Dipesh Timsina, who lived for 14 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, celebrates the Hindu festival of Tihar.
(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
“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
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
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.