpost and their armies. Now you’re essentially in the trap in the village. Somehow people begin to flee with some excuses, “I’m going for medical treatment, I’m going for shopping, I’m going for this and that.” And then the mass exodus of the people happened. We also fled because of the fear of the persecution. 

The other piece that may add to this story was, Bhutan did a national census in 1985. When they did the national census, they came up with the “one nation, one people” policy. And immediately after three years in 1988, they began to do another round of census just in southern Bhutan. And the census divided people into seven groups; they call it F1 to F7. So, this will give you an idea of how divisive that census was. So people were divided into seven groups, and only F1 were considered bona fide citizens. But to get that F1 status, you need to produce a certificate of origin. At the time I remember, it was called C.O., certificate of origin. But the government officers would deliberately not issue a certificate of origin to people who didn’t have increments and power to change their decision. And so many, like my dad was an educated person — he was a priest, he had influence, and somehow he was able to get his certificate of origin. My mom’s parents were from India. So obviously, she would not get the certificate of origin. But there are many I know, in my village, they were just everyday farmers. They wouldn’t be able to go to the office and produce this document, because [the government] has deliberately created a barrier in terms of gaining the certificate. 

My mom became F4. Now here’s the thing: my dad is F1, a bonafide citizen, he could stay in Bhutan, but my mom, being from India, was F4. We were eight siblings — all eight siblings and mom — nine of us were F4. Now my dad’s F1 would not give me the status to become F1. So wherever the weak point was, they would push towards that weak point and then push all the family. So my mom being a foreigner, and us being a foreigner because we were born to a foreign mother, we had ultimately two months to stay in Bhutan, or we had to pay a penalty. And if I was 16 at the time, I could be arrested for illegally staying. So I was 10. So my brother had to flee Bhutan immediately; he was turning 16. And so each family was divided in a very systematic way. 

So many families had no option but to leave. And so in 1992, we fled to India, stayed there for a week. It’s such an irony that I could have been technically half-Indian, but since we were fleeing Bhutan, the Indian police would prosecute us, because they were working hand-in-hand with the Bhutanese government. We had to flee overnight to Nepal. And it’s where we ended up going to a refugee camp. I spent 17 years in the refugee camp. The first two years were very tumultuous because we were from the mountains. And then we ended up going to plains, which was mosquito-ridden. And there were diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, cholera. People were just dying everywhere. It was quite a scene to survive even. I almost died myself because of cholera a number of times. There were many kids in my neighborhood at the time who didn’t survive. After surviving that camp life for 17-18 years, we were actually eager to go back to Bhutan, to be repatriated to Bhutan. But that offer never came to us. The only option that we had was to be resettled. In 2008 when the first resettlement started, and people began to come here, I came to Cleveland with my parents in 2010. And so that’s one section of the journey.  

RC: I think this is just a window into many experiences for people that you’re serving every day. Then after that, what was the experience like settling in Cleveland?

SP: When we resettled in Cleveland, there were many families coming from across the world. The first few months were sort of what they call the honeymoon phase, right? We were in America, and everything glittered, everything looked really great. We went places, and saw things. We had a free pass to use the local transportation. I thought, “Oh, America is amazing.” We realized that the support was only for three months. They call it the R&P period. And after three months were about to expire, the case manager called us and said, “Okay, you’re an adult, your time is up, you have to find a job immediately. Otherwise, we won’t be able to help you pay your bills and rent.” And so, I did start looking for a job…We were adults, and it wasn’t really an issue for me to even find a job and start, and I could speak English well. But I saw the issue with the community at the time; there are many who didn’t have any formal education at the time. America was just going through the economic recession; people didn’t have a job. And then this benefit ends any time, and [that’s when] I begin to do some activities to talk, advocating for people, helping them apply for jobs or go look for benefits and whatnot. 

My journey actually started in 2010 itself. In 2011, I started an organization in Cleveland to help fellow community members because we knew that the support was very, very limited. We were quickly pushed out to find a job and it was okay for me. I may have had a plan to go to college and whatnot, but I could postpone that for a short timing. But, I was one of the very few who had a college education prior to coming to the United States. And there were many who would not be able to even buy a ticket through a machine. To help them with basically just going to buy a ticket, applying for a job or going for an interview, and then whatnot — I started an organization called Overseas Witness Society in 2011, just to help community members. Now that organization — they changed the name, it’s called the Witness Committee of Greater Cleveland — it’s where my journey starts. I didn’t plan to be a community leader or an activist or whatever role I have now. At the time I thought this is just temporary, quick, few years. I would volunteer before I would go back to college, because I realized that I need to get a U.S. degree to be able to get a well-paying job. And that’s my short adventure into activism [that] ended up being my career for the last 10 or 12 years. 

I realized that people needed help, and for me to just leave that work and just thinking about myself felt like I was being selfish, and not helping my community members. I began to balance: I would do work part-time, I would go to school part-time and help people part-time. Then I got an opportunity to come to OSU for a small scholarship. So I moved to Columbus in 2014. I was attending college, and again, I was doing the same thing, working part-time, helping part-time in the community, and then go part-time in college. 

Then BCCO got the funding after they had run the organization for a year or two. They were looking for someone to run the organization and that person happened to be me somehow. So in 2016, they hired me as a director, and since then I’ve been in this position. This position requires a lot of skill, that in a way, you should at least know many things — you are a jack of all trades, master of none. You have to advocate. You have to be an activist. You have to do mental health counseling. You have to help [people] find job and whatnot. In the last 7-10 years, we have really evolved as an organization, as a community. We are [one of] very few fortunate refugee-led organizations that actually saw the refugees themselves. There are very few in the nation. I didn’t realize that we would be just a handful of refugee organizations that [are] serving their own fellow community members. In general, there are refugee-serving organizations, but these organizations are either run by someone who is mainstream, or they’re 200 years old or 100 years old as an organization. So, in that regard, BCCO has a very proud history. Although we’re a small organization with just private staff, but having that role and responsibility and being able to stand up for your community — it’s a big deal.

RC:  In the last seven years that you’ve been in this position, what are some things that you’ve learned as the executive, either about your own community or about the American community that they interface with?

SP: A whole deal of things. I think I had a complete transformation, I would say, in the last seven years in terms of understanding what America is, from benefits and how the system works to my own inner understanding about where I am at and what I could do and cannot do. There are so many things that I have to learn myself and adapt to American culture at the same time, thinking about preserving our own culture, what we need to do.

The bigger piece here was understanding mental illness. So back in 2011, my dad was struggling with mental health, and I didn’t understand mental health at the time as such. In 2013, he actually attempted suicide. We didn’t know that the case was so [bad]. He was a well-respected person. He was a priest. People would go to seek advice with him, and then he was in that miserable condition. My family wasn’t open to talk about it because there was so much stigma. There was so much misconception and misunderstanding about mental illness. In 2013, I had to really do Google search to understand what it is, and then at the time, we had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation of all ethnic communities — all ethnic refugees. So that was a call for me to understand mental illness. I began to focus more on understanding and treating mental illness and implementing that through my organization. We became sort of a mental health advocacy agency. 

In many ways, BCCO has evolved as a secondary cultural advocate in terms of mental health. We’ve done a great deal of work in that. I involved myself in mental health research. I had a couple of publications as a co-author in several journal articles, and ended up getting a [Master of Social Work] focusing on mental health. So that journey just gave a whole lot of perspective. Back in 2011, when I was planning to go to college, I was thinking to study philosophy. Actually, I studied anthropology as a second degree, to switch to philosophy, because I wanted to understand the world and whatnot. But in many ways, the calling was to become a social worker, become a mental health and therapist, and that’s what I have become. 

So that’s my own personal transformation. In trying to address an advocate for the community, I had to be one of the “experts” that initially I didn’t want. Because in America there’s so much misconception about mental illness, first. Second, whatever they have understood about mental illness is very limited to their own community culture and where they come from. One of the ironies is that even the mental health professionals are trying to, in many ways, use the same idea that they have implemented to the mainstream Americans with refugees and immigrants. It’s where I saw that it wasn’t working. Without a degree, they would not take me seriously. I have been saying the same thing five years now, and I was saying the same thing in 2017 and 2018, and nobody would listen to me. Now I have a U.S. degree and I’d say, “I’m an MSW, I focus on mental health and research,” and I would say the same thing that I was saying in 2015 and they would listen to me. That’s the irony of the American education system. 

So in that regard, that’s my transformation. I wasn’t necessarily looking to go back to college. Going back to college is a good thing; I encourage people to go back to college, actually. I helped start a student organization and we have a functioning student organization that promotes higher education in the community now. But, I already had a degree from India; I had a master’s degree, although I may or may not use a foreign degree here. So the master’s degree in mental health was a need — it was a call — because I do advocate for my people and understand myself what mental illness was. So that’s personal transformation. 

At the same time, I’d seen the community also transition. In 2014, 2015, people would be very hesitant to talk about mental illness. People would safeguard that in their family — “Oh, no, we don’t have this problem” — because it was associated with stigma. It was very complicated. Now people begin to come out — 2016, 2017 — people were asking for help. Now, it has really changed; even older populations understand that mental illness is a disease. 

What I’m planning to do next is hopefully get my license pretty soon, which I’m preparing. I wanted to be one of the therapists and start working in the community because we have to develop our own intervention strategy that’s more culturally and linguistically grounded. Although we can pick up a great deal of seeing from the mainstream culture, what I have understood is you need to develop your own intervention strategy based on your history, based on your culture, based on your lived experience. So, if I wanted to provide mental health services very unique to my community, I very honestly say that it will not apply to Afghans, it will not apply to Pakistanis, it will not apply to Somalians. You need to develop your own because mental health is such a complicated thing. Half of the illness is buried in your language, culture and your practices. So even a “mental health expert” has only limited capacity to understand mental illness in our community. We have to advocate to produce experts within the community, and then come up with a solution to address mental health in each of these communities. And so this is what my sort of the next move, I guess, would be.

RC: By becoming an expert of your own community, you’re discovering that there’s a huge gap that needs to be filled. I’m wondering, specifically to central Ohio, how this area’s infrastructure is set up — including even grocery stores — for the community to adapt and to live here?  What is it like on a day-to-day level?

SP: Central Ohio has become our second home in many ways. We have the largest Bhutanese-Nepali population anywhere outside Bhutan, which is estimated at around 30,000 in central Ohio, which is not a big number, but given a small population, over 92,000 of us were resettled in the United States. And out of those, 30,000 is in central Ohio, which is the largest in the United States. So we adopted and made central Ohio our home. We have many amazing businesses run by community fellows, entrepreneurs — from grocery stores to jewelers to restaurants. In my last survey, I think we had — it’s not formal, but informally — we had around 122 businesses in central Ohio that are very ethnic and provide ethnic foods and things like that. So there are many businesses: home health care, daycare, and whatnot. 

The new generations are moving into more entrepreneurial things. People are even buying land to do farming; we have a rye farm. Rye is a last name in Nepali. A variety of things, including we run a Nepali newspaper here in central Ohio. I think this is the only newspaper that we have in the whole United States. So there’s an appetite — a space — for this kind of thing. 

But we are nowhere from achieving what we wanted to achieve here in the United States, to feel like “This is our home, this is where I belong.” But I think to some extent, we have achieved that goal in the last 10 years. I think we’re just amazing, given the amount of challenges that we have to face as immigrants, as refugees, as Asians and as minorities here in America. But despite the roadblocks and challenges, people are giving their best to where they found their homes — contributing through taxes, by starting business, or by working and being fully employed, by buying homes. In our estimates, in central Ohio alone, when I did my last number, there were 3,000 families who bought homes. I think now, we are close to around 5,000 families owning homes in central Ohio. The average price per house was $187,000 – $200,000 in central Ohio. If you just calculate just the taxes paid on home purchases, my community alone contributes over $22 million just in buying homes in central Ohio. 

And in 2019, 2020, the resettlement agency and the New American Economy, which is a bipartisan think tank, did a survey across the United States, including Columbus, Ohio. They came up with the data that immigrants and refugees together contribute $2.1 billion in central Ohio. But refugees alone contribute almost a billion dollars annually, just in tax and services. So of that, at least one-third comes from our community alone. This isn’t an official figure, but based on the population and in the business we have, we have calculated that every year my community is contributing almost $300 million in revenues and contributions. That’s a huge contribution to central Ohio. But despite this contribution, refugee voices are often unheard. Now refugee voices are often sidelined, our grievances are hardly met. And there’s still so much to do. 

Back in 2020, when at the height of the pandemic, unfortunately, two of my community fellows were attacked. They were looking like Asian; both of them were attacked at their individual house. The local media somehow covered that news but didn’t cover fully what happened and things like that. People, those who are still lower income, are living in very deplorable housing conditions. When we advocate for that one, there’s barely a voice to support that from the city and whatnot. So we still have a long struggle to go, despite the fact that we are contributing so much to the local economy and giving back. Obviously, we are thankful, too, because I’m not saying that we’re being demanding or anything like that. We’re obviously thankful we got a chance to be resettled here. We were obviously in a very precarious situation in a refugee camp. We are mindful of that. But having said that, I just talk in my viewpoint about equity — as citizens, as residents — everybody should be treated fairly and equally, not necessarily Bhutanese, whether it’s Somali, whether it’s Pakistani, or whether it’s Latino. All working men, women — everybody should be given a fair opportunity as citizens, as residents. That’s what we are lagging behind in Ohio specifically.

RC: What are some ways that you represent yourself in the community? How is that celebrated or communicated amongst the mainstream Ohioan community?

SP: That is something we are still working on. We haven’t achieved that one. I think all refugee resettlement agencies and immigrant serving agencies need to come together to create that atmosphere. But also what I have found is the mainstream community, to some extent, is okay – but they aren’t fully open and welcoming. They have their own reservation. Obviously, our fellows are new. They have trauma issues. They have to understand the culture. They have to navigate so many things and they don’t have time to explore and know the bigger culture. The bigger culture not being so welcoming and not being so open-minded really leaves a gap in these two communities. 

So people are mainly living within the inner city or at least the suburb. They just mind their own business, go to work, go to shop, go to the hospital and then come home. That’s the first generation because they are fearful of being discriminated [against] in the streets. I think it’s our opportunity to educate the mainstream community, as well. It’s where media plays a huge role. For example, the idea that every year immigrants contribute $2.1 billion. This is bipartisan research. How many people really know about this? They think refugees and immigrants are a burden to them, whatever that perception is. But instead, The Migration Institute, which is a national advocacy agency, had put together almost 50 years of data of immigrants and refugees coming to the United States, that they have tremendously contributed to this nation-building through taxes and whatnot. So, there’s overwhelming support of how refugees contribute, not only financially, but also culturally. In terms of preparing that second generation of workforce. 

You know, Intel moving into central Ohio is not just a random lottery door. They did a calculation, well thought out, because they’re investing $20 billion and they will not just randomly invest because of emotion or patriotism. They knew because there is a workforce in central Ohio. Who is the workforce in central Ohio? This large growing body of immigrants and refugees who are poised to succeed. We’re working hard every night, every day, their children are going to school to strive and get an opportunity. They are becoming engineers and doctors. So, they’ve well-calculated this. And now they want to tap this population. I’m working with the Central Ohio Technical College and they are devoted to developing the first line of engineers to work in Intel and subsidiaries. They are reaching out to organizations like mine. Why are they reaching out to organizations like mine? Because they knew that this is a hard-working population. It’s a higher retention rate. They would get what they needed out of it. And so, we are tremendously changing the culture; we are changing the economy; we are changing the whole landscape itself. But our suffering goes on unheard. I don’t know how to put that into perspective, but that’s the struggle. As a leader, I have to reckon myself many times: is my community given a full justice or not for what they have given back to the mainstream community? 

RC: Looking at the second generation — what is the vision for your children, their children, and their role in American society?

SP: Although I’m a very optimistic person — I go to bed optimistic, and I try to wake up optimistic every single day; optimism is my fuel for the work that I do — but when I think about the future, sometimes I see gloomy pictures, as well. I don’t have my own children yet. But I have my sibling’s children, and my friend’s children. My community, they are like my children. And sometimes it worries me. Not because they won’t be able to fend for themselves, or be able to support themselves, but the way America is becoming. It was once called a melting pot. but now it seems to be breaking apart. There’s a divide every single time we see it: politically, socially, religiously, people are being divided. And so in this division, do my little children or the children who are growing up, do they have a future in America? Will they be able to live a happy, prosperous life? Or will they have to struggle trying to identify themselves as they’re trying to grab an opportunity to make a living? Will there be another wave of political uprising from the right, that would push people like me and scare them to cushion their own existence and identity in America? And so this is something that I think about. 

But as I said, I am an optimistic person. I think America will move in the right direction. But sometimes you have to take a look into those factors also very seriously and try to analyze it, because this could happen. I am currently living outside Columbus temporarily. Today I drove to come here, and where I live, it’s countryside. And yesterday, I was at the Kroger grocery store, and some of the men who were coming out from their big truck would look at you like you’re some kind of a non-human creature — sort of the look that you can see, the way they stare at you. And that does not frighten me personally. In many ways I don’t give a d*** to that kind of perspective or narrative. But, that’s a real energy that we have to reckon with… It’s a small town, an hour drive from here, but they do have a brown doctor. They do have a brown technician in the town. They may have a brown engineer working there. And these people are coming from some other countries. And I thought to myself, “If you wanted a brown doctor to treat you, if you want an Indian doctor to treat you, if you want a Nigerian doctor to treat you, if you want an East Asian technician to come and work for you, you cannot afford to hit a brown man in the street. Because you are not doing your own job yourself. Somebody needs to come here.” That’s one thing, right? If you need to go see a doctor and if your doctor is a brown person, you should be able to really to digest a brown man in the street — that could be your doctor or your teacher, or your professor. 

And I had other encounters as well, where they’ve said, “Go back to your country,” and things like that. And I said, “Okay, well if you could create a land in an island, then you can claim that one.” From that perspective, I wanted to talk to my children: This is a country of immigrants. This is a country for someone who follows the rules, who pays the taxes, but everybody has a right whether the future will go to the right or left direction. You have to be ready to defend yourself. You may or may not have a peaceful, prosperous future. But I’m optimistic. Hopefully, everything will be resolved; the differences will be addressed. But the worst case scenario, we have to be prepared [for]. 

How do you prepare your children to listen? It is to teach them their history. Teach them where they come from, teach them their values and ask them to preserve those things. Not because you wanted to pack up and go back, but there is a treasure trophy hidden, if things get worse. There are survival tools and skills knowing your history with surviving refugee camps. Just this morning when I was driving here, one of my colleagues called me and we had a conversation, because we had a small community center in the same place. We were primarily discussing that we were given 5.5 kilos of rice, and maybe one kilo of a small ration to survive in refugee camp. And we survived, not only survived, in refugee camp — we had a school, we had hospitals, we built community centers. Whether these are temporary, whether those are made out of bamboo or sticks, it doesn’t matter. We had a community center. We had a temple. We had a cultural place to go there in the refugee camp. And so, we were discussing the dream for this community center that we are working on right now to have a replica there so that they can remember how we survived those 18 years, 20 years in that deprivation and still, we did well. We get the education that we need to. When we came to America we were speaking English. Some of us went into college. Some of us went into not only college, but did so well. I have a colleague, a friend, a community fellow, whatever we call it — he came to the United States and went into university, got a Ph.D. in physics. Now he’s a scientist in NASA, a first-generation refugee. I have younger brothers and sisters in my community who are at Ivy League schools. And these fellows didn’t come out of nowhere. They were prepared in a refugee camp. So that is the legacy that we have to leave behind for our generation’s children to look into it. Look, deprivation is one thing, but if you’re determined, and if you have a willpower, you can survive anywhere. We wanted to preserve the idea of where we came from in a resource center, for them to take a look back and see, this is our past. And if our parents, our ancestors did this, if need be, we can do it.


RC: Okay, one last question, then. Tell me about one memory of what you remember.

SP: Oh, I have many, many, many amazing memories. Yeah, one memory of Bhutan was when there was no school, I would help my parents. What I could do as a nine-year-old is I would help them take care of the animals. So during the off-time, we would take animals to the jungle, to the forest. And you’d find an amazing amount of fruits in the forest. And it was very fun, like mangoes — you name it — varieties of fruits in the jungle. You will come home, your stomach full. That’s the fun thing. Anytime, if you feel like there’s a natural swimming pool, you just go deep. That’s the cleanest water that ever you can find. And if you’re hungry, you should know how to forage a little bit into the jungle, and you will find enough things to eat. I think that’s an amazing memory that I had when I think about Bhutan. That’s what I think all the time, depending on what season. I was nine at the time, and we already knew so much about the forest and what we could forage and drink and have a picnic each day while taking care of the animals. That’s something that I think I preserve in my mind as a way to — sometimes when I do meditation, and you want to relax and find a place in your mind, that’s my place in my mind. That’s the most relaxing place in my mind. Despite having some difficult memories in Bhutan, it still gives me a chance to pick into my childhood and feel like I’m in Bhutan still.

RC: That’s a part of your memory. That home. 

SP: Yes.