Emory Report
August 31, 2009
Volume 62, Number 2


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August 31, 2009
Bhutan refugee finds Shangri-La in Atlanta

By Kirsten Tagami

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is a spectacularly beautiful place, hailed by some as the “last Shangri-La.” But the tiny country also has generated one of the highest numbers of refugees in proportion to its population. Thousands of people from Bhutan’s ethnic minorities have been forced into refugee camps in nearby Nepal or into exile in India, Australia, the United States or other countries.

Tulasi Ghimirey, an animal care technician at the Emory School of Medicine, is one of the more fortunate of the Bhutanese refugees. Although he spent several years in a refugee camp — his parents are still there — he has been able to start a new life in Atlanta with his wife, also a refugee.

Ghimirey was one of the first refugees from Bhutan to settle in Georgia. In 2003, when he began working at Emory, there were only four Bhutanese in metro Atlanta, he says. Ghimirey has become a helping force, volunteering in the city’s growing Bhutanese community. Through the CDC Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, he helps orient new arrivals, translates for older folks who don’t speak English and helped organize a large volunteer effort to provide warm clothes, used computers and other crucial supplies for newly arrived refugees. The group is made up of volunteers from the Centers for Disease Control and members of the Emory community, plus those in the Indian, Nepali and Jewish communities, he says.

There currently are about 2,000 Bhutanese people in Georgia, and Ghimirey estimates that another 10,000 eventually will join them. Like Ghimirey, many of the refugees are Lhotshampas, people of Nepali descent who lived in the southern part of Bhutan. Most are Hindu, while Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist. In 1985, the ruling elite declared Lhotshampas to be non-citizens and forbade them from speaking their own language or practicing their religion.

Life was peaceful for Ghimirey before all the turmoil began. He grew up on his family’s 35-acre mountainside farm, tending crops and caring for goats and cattle when he wasn’t in school. The steep mountains, near the border with India, are blanketed with rhododendrons and orange trees that bloom in the fall. When Ghimirey was 18, he completed a 9-month training and got a job teaching schoolchildren in a rural part of Bhutan.

“Many people in the remote areas don’t have much respect for education,” he says. “I offered to teach the parents side-by-side with their children so they could see whether it was worthwhile. It wasn’t unusual to hear deep voices in my classroom.” His pupils helped supplement his income with rice, vegetables and whatever else they could bring from home.

By 1990, many Lhotshampas were becoming frustrated with the government’s repression and began to hold peaceful demonstrations. The Royal Bhutan Army responded by randomly arresting people, saying they had participated in illegal demonstrations, Ghimirey recalls. The army shut down schools and used them as jails, where they conducted violent, sometimes fatal, interrogations, he says.

Ghimirey was arrested and brutally beaten after visiting his family during an annual festival. Luckily, one of the soldiers recognized Ghimirey as his former teacher and helped him escape. He made his way to India but missed his family, he says. Before long, he moved to Nepal where the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had established camps, which still exist today. He lived in the camps for several years before seeking asylum in the U.S.

Ghimirey is grateful for his job in the School of Medicine. He is trying to help other Bhutanese refugees find employment that doesn’t require a college degree. “The philosophy of people in Bhutan is that everybody has to work,” he says. “We have a saying: ‘work is worship.’”