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Ghanashyam Gautam ’18 and Govinda Kharel ’18 have loved soccer since childhood. While their devotion to the game has remained constant, their ball has not.

Today, when the college sophomores play intramural soccer on campus, they kick around an expertly crafted, store-bought ball. But as children, Gautam and Kharel had to forge their own from the plastic, socks and string they found in the trash heaps of the refugee camp they called home.

Gautam and Kharel spent the first decade of their lives in a sprawling refugee camp in Nepal, after their families were driven from nearby Bhutan by government-sponsored ethnic persecution.

Now at Albright, these students are determined to build a brighter future for themselves and their families. While the road hasn’t been easy, Gautam, a computer science major, and Kharel, a digital media/finance major, count themselves lucky to have a powerful motivation to succeed, and to have found refuge in America.

“I see my parents working and I appreciate everything I have. I know how hard life is,” says Gautam, an aspiring computer programmer. “The United States is a place where you have all the opportunities you need.”

That’s why it’s so difficult for the pair to hear about the plight of today’s refugees, particularly those from Syria, and the mounting discrimination and restrictions they face.

“One or two people mess up and the whole group suffers. Not all refugees are bad,” says Gautam, who is especially disturbed by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the country. “People from Syria have been through so much. I’ve been through (the immigration) process. It’s thorough.”

Gautam and Kharel’s remarkable journey was recently captured in the documentary “American Dreamer,” produced by the nonprofit media website The Philadelphia Citizen, and framed around the Syrian refugee debate.

Life in the Camp

Where are you from? It’s a question Gautam and Kharel struggle to answer.

“We’re refugees from Nepal. We were born there but we’re not from Nepal,” says Gautam.

They prefer to be called Bhutanese-Americans, though neither has ever set foot in the Himalayan nation sandwiched between India and China.

In the late 1980s, Bhutan’s ruling Buddhists sought to establish a single national identity. Ethnic Nepali, who had lived in Bhutan for generations but in many cases continued to practice Hinduism and observe their own customs, did not fit this plan. The government denied their citizenship. Violence and other forms of persecution led to about 100,000 people fleeing to Nepal to seven refugee camps established by the United Nations to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis.

The Gautam and Kharel families were among the displaced.

Both families settled in the same camp, which was where Gautam and Kharel were born, amongst thatched-roof huts with dirt floors, bamboo beds and no electricity.

“My family came late to the camp” and didn’t have a hut right away, says Kharel. “They had to live for six months out in the open.”

As boys, Gautam and Kharel queued for hours for food and water. They attended school but supplies were so scarce that they played games for the chance to win notebooks.

By the mid-2000s, after more than a decade in the camp, their families heard about a chance to leave, though not back to Bhutan. The U.N. had launched a program to resettle the refugees in several countries, with the United States accepting the highest numbers.

finding-refuge2

“My brother brought home a paper about immigrating to America,” recalls Kharel, “but my father tore it up.” He didn’t want to start over, again. “We finally convinced him.”

A 2008 fire that ripped through their camp, destroying thousands of homes and driving many residents into the forest, also helped persuade the reluctant.

Through the resettlement program, most of the refugees living in the camps have been relocated; only two of the original camps remain, with fewer than 18,000 residents, according to a 2015 U.N. report.

Shreeyash Palshikar, Ph.D., assistant professor of world history at Albright and an expert on South Asia., says the Bhutanese resettlement was never as controversial as today’s proposals to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Compared to the sudden advent of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Bhutanese refugee crisis built over time, with the refugees living in camps in Nepal for over a decade while talks between Nepal and Bhutan tried to
resolve the situation in other ways,” says Palshikar.

In fact, he adds, Bhutanese resettlement stirred the most debate within the refugee community itself, with some advocating for repatriation to Bhutan. “Even after making it to the United States, the community has faced hardship adapting to life.”

Life in America

The Gautam family left first, landing in Boise, Idaho, in 2008. Kharel’s family arrived in San Diego the following year.

“There was a huge plane. I was so scared. A girl fainted when she saw it,” recalls Kharel.

Gautam describes those first few days in America as surreal: “I had a huge bed, just for me, and an alarm clock. That was a luxury. My first food was Sunny-D. It was the best drink I ever had and I still love it.”

Kharel was awed by California’s fruit, but resisted eating any. In the camp, children only ate fruit when they were ill.

Neither Gautam nor Kharel spoke English when they arrived. Gautam picked up the language watching television shows such as “Curious George.” Kharel struggled in school and faced ridicule. “I’ve had a lot of hard times with teasing,” he says. “But I feel that’s what makes me strong, the person I am today. So I thank them for doing it.”

The childhood pals were reunited in Philadelphia after their families relocated to the city, home to a sizeable and close-knit Bhutanese refugee community.

Although Gautam and Kharel assimilated fairly quickly, their parents have not. So the sons assumed the traditional parental responsibilities such as managing the finances and guiding their families through the healthcare system.

College Bound

Watching their parents work long hours in factories, struggling to make ends meet, reinforced the importance of a college education.

Our parents made a great sacrifice and things are better now. But we can’t stop there. We have to be the generation that moves forward,” says Gautam. “I want my parents to enjoy life. Our only duty is to repay them.”

Both joined the Upward Bound program, which helps prepare high school students from low-income families for college. They attended summer and weekend classes and learned how to fill out financial aid forms.

The friends didn’t want to be separated again and sought to attend the same school. After visiting Albright, they found their home. “You come here and you’re part of a community,” says Gautam.

Their experiences often pervade their class assignments, from personal essays to digital art projects. For his “Computer Graphics and Art Design” course, Kharel combined scenes from the refugee camp with his home in San Diego.

“He was hesitant at first to share, but his pride in his culture was always evident,” says course instructor Kate Perkins. “The simple visual contrast in living conditions, let alone the invisible language and cultural variations he faced as a young teenager, are daunting.”

Though Gautam and Kharel have traveled far, they haven’t forgotten their origins.

“I’m not going to stop dreaming about the good life, but I just want to be happy,” says Kharel. “My goals are simple – achieve, be an example.”

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