In English class for Bhutanese refugees, a teacher provides more than vocabulary lessons

| By Kate Flynn |

When asked where his home is, Laxman Dulal, 27, takes a lengthy pause to consider his answer.

His home is not Nepal, where he lived with his family for seven years, largely confined to a crowded refugee camp. Bhutan, the place where he was born, also seems unlikely — he left when he was six, and barely remembers his life there.

“For the sake of identity, I would say Bhutan,” says Dulal, who is tall and wears his American T-shirt and jeans comfortably. “In fact, it is a big challenge for us to say, ‘Who am I?’ ”

Dulal came to the United States four years ago. He and his family were some of the first refugees from Bhutan to be resettled in Riverdale, Md., by the International Rescue Committee. The original exodus from his home country followed what Dulal describes as an “ethnic cleansing,” perpetrated by a Buddhist regime intent on driving out Hindu citizens.

Dulal’s own father, a literate businessman and leader in their small agricultural town in Bhutan, was taken to prison for nine months and tortured.

“The government wanted to know what is going on in this community,” Dulal says of the reasons for his father’s torture. “He was released under terms that he would leave the country in seven days.”

Bhutan is small, roughly the size of Maryland itself, and nestled between China, India and Nepal. Close to third of the country’s population resettled in refugee camps in Nepal in the early 1990s, where many of them spent the next 20 years. Starting in 2008, 50,000 refugees were resettled in the United States from the camps, with about 75 families settling in the same gated apartment complex, Parkvew Gardens, in Riverdale.

Dulal, who went to college in India and speaks English well, is an employee of the Association of Bhutanese in America. It’s his job to ensure that the refugees, many of whom speak minimal English, learn how to use the bus system and know where to go to buy groceries.

“People don’t have a sense of much responsibility,” he says. “They have dependency syndrome. People have been living in these camps for so many years—it takes them a couple of years to get rid of those syndromes.”

Dulal, who lives elsewhere, says that he makes a trip to Parkview Gardens almost every day of the week. On Sunday mornings, he and his wife, Maya Mishra, teach some of the older refugees, who range from middle-aged to elderly, how to speak English.

‘My name is…’

It’s raining steadily on this particular Sunday morning, and because of this, Mishra says that many of the students may not come today. Nevertheless, she and Dulal pull folding chairs from a stack resting against the wall and set them up in neat rows facing the front of the room, where a small whiteboard is propped up on a folding table.

The class is held in a small community room in the apartment complex, so the students don’t have far to travel. One by one, they trickle in, folding their hands together and murmuring “Namaste” by way of greeting. One woman carries her notebook and pencil in a crumpled, plastic McDonald’s bag. All are dressed in brightly colored traditional clothing, punctuated, here and there, by a few too-big sport coats and bomber jackets.

Mishra takes her place at the front of the class. She, like her husband, studied in India, and has been speaking English for years. She’s much younger than her pupils, and as she begins the lesson in rapid Nepalese, they stop speaking amongst themselves and turn their attention toward her. They pass around a sign-in sheet and painstakingly print their names in English—Jaja Rai, Ganga Devi.

Mishra explains that the students are going to introduce themselves in English, and one by one, they stand up and state their name, address and where they live. Some of them need gentle reminders to say their apartment number or the road they live on. When each one sits down, their classmates applaud them.

Today’s lesson starts off with money. Mishra holds up paper bills and asks the class what denomination they are, and they answer in unison, as best they can. She also teaches them how to set up a basic addition problem, writing it on the board and circling around the room to see if each student has copied it correctly into their notebook.

“Tiksa!” she exclaims when she is pleased — the Nepalese word for “good.”

According to Dulal, the class doesn’t follow any set curriculum. “These people are the real beginners,” he explains. Many of them aren’t even literate in Nepalese, their native tongue. The class focuses on practical English that will help them in their everyday lives.

Tomato, bean, potato, mushroom

Last week, the class learned how to say the names of different types of fruit. This week, they are learning the names of vegetables, so they will be able to ask for them if they can’t find them in the supermarket. Mishra says that many of them are used to eating heavier foods, such as rice, but that she has been encouraging them to take advantage of the fresh produce that the supermarket will stock in the coming summer months.

Students are still filtering in the door, drops of rain clinging to their clothing. Every once in a while a student will approach the whiteboard to examine something more closely. Mishra writes the name of each vegetable carefully on the board before pronouncing it and asking the class to say it with her.

As Dulal explains it, each student is at a different level. Some of them have been here for several years and have been learning English since they first came, while others are new to the U.S. and the language. Each lesson starts with a review. Some of them were also helped by volunteers, who visited them individually in their homes. The goal isn’t fluency, but rather, a basic knowledge.

“There are those who just want to learn 0, 1, 2, 3, A, B, C, D,” Mishra says. “It’s rather tough to include all of them in one lesson plan.”

The students are enthusiastic, especially when Dulal wraps up the lesson with a word game. He divides them into two teams, pitting one half of the room against the other. The first team chooses a word; the second team then has to think of another word that starts with the last letter of the word before. There are basic words, such as “eat” and even “Nepal,” but the students also call out “telephone” and “elephant.” They are visibly proud of themselves as the list on the whiteboard grows longer.

As the class draws to a close, the students say goodbye to each other and to Dulal and Mishra, bowing their heads and bringing their hands together once more to say “Namaste.” They know to come back at the same time next week. It’s still raining when they leave.

‘We could only take whatever we could carry’

While learning English this late in life is no easy task, it is Dulal’s hope that these students will better be able to navigate their new home with even just a few words of English in their vocabulary.

For some, though, it’s probably too late. Mano and Sasharaswati Phuyal, who are 94 and 78, live with one of their sons in a small apartment in Parkview Gardens. They have vivid memories of losing their farm and all of their livestock — including goats, sheep, and cows — when they were forced to leave Bhutan.

“We could only take whatever we could carry,” Sasharaswati Phuyal, Mano’s wife, says through translation. “I was crying the whole journey. I am crying now when I am talking about this.”

Dulal says that these two don’t attend the classes, spending much of their time inside the small apartment. They frequently mention a son who is still in Nepal with his wife, a son who was their primary caretaker before they came to the U.S. without him. His immigration process has been delayed due to his wife, a Nepalese citizen. The injustices that the Phuyals faced in Bhutan still haunt them, and have been difficult to move past.

“They treated over 100,000 people very badly,” Sasharaswati Phuyal says of the regime that forced her out of her home country. “There is no one to do justice for our cause.”

Sasharaswati and her husband don’t necessarily want to go back—all they want is for their son to be able to join them here. Dulal explains that despite what the son thinks, there is nothing that the family can do. Their sadness is evident, a reminder that to many of the refugees, this country may never feel like home.

‘They will definitely give me a call’

The grant that funds Dulal’s work with the refugees is up in September, and he doesn’t know if he will continue to get paid — at that point, he’ll have only his income as a part-time teller at Bank of America to depend on. This doesn’t mean his work will end, though.

“I’ve gotten used to the people now,” he says, emphasizing his familiarity with the small community. “They will definitely give me a call.”

He describes the panicked phone calls he sometimes gets when someone has been in a car accident or someone’s mother needs to be taken to the hospital — no one is shy about contacting him at all hours of the day or night.

“It’s not just working for ABA,” Mishra adds. “Just for humanitarian’s sake also, we have to do what we can.”