Of Note: July Fourth Reflections -- The Jewish Meaning of Nepali Bhutanese Resettlement

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Mon, Jul 05, 2010 at 14:29 pm

Each year the Fourth of July offers me a chance to reflect on the meaning of the United States for me as an American, a member of the Jewish community, and an advocate for immigrants and refugees. And each year I feel immense gratitude for the welcome this country gave my great grandparents and the waves of Jewish immigrants and refugees from all corners of the world.

An honest reading of history makes clear that the American immigration story is a struggle between nativist elements seeking some fantasy of a “pure America,” and those who celebrate a diverse and ever-changing dynamic American culture. The Jewish community not only has benefited from the latter vision of America, but has been a key participant as well – fighting discriminatory immigration laws, developing U.S. refugee policy to protect victims of persecution, and seeking to fix a tragically broken immigration system that undermines both American values and security.

In my role at HIAS I am constantly aware of the way that our timeless Jewish tradition provides a compelling guide for action on some of our country’s, and the world’s, most dramatic humanitarian migration crises. At times, the connections between our Jewish ideals and our American work hits me like a lightning bolt, enriching both my Jewish life and my experience as an American committed to protecting refugees and welcoming immigrants.

An example of this occurred recently while preparing for a meeting with HIAS affiliates. To best understand the scope of cases they are assisting – from Yemeni Jews to Iraqis who served with U.S. military personnel – I was reviewing background papers on one of the U.S. refugee program’s largest, but little known, resettlement groups: Bhutanese refugees from Nepal.

These refugees are descendants of ethnic Nepalis who migrated to neighboring Bhutan in the late 1800’s. Maintaining their language, religion, and culture, the Nepalis were for the most part able to live freely in Bhutan and were recognized as Bhutanese citizens in 1958.

This positive story lasted until the 1980’s when the King of Bhutan, fearing the growing numbers of Nepalis and arguing that their Nepali culture and Hindu religion would dilute the Bhutanese and Buddhist culture of his country, launched a campaign of repression against people that he now viewed as foreign and threatening. In the ensuing years, Nepali culture and language were prohibited, teachers were dismissed, Nepali Bhutanese lost their citizenship and their civil rights, activists were arrested and violently attacked, property was destroyed, and tens of thousands were expelled from the country. In Nepal, their country of ancestry, the Nepali Bhutanese were denied the right to work or to move freely, beginning over 16 years of limbo while the governments of Nepal and Bhutan, and the international community, failed to provide the refugees with opportunity, hope, or a future.

On a human level this story is tragic, and I am proud that HIAS and the Jewish community’s resettlement network across the country are playing a role in the United States’ program to offer resettlement to over 60,000 Nepali Bhutanese refugees over a period of several years. But, as I thought about this sad story, my response went beyond this simple human reaction. While reading about the struggles of the Bhutanese refugees, a passage from Exodus came to me with tremendous power:

"…And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation. And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land…” (Exodus 6-10)

All of a sudden, the Bhutanese Nepalis didn’t seem so unknown and foreign. Like the ancient Israelites – our ancestors and the protagonists of the Exodus, the core narrative of our tradition – these refugees we are helping today migrated generations before to seek a better life, but ultimately were persecuted and displaced by a King who could not remember that earlier generation. Like our ancestors, the Bhutanese Nepalis also were targeted because of base fears of demographics and cultural differences, and were forced to flee a land that they believed to be their home. And now, after much suffering and deprivation, they have found, in part with HIAS’ and the Jewish community’s assistance, a new promised land here in the United States where they finally can work to rebuild their lives in freedom and dignity.

So, on this Fourth of July, along with all of the many gifts and blessings I have received, I am also grateful to the United States for its decision to provide these vulnerable Bhutanese with a chance for a future, and for this opportunity to experience a vivid example of the power of the biblical narrative and the values of the Jewish tradition as guides for our contemporary lives.

I hope that you and your family had an enjoyable and meaningful holiday.

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