The Rai family refugees*
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Migration and Refugee Services
By Julie Rattey
*Based on the story of the Rai family. Information for this feature was provided by the Rai family with the assistance of Dilprasad Basnet, case manager. Additional information and was obtained from the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Photos by Katie Bahr | Arlington Catholic Herald
When the knocking sounded at midnight at his family’s house in southern Bhutan, 30-year-old Jit Rai bolted up in his bed. His heart pounded, but his head was clear: He had imagined this moment so many times. Jit put a comforting hand on his wife’s shoulder as she let out a sob. They had known it would be only a matter of time.
“Get the children dressed,” he told Sudra in a low voice. If the security forces decided to barge in, at least his family wouldn’t be fined for not wearing the required northern-style clothes.
The knocking intensified. “Yes, I’m coming,” Jit called. Voices addressed him before he even reached the door, and he stopped to listen.
“Jit Bahadur Rai,” boomed a male voice. “Your family has signed the Voluntary Migration Form.”
Only under duress, Jit thought angrily. Like everyone else.
“You have two days,” ordered a second voice, “to leave your house and go to Nepal.”
“Please,” Jit pleaded. “Give us more time. My little sister has been dead only seven days. Our whole family is in mourning. Please allow us to complete the 10 days of ritual ceremonies in our home.”
“We cannot make exceptions,” said the first voice. “You will be given an exit pass to Nepal and compensation before your departure.”
A mere 11,000 Nu. (about $245), Jit thought. An insulting amount for our home and land.
“Where will we go?” Jit choked out. “Is there a place for us in Nepal?”
“That is not our problem,” said the second voice. He was clearly eager to move on to the next house. “You had better prepare to leave.”
The threat was both unveiled and unnecessary. Jit’s small, remote village of Chirang Dara, once peaceful, had been transformed into a military nightmare. Nepali places of education and succor were now makeshift military camps, prison cells for the innocent, census offices where records were tampered with, and interrogation rooms where village elders were tortured until they signed the “Voluntary” Migration Form the government was using to rid itself of the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese.
Jit thought sadly of how far his country had fallen. His family always told how, in the 1600s, the leader of Bhutan had requested artisans and farming families from Nepal. In the 1800s, many others had immigrated to southern Bhutan in search of farmland. In 1958, a law granted them citizenship. But now the government had decided his people were no longer welcome. Measures were set in place to oppress and rid the country of Nepali-speaking citizens. Now, in the 1990s, the Nepali language was forbidden in schools and government offices. TVs and radios were confiscated. Nepali schoolbooks were burned. Hindu worship could be held only in secret. Nepali women were forced to give up their traditional jewelry and chop off their hair. No more than three to four villagers were allowed to gather at a time. Neighbors turned informant on each other for easy money. Everyone lived in fear.
As the voices of the security forces trailed away from his door, a somber vision flashed in Jit’s mind of what lay ahead: traveling by horse in mud, rain, and among malaria-infested mosquitoes. His children — mostly toddlers — wet and crying. Sleeping in rice paddies. A meal every two days at best. Wild animals. His fragile mother-in-law and sick brother-in-law, struggling to survive. And with them, the body of his 17-year-old sister, deprived of a burial in her own village.
“Mama?” Sudra’s voice shook. It was near dawn, and the family was sleeping in a humid area at Akhua, on the Bhutan-India border. Mosquitoes buzzed.
Jit woke and followed his wife’s stricken gaze to the ground next to her. Sudra’s mother was dead. Next to her was Sudra’s brother. Also dead.
Jit held his wife as she wept, quietly so as not to wake everyone. They were still days from Nepal. Jit looked at his sleeping children, all innocent tiny hands and legs and feet. He hoped they would live to see better days.
“Hurry, Jit!” Sudra poked her head into their thatched-roof shelter in the refugee camp. “They’ll be leaving soon.”
Jit nodded, and Sudra’s face disappeared. It was 2009, and an emotional day for his family. They had lived in the Sanischare refugee camp in Nepal for 17 years, and had become close friends with their neighbors, the Dahals. They had shared memories of Bhutan, rejoiced as they saw their children attend school in English and their native language, and commiserated about the lack of opportunity in the camp and their uncertain future. Now, the Dahals were leaving for the United States. Their resettlement application had been accepted — they were among the fortunate 1 percent of applicants for refugee status approved to go there — and they would travel to a place called Virginia to begin a new life.
Jit was happy for the Dahals. But as he sat alone in his house, the silence weighed on him. There would be no more joking — or complaining — with the Dahals about how the wind and rain seeped through their homes. He would no longer hear their children’s voices mingled in play. Never again would he see his wife and Mrs. Dahal cooking and talking together, their heads bent together like sisters.
His heart heavy, Jit rose and exited the house, joining his family and the Dahals in a circle of tear-stained faces. Arms clasped. Cheeks pressed. Hands touched. And then they were off, with one small bag each. His family waved, called out wishes for good fortune, promised prayers. Tears swam in Jit’s eyes. We will never see them again.
Two years later, in 2011, Jit’s eldest daughter came running into the house, Sudra following behind. “We’re going to the U.S.!”
Emotion surged in Jit’s chest.
“We owe so much to the Dahals,” said Sudra, speaking his thoughts. Bhim, one of the Dahal sons, had been their advocate and contact in the States. Their families would once more build new lives together.
A few weeks later, Jit and his family stepped off their plane and into the terminal at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. Jit’s eyes took in a small group of smiling faces. Someone held a sign: Welcome to America. Another held flowers.
And there was Bhim.
“Bhim!” he cried.
Bhim rushed forward and was engulfed by Jit’s family. Tears and embraces were followed by warm greetings from their new friends from the Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) office of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, including, to their delight, a caseworker who hailed from their own district in Bhutan. Just a few hours later, the family was reunited with the Dahals in their home, sharing a traditional meal and exchanging news. Bhim explained how the MRS employees and volunteers had been hard at work so that the following day, the Rais could move into their own home. There would be furniture in the rooms, familiar food in the pantry, toothbrushes at the bathroom sink. They would receive help with education, transportation, jobs. And perhaps help from others outside the MRS as well.
“See this man?” said Bhim, pointing to a framed photograph in his living room. “He drove me to and from work every day for six months before I got a car. He wouldn’t accept any money. This is what inspired me to volunteer with MRS.”
“How did you meet him?” Jit asked, impressed.
“That’s the best part,” smiled Bhim. “I met him at random. In a grocery store.”
Jit shook his head at such generosity. He glanced into the dining room and saw his family seated with the Dahals, talking and laughing. Who would have thought all those years ago, he reflected with emotion, that when a knock came at midnight, his family’s greatest fears would take them down a path that might help them realize their greatest dreams?
Help families like the Rais
The Diocese of Arlington’s Migration and Refugee Services has assisted more than 23,000 refugees since 1975. To help, visit ccda.net/programs_mrs.php, call 703-841-3891, or write to: Migration and Refugee Services, Catholic Charities,
Diocese of Arlington, 80 North Glebe Road, Arlington VA 22203.