Bhutan refugee helps others feel at home in Portland

A newcomer to Portland from Bhutan now assists others in getting settled. It was a long road to get here.

Author: Zahidun Nisa

Published: 11:03 AM PDT July 25, 2018

Updated: 2:25 PM PDT July 26, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. — After finding a comfortable house and a luxurious vehicle for himself and his children, Som Subedi could have closed the chapter of his life where he spent nearly two decades living as a refugee.

Instead, Subedi has dedicated himself to helping other refugees navigating a difficult journey after arriving in the United States.

Subedi came to Portland in 2008 at the age of 26, after spending nearly two decades living in a camp for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

Subedi helps refugees from Bhutan and elsewhere get settled in Portland. He is open to helping all newcomers, regardless of their ethnic affiliations. He wants to see people become self-sufficient individuals who could give back to the community and the country that welcomed them in times of crisis.

Although he had a bachelor’s degree in political science and English and was teaching in the camp, a white-collar job was not waiting for Subedi in his new country. To build life afresh, Subedi started working in a knife factory, replacing the chalk in his hands with blades and tools. 

By working multiple jobs and relying on the generosity of other community members, Subedi has succeeded in securing a comfortable life in the U.S. But he does not want himself nor his children to forget that he and his wife came to this country as refugees.

"I want my children to grow up to be compassionate towards newcomers," Subedi told KGW. "They should never forget that their mum and dad were refugees."

Subedi is happy with his life in the United States but watching his children enjoy the luxuries of life takes him back to his days as a child in the camp, when he would sleep on a mud bed with water leaking from the thatched roof of their hut. 

"I wonder how easily my children have got the double mattress bed they sleep on – it makes me jealous," he laughed. 

Much like Subedi, a woman named Leela came to the U.S. from the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal.

Leela could not recall much about her life in Bhutan but remembered getting an education through middle school in the camp and later getting married.

She chose to resettle in Portland because her sister-in-law was already here.

Initially, Leela, now a mother of two, worked in a hotel for six months until her husband found a job. During the year-and-a-half he was unemployed, the family relied on the help of relatives and others from their community.

They now live in an apartment complex in Southeast Portland.

When asked if Portland felt like home to her, Leela said she liked it here and would not want to go anywhere else.

People like Subedi and Leela were forced from their homes in Bhutan because of a 1985 law there called the Citizenship Act, according to Human Rights Watch. The act tightened the requirement for Bhutanese citizenship. Under the act, a child could only qualify as a citizen of Bhutan if both the parents were Bhutanese.The "one nation, one people" policy of the Bhutan government was perceived by Nepalis as a direct attack on their cultural identity, according to Human Rights Watch. The Nepali minority protested peacefully, Subedi told KGW, but in turn were persecuted. Many who fled or were expelled landed as refugees in camps in Nepal. 

"Because of this [new trend of] fake news, people do not believe me when I tell them about the time I spent in the camp," he said. 

Zahidun Nisa visited KGW and Portland recently as part of a journalism fellowship through the International Center for Journalists. She is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan, and works for the English website of Geo News, a Pakistani TV news channel. She reports on the education system and religious minorities in Pakistan.