Bhutanese refugee community confronts youth suicide
CINCINNATI (AP) — When the call arrived that spring day about the boy’s suicide, Parma Bastola of Forest Park mobilized, reaching out to relatives, dispatching caregivers, raising money to help the family pay for the burial. The refugees from Bhutan answered the call.
The Bhutanese Community of Cincinnati is familiar with suicide. Refugees from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan have endured decades of exile in camps, resettlement and the mental exhaustion that comes with that road. For some adults, the journey ends in self-destruction. But the Forest Park boy’s death this year was the first youth suicide within Cincinnati’s Bhutanese community.
The death has left the Bhutanese puzzled, Bastola said. “Parents have done everything to get them to a safe place,” he said. “It is hard to understand when children do this.”
Experts say refugee children can absorb stress that aggravates the challenge of growing up. Learning English quickly means refugee teenagers can stay in school, but they also provide the navigation of first-world life for their parents.
State and nonprofit agencies are aiming resources to address the mental-health needs of the Bhutanese, said Brian Wlodarczyk, director of behavioral health services for Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, which has resettled the Bhutanese in Cincinnati. But “the idea of talking about an emotional heart issue or a difficult thought that might be going through your head is a very Western thing,” he said. “So it’s very difficult for them to naturally go there. We try to teach as much as we can about emotional wellness and brain health, and to normalize what they may be going through and to let them know that there are interventions.”
The parents of the 14-year-old Bhutanese boy who died by suicide this year declined to speak with The Enquirer. But leaders of the local settlement said they want to take the matter public so that Cincinnati will become aware of their Bhutanese neighbors — thousands of refugees mainly in Colerain Township and Forest Park, but in West Chester, too. Bastola said many Bhutanese see the green, rolling landscape of Southwest Ohio and think of home.
Long landless and stateless, the refugees are becoming Americans, and the road can be bumpy. Bastola, who is Bhutanese with excellent English, is a peer-support specialist paid by the U.S. State Department as a liaison, negotiator, counselor for the community. But he also is a healer, leading yoga sessions and practicing reiki, a laying on of hands to promote stress reduction.
Outside the offices of the Bhutanese Community of Cincinnati hangs a fierce hand-drawn and -painted replica of the NFL-sanctioned logo for the Cincinnati Bengals. Bengal tigers, an endangered species, live in the Himalayan Mountains of northern India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Ethnic Nepalis have lived in Bhutan for four centuries, known collectively as the Lhotshampa, and the government eventually granted citizenship. Sometimes, Bhutan’s king visited Lhotshampa villages and “treated us as a father, and we were his children,” said Khem Rizal, BCC’s executive director. “He ate with us, Nepali food, and he loved us.”
From the mid-20th century, political unrest stirred in Bhutan. The government blamed the Lhotshampa and arrested them. In the 1990s, more than 100,000 Lhotshampa were sent or fled into exile. At the same time, Bhutan launched a campaign proclaiming itself a leader in a new global measure of domestic well-being: “gross national happiness.”
The Lhotshampa fled to the land of their ancestors, Nepal, which denied them entry, as did India. To address the humanitarian crisis, the United Nations erected seven camps on the India-Nepal border for 250,000 people. The Lhotshampa stayed there for more than 20 years.
Bastola and Rizal are in their 30s and were boys when their families fled Bhutan. But thousands of children were born in the refugee camps. They speak the Nepali language and practice Nepali customs. They know nothing of Bhutan but what the elders recall. But they, too, are called Bhutanese. The boy who died by suicide this year had been born in a camp. His family came to Cincinnati in 2009, when he was 5.
In 2006, the United States agreed to repatriate 60,000 Bhutanese refugees in the largest resettlement of another nation’s citizens since the Vietnam War. Cincinnati was among the first host cities. In the past five years, though, resettled families who had been separated as the camps were emptied are moving around the United States to reunite.
Ohio counts about 7,800 Bhutanese refugees as state residents, but Bastola, Rizal and other community leaders say the population in Cincinnati alone is probably closer to 12,000 now - enough to support a Nepali restaurant in Fairfield. Columbus now claims the largest Bhutanese community in the country with 20,000. Akron’s recent economic growth appears to be due at least in part to the Bhutanese.
Bastola and Rizal say a major handicap for the Bhutanese is the sparse public transportation. The adults are often housebound and lean on adult children. Younger Bhutanese are experiencing the pressures to learn a language, fit in at school, interpret strange surroundings for parents and grandparents, and be true to tradition, said Annie Scheid, director of refugee resettlement services for Catholic Charities.
“When they arrive here, they’re the ones who are going to school, they’re learning English faster than their parents are, or maybe their parents aren’t learning English as much. They are caught between worlds, trying to find that sense of belonging. It’s something unique to the refugee,” Scheid said.
The State Department, Ohio’s Office of Refugee Services, Catholic Charities and other nonprofits recognize the mental-health challenges for the Bhutanese. The state guides refugees into Medicaid. Catholic Charities offers behavioral health services. The Asian Community Alliance provides education, counseling and a drum circle for youth.
Last summer, the Organization of Bhutanese Community in America held its sixth-annual national convention in Cincinnati. Among the presenters was Dr. Anisha Singh, a Cincinnati internist who uses dance and drama to open mental-health conversations with immigrants.
But the refugees are not the only Bhutanese dealing with suicide. In the land that aimed to lead the world in “gross national happiness,” Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay commissioned a three-year action plan to address one of the highest national suicide rates in Asia.
When the young boy died from suicide, the BCC leadership arranged for a community gathering at the BCC office, and more than 500 people comforted the grieving family, Bastola said. “It was so sad. Such a sad day.”
On a sunny November afternoon at Forest Chapel United Methodist Church, Bastola prepared for his regular meeting with refugees. They do need practical things like English lessons, preparation for the citizenship test and drills on getting a driver’s license. But sometimes, all they need is to be together.
He fiddled with his iPhone until he found Nepali music. The clock reached 3:30 p.m., and the doors opened to a stream of Bhutanese, the women wearing heavy gold ornaments in their ears and noses and wraps of rainbow silk and cotton. The men wore oddly incongruous knit caps: one bore the logo of Washington’s National Football League team; another cap simply spelled NERD. The refugees listened while a question was interpreted: What do you make of the boy’s suicide?
No one responded at first. Then the man in the NERD hat spoke. Who knows what was happening inside him? The boy may have believed that he could not speak, that he is not as free as other kids. A woman in a red coat added that she is concerned that when the children learn English, they will forget the language of their culture.
Bastola coaxed everyone to stand in a circle. He led a breathing exercise — lift one hand, lift the other hand, breathe out, ha ha ha! That routine lasted three rounds until everyone was laughing for real. Bastola then got them dancing, then chanting om. The meeting broke up, and Bastola collected his iPhone. He didn’t head home right away. He’d just gotten a message. Someone else needed some healing that night.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com