Bhuwan Pyakurel, former refugee from Bhutan and World Refugee Day Academy participant, has created change in his Colorado community. After participating in the World Refugee Day Academy, he started a refugee advocacy group in Colorado and frequently meets with local officials. Bhuwan’s plans to empower Bhutanese refugees in his community and ensure they become valued Coloradans are well on their way.
This interview was conducted over email by Juliet Sohns, LIRS Grassroots Mobilization Intern.
Juliet Sohns (JS): How did you become involved in activism regarding refugee issues?
Bhuwan Pyakurel (BP): Being a resettled refugee I wish to thank people and the government of this country for giving me a second chance to live my life. I am very grateful to them, and will remain grateful, for giving the opportunity to people like me to grow and realize the American dream. It is hard to imagine what life would be like without resettlement.
Refugees are people that have faced harsh conditions. A majority of them are persecuted in their country of origin, discriminated against and humiliated in their host country. Bhutanese refugees were persecuted by the King’s regime in Bhutan and driven out of the country. We lived as refugees in Nepal, a neighboring country, for about 20 years before being resettled in the United States. As refugees are resettled, they come with mixed baggage. They have their strengths: experiences, knowledge, skills and diversity, and they have their share of problems: cultural concerns, language problems, adjustment problems and above all, the memory of the history of persecution. Generally, I wanted to help resettled refugees integrate in the local community.
I had felt that when I was resettled in the United States in 2009 all of our problems were resolved. But the reality is different. After my resettlement in Colorado in 2009, I felt that there were a lot of things we needed to do for the refugee community in this country. With my work in the community I found that there are several narratives in the receiving communities about the refugees. Refugees are often generalized. For instance, some believe that all refugees are illiterate, refugees should not be given decision-making roles, and refugees do not know English. I strongly feel that such stereotyping must change. I want to change this narrative by bringing some practical examples and telling the community that these narratives are not correct. I also would like to tell the receiving community that people in the refugee community have a lot of experiences in decision-making because of practical experiences they have had in their life. It was for these reasons that I became involved in activism regarding refugee issues.
JS: What was your experience at the advocacy training during World Refugee Day Academy 2014 like?
BP: First of all I’d like to thank LIRS for organizing this great event and particularly for providing the opportunity for refugees to visit the seat of power and present their case. I was very happy to learn that I would be on Capitol Hill. In the beginning I was quite nervous and just wondered what was I going to do. With the training provided a day in advance and sharing experiences, I was comfortable in the actual action day in the Capitol.
Because of my visit to the Capitol, I realized changes can be made in refugees’ lives. I also learned that some public officials in D.C. are not aware of refugee resettlement in the United States. That, I felt was rather awkward and therefore saw the role of refugees themselves to come forward and educate these public officials. And I also learned some public officials had firsthand experience with refugees, and were always encouraging pro-refugee decisions.
JS: How did the leadership training help and empower you to act in your community on pro-refugee issues?
BP: With the leadership training I learned about refugee and immigrant issues in the country. I also learned that there are several issues that can be resolved by simple policy changes and at the same time there are several issues that could take some more time and energy. With the leadership training I was able to go the community and reach out and make them aware of the refugee issues in the country. For example, people in the community could be encouraged in the field of civic engagement by exercising their right to vote at the local, state, and federal level.
JS: What did you bring back from the training to Colorado?
BP: Upon my return from D.C., I was able to form an advocacy group within the refugee community. The work of this group is to advocate for programs to help refugees at the local and state level. In the meantime, the group decided to advocate for the continuation of Office of Refugee Resettlement funding for the domestic refugee program. The group collected signatures from the community and met their elected public officials in their local offices to ask them to vote in favor of this. The refugee advocacy group is now actively working on the advocacy.
JS: What are the main issues you want to address that are unique to the U.S. Bhutanese refugee community?
BP: There are several issues in the Bhutanese refugee communities in the United States. Mental health is the most concerning of all. The suicide rate in the Bhutanese community in the United States is very high as compared to any other community. So mental health issues needs to be addressed as soon as possible. I know that there are several programs to address this problem but culturally appropriate programs involving the people in the community could address this issue better. Any refugee issue is complicated, so are the Bhutanese refugee issues. To address this better, community involvement is needed.
JS: How do you intend to continue your activism for refugee issues in Columbus?
BP: Since the beginning of my resettlement in the United States, I learned that there are many programs designed for empowerment of the community. But the sad reality is that a lot of those programs are designed for the community and not by the community. So the results of many of those programs are not very great. I see a lot of potential in the community here in Columbus, which could be utilized for the betterment of this great city. For example, I have been a yoga teacher for 15 years, and I like to give back to the community by teaching yoga. At the same time there are many other resources within the community I like to utilize, and would like to design a strength-based model of community organizing here in Columbus.
When refugees resettle after living in refugee camps, all their hopes and aspirations are on their children. So I’d like to design a community-based model of refugee parent engagement and encourage parents to be involved in their child’s education because the school system here in the United States is different from in the refugee camp or in Bhutan.
To do this, I need support from the service provider. I am very hopeful that I can make the required connection soon.