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Young refugee tells world of lost ‘Shangri-La’

Dipesh Timsina, who lived for 14 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, celebrates the Hindu festival of Tihar.
Friday, June 24, 2016
(Washington, D.C.) June 24, 2016 – Like the mythical paradise of Shangri-La, the Himalayan country of Bhutan has been an elusive dream for Dipesh Timsina. But this passionate 19-year-old is determined to let the world to know that the “children of Shangri-Lost” —  youth like himself raised in refugee camps by parents exiled from Bhutan — are very real. 

Dipesh, who was resettled with his family to Atlanta in 2008 before moving to Pittsburgh three years later, cofounded and helps run a youth-based nonprofit group called Children of Shangri-Lost. Its mission is to promote the story of the Bhutanese refugee experience and to advocate on behalf of Bhutanese and other refugee populations in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, helping to bridge gaps between the local and refugee/international communities. 

“We saw a lot of things going on in Pittsburgh, a lot of discrimination within the community, and a lot of young people were trying to make changes in their community but they didn’t have a medium to do so,” Dipesh said. “So we thought let’s have a group that could help them to have a voice so they could share their story and make this community a better place and a better country.” 

He said the group is not just for Pittsburgh’s resettled refugees but “for anyone who has lost something in their lives.” 

Dipesh’s family is among the 70,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens who were forcibly expelled from Bhutan — a tiny country wedged between China and India — in the early 1990s. Dipesh spent the first 12 years of life at the at Goldhap Refugee Camp in eastern Nepal. Most of the refugees longed to return home. But with Nepal and Bhutan failing to reach a deal on repatriation, the United States and several other countries stepped in and agreed to take many Bhutanese who were stuck in refugee camps.

So Dipesh, who cofounded the group with his brother, Diwas, and others, is determined to tell their story. 

“We are a group of young Bhutanese children lost in the world, experiencing the identity crisis of being ethnically Nepali on one hand, and Bhutanese by origin,” says a statement on the Children of Shangri-Lost website. “Our young generation finds itself trapped in the Bhutanese regime’s narrative that we are from Nepal, a narrative used to justify throwing us out, accused of being illegal immigrants.

“As more and more illegal immigrants are being manufactured by corrupt regimes around the world, the pain of lost identity among these so-called illegal immigrants has prompted us to face reality and build new lives elsewhere.” 

Because Bhutan sometimes is referred to as the “last Shangri-La,” Dipesh and his brother wanted to incorporate the name in the group.

“Shangri-La can be taken to mean anything that was lost — it could mean a home, a location or something that is personal that you lost,” Dipesh said. 

Life in the refugee camp wasn’t easy. Dipesh’s home was a small, simple hut made of bamboo and thatch. The dwellings had no electricity or running water. But because at the time it was the only home he knew, he never really thought about leaving. 

“I didn’t know if there was anything else for me,” he said. “You didn’t have much to judge what your living standard was as a kid from the refugee camp. But now, living here in the U.S., you can tell it was really bad there.” 

His daily routine included attending schools run by Jesuit Refugee Service in cooperation with Caritas, an international Catholic charity

Still, living in the United States hasn’t been without challenges. Dipesh said that while Atlanta, his first U.S. home, generally was accepting of his family and other immigrants, Pittsburgh is more skeptical of outsiders.

“When I got here to Pittsburgh I saw big separations between communities,” he said. “There were people looking down on one another, and it was not good.” 

He said one of the easiest ways to dispel misconceptions about refugees is for native-born Americans to simply engage and talk with their new neighbors. 

“I know people are very busy and it’s very hard to take time, but I would ask people to take some time, just a couple minutes or so, to sit down and listen to what we have to say,” he said. “It’s very hard for a newcomer or refugee to make the first approach because they might not know the language and it’s very hard for them to approach someone new. It’s easier for someone who is already here and is comfortable with the language to approach someone new.”

In February Dipesh traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the 2016 U.S. Refugee Youth Consultation. The three-day conference, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and co-sponsored by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and other refugee resettlement groups and non-government organizations, gave 25 hand-picked students a chance to discuss their refugee past while also helping them set course for a bright future.

He called the experience “very rewarding and very educational.” 

“All the participants had been through so much and understood so much and wanted to do similar things I want to do: change the community, be more accepted by others,” he said. “It was a very good venue. We came up with a lot of problems and solutions.”

Dipesh, a rising sophomore at Penn State University studying physics, said he would like to visit his ancestral homeland if the political climate there ever softens. But he added he’s determined to build a new life in his adopted home.

“It would be really good to go back and see where my parents are from, I would love to do that and I plan on doing that,” he said. “But I want to create my life here.”

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories highlighting the accounts of young refugees who have resettled in the United States. The series is running in conjunction with World Refugee Day, which was Monday, June 20. To read earlier versions click here.