June 8, 2012
A world away from Bhutan: A former school principal straddles dual identities as he settles with his children in Maryland suburb
| By Heather Caygle |
After graduating from college and struggling for two years, Kharananda Rizal took all the money he had—which was $20—and started a boarding school for children in a rural area. Rizal used this small amount of money to buy five pairs of tables and benches to serve as desks and used the rest of the money to rent a classroom.
By the end of the first month, he had 30 students, all of which he taught himself. When he had saved enough to start construction on a new school building, at night, after classes were over, Rizal would haul bricks up the stairs on his back for laborers to use the next morning.
Now the school, started 18 years ago, has more than 1,000 students and is one of the best schools in its region based on academics.
Rizal’s story, of starting from nothing and building a successful school using his brain and his hands, seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream.
Except Rizal didn’t do those things in America. He started his school in Nepal, after being forced to leave everything he owned in his home country of Bhutan and live in a refugee camp for two years. Now living in America, Rizal, who is college educated and speaks perfect English, works the night shift as a cashier at a gas station to make ends meet.
“Now I work at a gas station instead of getting a good night’s sleep,” Rizal said, reflecting on his 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift.
Bhutanese forced to flee
After coming home from college in 1992, Rizal returned to his family’s farm in Bhutan, a small country sandwiched between India and China, to find his parents missing. He left everything behind, including the family house, land and animals, to relocate to a refugee camp with his parents in Nepal.
Rizal and his family weren’t alone. In the early 1990s, more than 100,000 Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese descent, most of whom were Hindu, were exiled by the country’s Buddhist regime, to neighboring Nepal.
Many refugees languished in camps in Nepal until the United Nations started a resettlement program in 2007. Since then, more than 50,000 refugees have been resettled, about 85 percent of which come to the United States, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In late 2011, Rizal jumped at the chance to come to America with his three children. Now living in an apartment complex in Riverdale, Md., he’s one of almost 400 Bhutanese refugees living in the area, according to Laxman Dulal who works for the Association of Bhutanese in America, an organization that tries to help settle refugees in the U.S.
Dulal said resettlement services are desperately needed to help many of the refugees, who lived in camps for almost two decades and can’t speak English.
“The language barrier is the biggest issue. Also, people don’t have much resources to begin their life with and some develop a sense of dependency syndrome after living in refugee camps for 20 years,” Dulal said.
Rizal is different from many Bhutanese refugees. He was educated in English and because of that, was able to move out of the refugee camps and start his boarding school. Even with that advantage, so far, finding his place in the U.S. has been a struggle.
After working as a teacher and principal for almost two decades, he hoped to find a similar job in America. He considers himself too educated for jobs commonly offered to refugees, such as working in factories, but has been unable to find a job as a teacher in the United States.
“It’s very difficult for me to get a job here. Right now I just feel in-between,” he said. While he said he is thankful for the job at the gas station, he hopes to find something similar to what he was doing in Nepal soon.
Dulal said its common for refugees who were educated and successful in Bhutan and Nepal to experience the same despair and inability to find work that Rizal is coping with.
“There are lawyers and professors doing clerical work. I think it’s quite usual and it’s sad,” Dulal said. “The United States is better for people who are uneducated because they are ready to do any kind of job.”
Juggling work as Mr. Mom
Since arriving from Nepal four months ago, Rizal has had to serve as both mom and dad to his three children — son Divesh, 17, and two daughters, Priya, 13, and Poonyashila, 9.
After originally saying his wife couldn’t come because she was a Nepalese citizen, Rizal later admitted that they made the mutual decision for her to stay in Nepal so she could continue to run their boarding school.
Bhutanese refugees by the numbers
Total number of refugees: 110,000
United Nations resettlement program: Started in November 2011
Number of refugees settled in U.S. (as of 2011): 45,752
Number of refugees in Maryland: 1,114
Refugees left in Nepal (as of Jan. 12): 56,710
Source: UN Refugee Agency, U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement
“We deliberately decided to keep her back so the school could go on. Also it would give us a chance to see how our life here is, in case it wasn’t satisfactory, we could return,” Rizal said, explaining that he had been afraid their choice would seem callous.
The decision didn’t come without heartbreak, though.
“It is very difficult, indeed, without her, but we are managing somehow. For the good of our children, we had to compromise,” he said. “I still feel like I made a good decision. The feeling that our children have a better future drove me.”
While Rizal talks about the difficulties of living in America without his wife, his 13-year-old daughter Priya sits on the couch, with the family computer, which displays screen grabs collected during family video-chats with their mother. Priya scrolls through picture after picture of her mom, in beautiful patterned dresses, looking into her computer screen as her two daughters, husband and son smile back, thousands of miles away.
Dulal, from the Association of Bhutanese in America, estimates that out of the 75 Bhutanese families in the Riverdale area, 10 are what he calls “divided,” which is when an important family member is still in Nepal.
For the Rizal family, the adjustment has been hard. Priya has had to take on some of her mother’s household roles including cooking dinner, preparing tea and cleaning the house. Also, now that Rizal works the night shift, he often makes it home after his children have left for school so the kids have to work together to get ready in the morning and make sure they don’t miss the bus.
One thing hasn’t changed, though. Rizal used to wake his son up every morning for school by going into his room at 6 a.m. Now, since his dad can’t be there most mornings, Divesh sleeps with a cell phone on his pillow and Rizal calls right at 6. It’s their way of keeping some traditions intact, even with modification.
Going back to Nepal
Over a bowl of ramen noodles with fresh onions and tomato, curry and chili powders, Rizal’s eyes light up when he talks about returning to Nepal.
“This time next year, I hope to go to Nepal for a few days,” he said, while sipping milky tea. He had just woken up from a nap after working all night and had tired eyes and weary speech– until the topic of his former country was brought up.
Rizal said while America has always been a “dreamland” for him, he misses his previous life. He misses moments like sitting with his son Divesh on the roof of their house during May and June, and eating mango after fresh mango in the pouring rain.
He also misses his wife and his father, 87, who calls often begging him to come home one last time. In Nepal, Rizal’s parents lived with him and he took care of them, calling it his “moral duty.” His mother passed away, but now that Rizal is in America, he said his father has a very hard time coping without him there.
“He’s struggling hard,” Rizal said.
He also misses his school, the achievement he worked so hard for, that meant so much to him he was willing to let his wife stay behind to look after it. He just couldn’t trust anyone else. For Rizal, though, the thing that matters most is making sure his children have the best future possible, something he said he thinks could be achieved only in America.
“For me, my school is one achievement and my children’s future is another,” he said. “America is for my children.”