Manoj Rai was a 17-year-old student in a school in Tashigang, Bhutan in 1990, when soldiers arrived at his dorm and took away all the Nepali books. They piled them high in the courtyard, and set them alight.
A few days later, the boy decided to escape the army’s dragnet and without even returning home he went down to the border, where the Indian security forces were packing other Bhutanese like him into trucks and dumping them in eastern Nepal.
Thousands of refugees from Bhutan lived under plastic sheets by the side of the Kankai River in Jhapa. Many fainted from trauma, culture shock and homesickness. On a single day, Manoj Rai remembers cremating 28 children who had died of epidemics.
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“We refugees know very well the meaning of life,” Rai said with a faraway look in his eyes, at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is among the nearly 95,000 refugees from Bhutan who have been resettled in the United States. Others have gone to New Zealand, Norway, UK, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada.
Rai opted for resettlement after seeing no possibility of returning to Bhutan, and tried to convince as many of his compatriots as possible to take up the offer. Some were resolutely refusing to move, but he tried to convince them that being a citizen of a foreign country, rather than a refugee, could help them return to Bhutan one day. Many third-generation Bhutanese are now studying in the world’s top universities.
Rai has always been interested in music, often taking his small band house-to-house during Dasain and Tihar in Nepal, performing songs of longing for home in Bhutan. Villagers used to give them rice, gundruk and vegetables, which the refugees cooked in the camps by the dusty river banks.