Issue July 26, 2011

Torn

A refugee’s difficult choice separates her from husband and son

Chandra Kharel opens her eyes to familiar bamboo walls and swings her feet onto the compact mud floor, as smooth as marble. It’s been 17 years since her family was forced to surrender to an indefinite exile and a meager existence. But today — Dec. 4, 2008 — could lead to the end.

Kharel is tired, her body swollen from seven months of pregnancy, but she must get up. The bus that will take her, her sister, Meena, and her 2-year-old daughter, Dharti, to their U.S. Department of Homeland Security interview is scheduled to arrive at 8:30 a.m.

She slides into an orange kurta surwal, the traditional knee-length shirt and pants worn by Nepali women. The dense Sanischare refugee camp stirs lightly as Kharel races around her family’s hut grabbing diapers and baby food, and stuffing her 2-year-old daughter’s feet into snow-white boots.

At one time, Sanischare held 20,000 Bhutanese refugees, one-fifth of the total number of refugees displaced from Bhutan during ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. Two decades later, they remain. Bhutan, a landlocked country in southern Asia, has not let any of the refugees return.

Kharel looks down at her stomach.

It seems deflated. She envisions the baby inside her napping on his side, having pulled her belly button down with him, a well-timed game of hide-and-seek. It’s a sign, she thinks. He wants me to go to America.

With Dharti in her arms, she boards the white bus with blue letters: IOM — International Office of Migration.

Kharel looks at the excited faces around her. She’d grown up with a few of them in this sweltering, dusty corner of Nepal. Anxious chatter bounces around about those already settled into unknown cities in first-world countries.

For her parents and grandparents, America, the country it appears they’re heading for, will be like another planet. At the camp they do not have electricity. They don’t speak English. Her mother can’t read. Without Kharel, the assimilation would be pernicious, at best.

She thinks of her grandfather, who suffers from respiratory illness. Air conditioning and Western medicine will be a blessing. And her children — wouldn’t they resent her if she let America, with all its opportunities, slip away?

Kharel walks off the bus clear, calm. It’s decided: She will lie about her six-year marriage to Kishor Sapkota, a citizen of Nepal.

They sit in the unadorned, one-story brick building. Lunch comes and goes. Kharel only eats a banana. Pregnancy has voided her appetite.

As they wait, she weighs what to say about her unborn child. If she admits to her pregnancy, it could stall her family’s resettlement or, rumor has it, even dissolve it.

I can’t ruin this for everyone, Kharel tells herself. She trusts her family and friends who’ve said she can petition for her husband and soon-to-be born son, Hridaya, once she’s resettled. A few months of separation, tops.

A voice calls out: “1-1-14-0 …”

A tall American greets them, coos at Dharti and launches into a two-hour interview: They don’t look like refugees. Why? Are they really sisters? He eventually turns to Kharel for questioning.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Pregnant?”

“No.”

Invitation to Kentucky

The Kharel family now lives in a modest south Louisville apartment complex hidden behind a bank and an auto repair shop. Chandra Kharel rooms with her grandfather, parents, sister and daughter. Four other relatives live in an apartment below.

Kharel carries two bags into her living room, sits on a couch, and places them at her feet.

She digs through one, the white plastic crackling. It holds folders full of registrations, visas and other bureaucratic paperwork that led her family from Bhutan, to eastern Nepal, and finally, to the United States.

As she rifles through the pages, she speaks about this journey. Over the next month, her story emerges in volumes, hours at a time, as if emptying out her first 32 years will make room for a simpler set of circumstances, one in which her toddler and husband aren’t on the other side of the world.

She pulls out a letter from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). It’s dated Sept. 24, 2010. “DECISION” is written in bold letters at the top. It’s a response to Kharel’s petition to bring her husband, Kishor Sapkota, and son, Hridaya, to the United States with the rest of her family. They’ve been separated for two years; she left Nepal two months after her son was born.

The document announces that the case, while approved one year earlier, has been reopened due to the emergence of adverse information. Kharel’s index finger glides under the three most important words in the four-page letter: “suspicion of fraud.”

“I had to lie to them,” she says, referring to her final interview with the Department of Homeland Security. “I did not want to.”

Kharel recounts the multi-step resettlement regiment and, ultimately, why she lied. Already worried that her marriage to a Nepali national would null her refugee status and make her ineligible for resettlement, an August 2008 bulletin from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees further fueled that fear: “A refugee woman married to a Nepali man may not be eligible for resettlement because she is able to naturalize in Nepal and therefore would not be a refugee.” Although the bulletin does not ban someone married to a Nepali from resettlement, it requests more interviews so the United Nations can “consider the possible solutions for your family.”

Kharel’s parents and relatives were terrified at the thought of leaving her in Nepal. She was the most educated in the family, and the only one fluent in English.

And so Kharel and her parents decided it would be best to claim separation. Unwilling to file divorce papers, Kharel and her father concocted a story about Sapkota disappearing — leaving to visit friends and never returning. They even went so far as to file a missing person’s report with police.

Near where Kharel sits, an oxygen machine wheezes, the tubes connecting to Kharel’s 90-year-old grandfather asleep on the other couch. She knows how lucky she is to call Kentucky home.

“It’s very good for us,” she says. “We are blessed.”

Dharti, now 4 years old, skips in, plops on the floor, and begins to sing in her developing English:

I’m a Barbie Girl, in a Barbie world. Wrapped in plastic. It’s fantastic …

“Dharti is so much like her father — playful, carefree,” Kharel says, giggling at her daughter who’s now run out of words:

Witchey witchey wa. Witchey witchey wa. It’s fantastic. Wrapped in plastic.

Kharel appreciates her daughter’s humor in a home decorated with somber distractions.

A picture of her now 2-year-old son peers down from the wall. Her husband’s long, straight teeth, the teeth she once found so ugly when he was a gangly, shy teenager, smile at her from a photo across the room. At her feet, the other bag she brought into the living room stores dozens of pictures shuffled together like a loose deck of cards. In one, Kharel poses in a coral dress before her wedding, her lips a shiny red. In another, a barefoot, 11-year-old Kharel eagerly smiles en route to the Sanischare refugee camp, as if on some grand adventure.

Growing up a refugee

The majority of Bhutanese refugees are Nepalese who immigrated to the rural farmlands of southern Bhutan in the late 1800s. They became known as Lhotsampas, or People of the South. They held onto their own culture and religion, Hindu.

In 1958, Bhutan passed a nationality law allowing southern Bhutanese residents to become citizens. But by the 1980s, citizenship issues flared.

The Druk Buddhist majority became concerned about the rapidly growing Lhotsampa population, a potential threat to the Buddhist culture. The Druks implemented dress codes and prohibited the use of Nepali in schools. By 1990, the ruling party ordered anyone who could not prove their presence in the country prior to 1958 to leave.

Protesters were arrested and tortured. Reports of assaults and nighttime raids spread.

Kharel recalls the day the government rounded up all books written in her native language and burned them. She was 9 years old. There were nights she and her mother crouched behind baskets of rice in their barns, hiding from police who had reportedly been raping women and girls.

“My mother would say, ‘You need to wear a small dress. If you wear a big dress they’ll think you’re a big girl,’” Kharel says. “My mother thought if they think I’m little, I’ll be safe.”

Eventually, the family fled, leaving the orange trees and spices that had earned them a generous income for years.

When asked about life in the refugee camp, Kharel’s eyelids flutter, swatting tears away, but eventually they fall.

“When I remember those days, I don’t want to go back,” she says, hugging her knees.

At the camp, loved ones tumbled into depression and alcoholism. Gathering firewood required a two-hour hike. Food came in starchy, bland rations, like rice and potatoes. Kharel and her mother earned money by packing bricks.

Kharel dedicated herself to school. She and an uncle would write and study by candlelight until the early morning. In the hottest months, their sweat caused ink to bleed on the paper. Kharel excelled at her studies and traveled around Nepal to compete in academic competitions.

At age 12, Kharel met 16-year-old Kishor Sapkota, whose young cousin was her playmate. The older boy began teasing Kharel, calling her “nani,” or baby, because she was short. Sapkota, who would grow up to be a journalist, had many questions: Why did she leave Bhutan? What was it like there?

Soon, Sapkota began writing her letters — one, not so subtly, on Valentines Day, a holiday she knew nothing about.

In a recent email exchange, Sapkota writes: “She was a really cute … an ambitious little girl to whom I fell in love for the first time in (my) life. I was not sure whether she liked me or not, but I (was) determined to marry her at any cost.”

While Kharel insisted they should not be together as she was in a lower caste, he was persistent. Kharel delayed marriage until after earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in rural development. In May 2003, they wed on a humid afternoon at the Sanischare refugee camp.

The two lived together in Katmandu. Kharel did not change her name, nor did she pursue Nepali citizenship. She wanted to maintain her refugee status in case Western countries opened their borders. Sapkota took out a loan, and he and Kharel opened a school. Life had improved. Kharel had television, fashionable clothes and other amenities for herself and her first child, Dharti.

According to an International Office of Migration cultural report on the Bhutanese, “Westernized” refugees were not unusual. Since this population had been in camps so long, “some have gone to University and worked outside the camp,” the report states. Still, they were refugees, and in 2006, all 107,000 became eligible for resettlement.

Most refugees, in a rush to flee religious, racial, social or political persecution, wind up in camps in neighboring countries. Occasionally, that host nation will extend offers to relocate there, but in the case of the Bhutanese, after numerous talks between Nepal and Bhutan, neither wanted to claim them. Ultimately, the United States and seven other nations offered invitations, with the U.S. welcoming 60,000.

Kharel and her family applied for resettlement as one unit. There were a series of interviews. The final, and arguably the most important, required a face-to-face meeting with the Department of Homeland Security.

Truth or consequence

Chris Clements noticed Kharel’s intellect and independence soon after she arrived in Louisville on March 5, 2009. As the community resource developer for Catholic Charities, a local resettlement agency, Clements signed Kharel up for a matching grant program available through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

It’s an alternative to public assistance for refugees who will most likely be working and self-sustaining within four to six months. ORR awards $2 for every $1 raised by a resettlement agency, up to $2,200 per client. The cash bought Kharel a computer and paid for her to get a driver’s license.

She worked at a fruit packaging company for over a year and is now a bus monitor and teacher’s aid at Jefferson County Public Schools. But she wants to teach again, and last week took her certification exam. Meena, her sister, works at a nursing home.

Now a close family friend, Clements often pops in to play with Dharti or talk over tea. Several months passed before Kharel confessed the reason her petition to bring her son and husband to the United States had stalled.

She told Clements she had lied about her marriage and pregnancy. Hridaya, her son, was born 10 days after her Homeland Security interview. A few weeks later, she completed a mandatory medical exam as part of the resettlement process. When the doctor saw her C-section stitches, Kharel acknowledged having had surgery, but did not elaborate. It worked, and her travel documents arrived soon after.

The prospect of leaving a newborn behind sounds unfathomable, but Clements believes this is really about unity, a cultural belief that parents, cousins, grandparents, nephews are all equally important, all immediate family.

“I’ve worked with many populations, but I’ve never seen a culture so family-oriented. They will sacrifice,” Clements says. “If I was in their shoes, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

Kharel’s situation is not uncommon, according to Charlie Nett, who worked as a Catholic Charities’ immigration lawyer for almost a decade.

“Refugee camps are miserable places to be,” Nett says. “People are desperate to be chosen for refugee resettlement.”

Misinformation flies around camps about who’s being accepted, he says, and the reality is few are. According to the U.N., there are 10.5 million refugees worldwide, and only 1 percent is processed for resettlement every year.

Although Nett never worked with the Bhutanese population, he met plenty of others who’d misrepresented their marital status, age, etc. He recalls several Somali refugees who knocked decades off their age after rumor spread that the United States would not accept the elderly.

“We had refugees who were 75 or 80 saying they were 60 years old,” Nett says. “And that’s young enough that they’re expected to work once they’re here. And of course, they can’t.”

A 2011 report to Congress by the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security addresses such fraud. The annual proposed refugee admission document states that in 2008, the government temporarily cut off one of the programs dedicated to family reunification due to multiple, verified instances where individuals lied about ties to refugees.

Had Kharel been honest, it’s possible her husband and son might still be in Nepal, perhaps caught in a backlog due to heightened security measures. Thousands of refugees’ arrivals in the United States have been delayed this year by new “pre-departure” screenings enacted in January. As LEO reported in June, the Department of State, realizing the ripple effect of the policy change, scaled back its anticipated arrivals from 80,000 to 55,000.

Last fall, Kharel explained in detail to a regional immigration investigator why she lied. She’s submitted wedding videos to prove her marriage is real, and DNA tests to prove Hridaya is her child. In three years, Kharel will be an American citizen, and that could provide another avenue for reunification.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security could not speak specifically to Kharel’s case. However, he did say that in any case where fraud is suspected, the possibility must be explored thoroughly — not only for the sake of national security, but the integrity of a resettlement program.

Dependable daughter

It’s about 9 a.m. and already the day’s foaming with thick July heat. Kharel’s uncle and father are inside watching a Jet Li movie on cable, their preferred approach to English instruction. Kharel’s agreed to show me the large vegetable garden her family shares with other refugees in the neighborhood.

She says this kind of outing is rare for her. Over the past few months, she hasn’t gotten out much, aside from driving relatives to appointments and job interviews. Translator, scribe, accountant. Kharel manages it all.

When asked what she misses most about her husband, she says, “He’s the one person who never speaks loud … He always loves and supports me. We are matching.”

She grabs her car keys and we head out.

Her GPS blurts directions, “Turn right, turn right!” but Kharel’s got something on her mind.

“Why don’t American husbands and wives trust each other?” she asks. In Nepal, she knew only one couple who divorced.

Here, she’s watched numerous refugees leave their spouses behind and remarry.

“I say to them, ‘You have to think twice or 10 times or 100 times,” she says. Recently, Kharel’s grandfather, not meaning to upset her, suggested that perhaps Sapkota has not arrived because he’s forgotten about her.

But that is not the case. In an email, he writes that his life has been in a “state of disorder” since Kharel left, and that he misses her “dazzling smile.” A neighbor helps care for Hridaya, but he wrestles with being a single father: “I have to sing, dance, act, tell story, laugh and cry just for his happiness but whatever I do is a mixture of sentiments.”

We arrive at a garden the size of a soccer field, located behind a church. Kharel walks through blades of grass, slick with dew. She points to six rows, about 20 feet long, that will soon burst with pumpkins, potatoes and beans.

“This is a good place to pass time,” she says.

Kharel recently considered flying to Nepal for a visit, but Clements talked her out of it. Kharel’s green card status is in question, meaning her return is not guaranteed.

So, for now, Kharel sticks with Skype and phone calls.

That’s how she first heard her son’s voice. Now a toddler, he is just starting to grasp the separation. When a plane flies overhead, he usually points and asks if his mother is picking him up to take him home.

Kharel heads for a bench under a shade tree, a chorus of birds overhead. She asks about my family, and whether my parents are divorced. She’s worried about Dharti growing up without her father. The last time he saw her, she was in diapers. Now she’s a spunky, pink-cowboy-boot wearing girl.

Occasionally, she gets mad at her father when they talk. A few weeks ago, the sting of a 4-year-old’s disappointment struck both Kharel and Sapkota. Dharti came home crying because neither of her parents made it to her preschool graduation. Kharel was working.

“This is the hard part of my life,” Kharel says. While the belief in karma runs deep in her Hindu faith, she does not see her lie returning as sadness. When America welcomed her family, she had to make a choice — dependable daughter or wife.

“I am sorry I lied, but I do not regret it,” she says. “The decision was not all mine.”

Once again, she delves into the story that landed her 8,000 miles away from her husband and baby. When she gets to the point where she had to say goodbye to her son, it becomes impossible to talk. Each word chokes on a heavy sob.

Her phone rings, but she ignores it. A few minutes later, it beeps in with a text. Kharel picks it up and scrolls, and the grief in her face lifts. It’s her husband.

“It says … he is writing me a long love letter, but can’t complete it because of our son is distracting him.” She smiles.