Much of Pirti’s life seems like a series of dreams. First, there are the happy dreams. In these, she can feel the cool, muddy water of a rice paddy envelop her feet, touch oranges hanging heavy on branches and spy the red flesh of tomatoes ripening on vines. This is her farm, her home, her source of livelihood on a small plot of land near the Lapsibote village in southern Bhutan.
She had been born on a similar farm near Dhaje and moved to Lapsibote when she married, to run the farm with her husband as they started a family. They were happy, self-sufficient, living in a beautiful country nestled beneath the southern rim of the Himalayas.
“To work in your own field, to live off of your farm and to grow your own food,” that is my favorite memory,” Pirti said through an interpreter. “In my rice paddy, I was the boss.”
Then there are bitter, confusing dreams. Twenty-five years ago, Pirti and her family were uprooted and deposited in a hastily constructed refugee camp in Nepal. At the time, the Bhutanese government was pushing people of Nepali origin out of the country, in an effort to create a homogeneous cultural, ethnic and religious identity. Even though her parents had been born in Bhutan, Pirti was now considered an unwelcome foreigner. Her family was among the nearly 100,000 people forced into camps. Pirti says she could scarcely understand what was happening at the time.
“We thought we would be able to go back,” she said, “maybe after a couple months. We didn’t even carry any supplies with us when we left.”
Next come the ugly, restless dreams of refugee life. The months turned into years. Her four small children grew into adulthood, confined to a shack among thousands of other shacks. Refugees cannot work for money, even if they could find something to do outside the camp. They live on rations of rice and vegetables provided by the United Nations, and families receive a monthly stipend equivalent to a little more than $7 to cover their other needs. The children have school, but there seems to be little point to studying. Heavy drinking, domestic abuse and sexual assault are common.
“I never imagined I would be living the life of a refugee,” Pirti said. “We always hoped that we would be able to return to Bhutan, but eventually we realized that our expectations and reality were not the same.”
Pirti, whose name means “love” in her native language, saw her marriage end and felt her hope slip away. In 2006, however, a new opportunity arose. As funding for the camps waned and conditions deteriorated, several nations agreed to take in Bhutanese refugees. Since then, about 50,000 have come to the US, including Pirti, her four children and their families, who arrived four years ago.
Although Pirti is grateful to have been rescued from the camp that served as her temporary home for 21 years, her new life seems like yet another dream. Pirti and her family spoke no English when they arrived. She attends school through Refugees Helping Refugees, but her lessons seem to float past her.
“It’s not easy,” she says. “I learn and then I forget; I’m not able to retain. But I’m happy learning.”
Pirti lives with her oldest son and his family. He works in Pennfield, but that means he doesn’t have time to take classes to learn English. Still, there’s hope that her children can learn enough to become citizens someday.
Life here is different, but in a good way, says Pirti. It’s not what she had hoped for, but she knows now that returning to her home country is no longer a possibility.
“Looking back on my life in Bhutan, it feels like a dream,” she says. “A far-fetched dream.”