Sitting in her backyard, soaking up the early summer sun, 75-year-old Sukmaya Rai remembers her childhood grazing goats amidst the terraces of paddy and maize in her home village in Bhutan.
Her family was forced out of Bhutan with 100,000 others, trucked across India and deposited in Nepal’s Jhapa district. She spent the next 20 years in UNHCR refugee camps, and was finally among those resettled in 2008 in eight countries, including the United States.
“I have experienced a lot of pain and hardship in my lifetime,” sighs Sukmaya, adding that although life is more comfortable here in a Pennsylvania town than the bamboo huts in the refugee camp, her pain persists.
The grandmother’s family is scattered across five continents, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made movement difficult even for relatives in the US. Her 10 sons and daughters and 27 grandchildren live separately in Bhutan, India, Nepal and the US.
“Perhaps I will not meet them in this lifetime”, she says in Nepali, “I will pass away while this never-ending suffering continues.”
Sukumaya Rai lived in Simkhet village of Chirang District in Bhutan with her husband Jas Bahadur Rai. The farming couple raised their family, and were not well-off but were happy. One day, her husband was approached by a Dungpa district administrator who ordered the family to leave the country. They had to comply.
When the Rais arrived in Nepal with their youngest children, they were taken with the other refugees to a UNHCR camp by the banks of the Kankai River in Jhapa. But due to the unsanitary conditions, her husband and brother both died of an infectious disease 15 days apart.
“Many more died, every day bodies were being taken away from the camp towards the river to be creamted,” she recalls.