Bhutanese teens find comfort, voice in Portland school club

Anne Saker / The Oregonian /

PORTLAND — With students who speak 52 languages, David Douglas High School frequently witnesses young immigrants walk the high wire between respecting tradition and embracing this crazy new place, Portland. The journey can knock loose anger, sadness, confusion.

But from the Bhutanese Student Club, another emotion arises.

Happiness.

“To live as a refugee was really hard,” says senior Narayan Lamichhane, 19, who came to the United States in August 2008. “We are happy to get rid of that. We’re really, really proud. We will have citizenship after five more years. We are happy to come here. It is the beginning of our human life.”

This past spring, half a dozen Bhutanese students went to English teacher Anne Downing and asked to form a club. The school’s clubs organize in autumn, but the students were so persistent the administration said OK.

The club members immediately applied for and won a $950 city grant for an art show. Then they set up a table for the school’s International Bite festival to serve savory samosas their parents made. Nearly every buyer asked, “Where’s Bhutan?” and a club member pointed to a tiny spot on a map, shaped like a dinner roll, on the eastern shoulder of India south of Tibet.

They made $200 in less than an hour.

“The kids made themselves ambassadors for Bhutan,” Downing says.

In October, the young ladies of the Bhutanese Student Club put on their native dress and danced the dances of their homeland for a student assembly, and the gym thundered with applause. The next day, the club raised Bhutan’s red-and-yellow flag of the Thunder Dragon at school to celebrate the holiday Dashain Tika, which also featured the art show paid for with the grant.

“I’ve never seen such determination,” Downing says. “They believed they needed this club, not just for themselves, but for their little brothers and sisters and for the other kids who are landing here.”

Oregon’s Bhutanese community didn’t exist three years ago. Today, it numbers about 400, most settling in the David Douglas school district. Dates of arrival in the United States are stamped in memory like a birthday.

“You’re never going to forget that day,” says senior Birkha Chuwan, 18. His day is Feb. 20, 2010.

“It’s a dreamland,” says senior Sumitra Chhetri, 17. Her day, she adds, is Sept. 11, 2008.

The strange thing is that most of the club members have never even seen Bhutan.

About 675,000 people live in the poor, mountainous nation that did not own a passenger plane until 1980. The king decreed a policy of Gross National Happiness in the early 1990s to promote his people’s well-being amid economic development. His policy, which also aimed to deter political unrest, required citizens to embrace Buddhism and speak Bhutanese.

But the Hindu minority, mainly farmers with roots and a language from neighboring Nepal, had lived in Bhutan since the 19th century. Still, those who chose not to accept the king’s definition of happiness had to leave.

For nearly 20 years, U.N. camps in Nepal housed 108,000 Bhutanese refugees in bamboo huts. Years of talks on repatriation went nowhere. Camp schools were established, with lessons in British English. Finally, in 2007, a dozen countries agreed to take the refugees. By 2013, 60,000 will have settled in the United States.

The children, who either were brought out of Bhutan as babies or born in the camps, formed their club at David Douglas. But they don’t want to limit membership. “They push out there and invite everyone to come and participate,” Downing says. “They would love it to have Somali or Vietnamese students joining the club. They have really embraced the diversity here.”

On a recent Friday in room 179, teenagers wearing T-shirts bearing the Thunder Dragon sit at desks arranged in a square, speaking in the musical curlicues of Nepali. Downing hands out the club’s agenda. First, though, Chhetri lifts her hand toward a boy in a green hoodie sitting across the square of desks.

“He just arrived here. Let’s welcome him!” and everyone claps. Another boy shyly raises his hand. “Oh, and you also?” Chhetri asks. “Let’s clap for him, too.”

Downing praises the students for raising about $400 by raffling a donated bicycle at the Dashain Tika festival. “I don’t know how you did it, but you sure sold a lot of tickets in a really short amount of time.”

The club members grin and giggle. Then they take up their business, in Nepali; Chhetri directs the conversation, and Lamichhane tosses off one-liners that slay the room.

A discussion of future fundraisers runs long because, Downing says, “they don’t like to take votes. They talk and talk and talk until they reach consensus. It’s a leftover from living in the refugee camps. When I’ve asked them to take a vote, they say, ‘But then someone will be unhappy.’ So they keep talking.”

The members of the Bhutanese Student Club say the forest green of Oregon reminds them of Nepal. A trip to Fred Meyer is dizzying. They are giddy at the prospect of driving a car. At the same time, with their formal English mixed with American seasonings, they must interpret the world for parents who struggle with language, housing and jobs.

“We have a lot of responsibility,” Lamichhane says. “Our generation is responsible for teaching our coming generation about our culture and helping our grand-family deal with the system in the United States, too.”