Kau Biswa always wanted to go to school. Today, as a 49-year-old grandmother living nearly 8,000 miles from home, she’s getting her first chance. Kau grew up in Bhutan, where the nearest school was a full day’s walk from her family’s rice farm. Like nearly 100,000 other Bhutan residents whose ancestors had immigrated to that country from Nepal, Kau found herself being forced out of her homeland and into a refugee camp in Nepal 25 years ago.
The camp had schools for children, but Kau had been married since her early teens and was already raising a family. Her three children would grow up in the camp, going to school there and learning through books and stories about the country their parents had called home.
On May 16, 2012, Kau’s family came to Rochester through a refugee resettlement program. The classes she’s attending now, through the Refugees Helping Refugees program, aren’t quite what she had envisioned when she dreamed about going to school as a child. She’s learning English and American citizenship. It’s not easy taking on a new language in adulthood, especially when you’ve had no formal schooling in your native language, but Kau is making progress. Her teachers say she’s ready to advance to the second level, but Kau still relied on an interpreter to communicate all her thoughts in a recent interview.
“I like the teacher,” she said. “The people are all nice. They love us. They teach us in the best way. I’d like to thank them, if I knew how. I know the words, ‘Thank you,’ but there’s more I’d like to say.”
Kau hopes to learn enough English that she can get a job here, but she says what she loves most about school is the opportunity it provides her to commune with other Bhutanese refugees and reminisce about the life they had before their exile. Kau says she can’t help but to feel nostalgic at times and wonder what she would be doing if she had never been forced from her home. It’s spring now; she’d be keeping a close eye on the cows, preparing to help them give birth. The rice paddies would probably be flooded and ready for planting, which means the neighbors would take turns helping each other. They would sing songs about the past as they plowed and planted, laughing as they splashed muddy water on each other. Pausing to enjoy the cool shade and the meals brought from their homes, they would sing some more, accompanied by the beat of their leather drums.
Some of Kau’s new friends can also remember painting the walls of their houses with a mixture of colored clay and cow dung. If you couldn’t afford a home with wood or cement walls, this was the way you achieved a more finished look. They can still remember the strict taboos of their Hindu religion—why the women cover their heads, and how you could touch the hand of your brother-in-law only as he was helping you cross the river.
Today, Kau lives in an apartment with drywall and electricity, and she needs no help crossing the street to catch a bus, but she would happily trade it for a chance to return to a hut with a rice field and a garden. She can talk about these things at school. Her youngest child and his family still live with her, but he doesn’t know about life in Bhutan. Her husband remembers, but he’s 70 now and stays at home. His hearing is bad, and it’s hard for them to talk, but when she looks at him she can still see the mother- and father-in-law she loved and respected. They had both passed long before Kau and her family began their new life in the United States.
When Kau wants to remember even more, she comes to school.