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Bhutanese Refugees Enrolling at Oakland Adult School

3 November 2008 One Comment

By Adelaide Chen

As a result of ethnic conflict in Bhutan, Damanta Kharel, 25, grew up and attended school in a United Nations camp.  She earned a masters degree commuting from the camp to a nearby college in Nepal.

But as a newly arrived refugee in Oakland, she takes night classes to get a GED.

“We know English, but the tone is different,” she said.  “We don’t understand people talking here.  We always have to ask again.”

Kharel and her sister are among the seven students from Bhutan attending the GED class several nights a week.  She knows some of the other refugees, because they lived in the same camp for 17 years.  Among the refugees from Bhutan that have accepted an offer to come to the U.S., few have expectations they will return to their homeland again.

About two decades ago, the Bhutanese government redefined citizenship rules, and drove out 100,000 ethnic Nepalese who had moved there for better economic opportunities.

Kharel’s grandparents migrated from neighboring Nepal to Bhutan as farmers.  But when forced to leave, the family and relatives spent almost two decades in one of seven United Nations funded camps.

“If you stayed (in the camp) there was no hope of going back to Bhutan,” said Hari Poudel, 25, who attends the GED evening class with her younger brother.

After no agreement had been reached between the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments in 16 ministerial talks, the U.S. agreed to accept the majority of the refugees.  The Poudel and Kharel families arrived in the spring and summer with the first wave.  Kharel’s brother and sister-in-law are expected to join her family in March.

Although the children learned English in the camp education system, the older generation did not have the same educational opportunities. Today, both the mothers of Poudel and Kharel are attending ESL classes at the adult school.

Teresa Espinosa, registrar at the Oakland Neighborhood Centers Adult School, who has worked in ESL for 25 years, said “Bhutan was a surprise.  Mongolia not so much.”

Kharel’s 57-year-old mother Dirga, who is learning her ABCs, said she gets teary-eyed when she sees the other students interacting with the teacher and she can’t say a word.  “If only I had been given a chance to learn English earlier in life,” she said.

The class meets three hours in the morning each weekday.  Dirga said it is too hard at her age.

“It’s really different to live here, especially for mother,” said son Bishnu Kharel, 22.  “It’s a challenge for her to grow up in this environment.”

In the U.S. alone, there are about 4,000 refugees from Bhutan so far, according to Don Climent, regional director of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helped settle the families locally.

The U.S. Department of State plans to accept 60,000 refugees from Bhutan over the next five years.  Canada, Denmark and Australia agreed to smaller numbers.

About 130 refugees from Bhutan have relocated to Oakland and Alameda, said Climent. Oakland and Alameda are considered favorable because a built in community already exists, he said.  There were already some that managed to make their way into the U.S. seeking asylum and did not receive refugee assistance.

But the Kharel family said they are upset about relatives relocated to far away places like Virginia and Chicago.  They told U.S. officials they would move anywhere as long as they ended up in the same location.

Among a myriad of support services, IRC caseworkers set up housing and bank accounts, helped with job placement, enrolled kids in school, and referred others to adult education.

The environment at the adult school is unique, said GED instructor Mark Gallo. “Kids who went to high school in Oakland are learning from kids from all over the world they would otherwise never meet.”
The Neighborhood Centers Adult School is one campus of the Oakland Adult and Career Education, a program of the Oakland Unified School District.

In the 2005-2006 school year, Oakland Adult and Career Education taught ESL to about 7,000 students and GED preparation to over 600 students.

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