walking the camps

The past few weeks have been hectic! Realizing my research assistant and I had a few weeks left together and about 25 interviews to do was… overwhelming. We spent several weeks in the camps full time doing 2-3 interviews a day, participating in support groups for vulnerable refugees, visiting key people and places, observing camp events and meetings. Mostly, we worked in Sanischare, a big camp about 30min west of where I live. This was a new camp for me and the first few days I really felt it. I reached home by 3pm each day so exhausted I collapsed. It was hard for me to get up to finish my notes, let alone go out and socialize.

Being drained after a day in the camps is a common sentiment among the international staff here, and something I’ve always taken for granted. But since this last intense stint of fieldwork, I have been thinking lot about what is so very draining about working in the refugee camps. Daily highs above 100 F don’t help. The sheer vastness of the place, the number of people living in close proximity, the lack of private spaces…??? Do the things that drain us also drain the refugees living there? If so, how do they cope? How do they survive decades in an environment where I can hardly last 6 hours?

These are complex questions that demand insider insight into the refugee experience I will never have (thankfully!) But I do know that what got me through those weeks in the camps was becoming known to the COMMUNITY (that word again… notice a theme in my recent blog posts?) After a few days in Sanischare, people simply knew me, or knew of me, and somehow that allowed me to enter into this intricate web of social networks that comprise Sanischare. What a relief just to recognize and be recognized (by my interviewees, my contacts at the community-based organizations, the family that runs the canteen,…) I felt as though I’d formed and filled a new niche in the living breathing organism of the camp community, and the change in my emotional state was dramatic. By two weeks in I was waking up eager to get to the camps and remaining energetic and positive throughout the day.

Now the past two weeks have been sitting in front of my computer coding my interviews, preparing for meetings, thinking about a final report… and I find myself missing that intimate connection with daily life in the camps. I have slipped out of the community just as quickly as I entered. Fortunately, the next stage of my fieldwork is starting up tomorrow! This week and next I’ll be visiting over EIGHTY camp sub-sectors to map key psychosocial resources and risk factors using a handheld GPS set. I’ll be working with one of my refugee research assistants, Krishna, who is a dear friend. I’m psyched!

Here are a bunch of pictures I took celebrating community life in the camps. I’m especially interested in how kids entertain themselves and capturing the hut aesthetic. I love the creative ways people add flair to their huts.

kids hanging out at a Buddhist temple (gumba) belonging to one of the ethnic minority groups (maybe Rai? Limbu?)

baby cradle, made out of bamboo like everything else and draped in mosquito net


"symptoms of mental illness" poster outside the hospital

men goofing off as they build a new hut after relocating from Khudunabari camp

kids playing with tires

disABILITY center in Sanischare, another beautiful office by the community for the community

a boy poses for me in front of a refugee woman's vegetable stand

kids playing badminton in the narrow alley between huts

bamboo architecture

decorating the mud/clay base of a refugee hut with flowers; many women apply fresh colored clay to the base regularly to keep it looking neat

A makeshift windowsill, there are some incredible flowers in the camps


Virtual Bhutan

I have spent a lot of time this week meeting with leaders of Bhutanese refugee organizations and following Bhutanese refugee blogs and websites online. As I suggested in my last post, these organizations and the virtual space they occupy represent the foundations of a “new” Bhutanese refugee community, which spans many countries while maintaining the unified community spirit these refugees are famous for. In cyberspace, the Bhutanese refugees have finally found a venue for cultural preservation and identity building that is not defined by their citizenship, or lack thereof.

Today I learned of one event that took this concept to the next level. The Global Bhutanese Literature Organization (http://www.bhutaneseliterature.org/contactus.htm) recently held a workshop in one camp to develop a “Virtual Bhutan” through creative writing. According to Media Network Bhutan, the result was a “virtual Bhutan which is non political and works as a bond for the scattered Bhutanese across the globe… The displaced Bhutanese are the citizen of the virtual Bhutan.” From a psychosocial perspective, this creative exercise is also a sophisticated approach to fostering sense of identity among a fragmented population.

Virtual Bhutan Workshop in Bhutanese refugee camp (photo courtesy of the Media Network Bhutan website)

As they have in the past, Bhutanese refugees are continuing to organize themselves for the strengthening of community bonds and support of society’s most vulnerable. Very impressive work!

More on the event here: http://www.mnbconnection.com/news/literary-seminar/

Community in exile

Me participating in Bhai Tikka (a Hindu holiday celebrating siblings) with my Bhutanese refugee hosts in Burlington, VT. These ceremonies are one example of how Bhutanese refugees preserve a cultural identity after resettlement.

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of a fantastic blog run by the Bhutanese community in exile: Refugee Voice. In one year of existence, the blog has been visited almost 44,500 times –> amazing considering half the population is still ostensibly living in refugee camps with no electricity or running water… let alone easy internet access. The blog is closely accompanied by a paper newspaper called the “Refugee Herald” which is circulated to children in the camps, who are encouraged to read it to their parents (many of whom are illiterate in Nepali as well as English)

Refugees Voice is of one year.

This is blog is a great example of the strong sense of community consistently demonstrated by the Bhutanese refugees over time. In twenty years of camp life, sense of community has emerged as one of the distinguishing features of this refugee population. Remarkably, almost all services and facilities in the camp are run by refugee volunteers and there are a number of active community-based organizations (CBOs) that work to meet the social and intellectual needs of the community. CBO volunteers do everything from organizing sports games to printing a camp newspaper to running income generation projects for vulnerable women. At the neighborhood level, the social and economic interdependence is astounding. Neighbors wander in and out of one another’s huts all day, sharing food, ideas, and when needed, what little money they have. Many Bhutanese refugees I interview evoke the “culture of helping” that makes all this possible.

But what happens when a tight-knit community from Nepal/Bhutan is dispersed throughout the developed world?

It is easy to see resettlement as contrary to the notion of community, and therefore psychosocially detrimental. It is true that third country resettlement breaks down networks of kin and neighbors that have existed for two decades, that social problems are on the rise and camp infrastructure is degrading. It certainly appears that volunteerism in the camps is on the decline, replaced by a growing “culture of negligence.”

But it is important to remind ourselves that Bhutanese refugees are in the midst of an unimaginably huge transition. The camps represent one of the most dynamic communities on earth today, the hub of largest resettlement operation in the world! The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration have resettled over 60,000 refugees- community members- in four years. By 2014, it is projected that another 40,000 will be resettled, leaving behind only 10,000 refugees who have not expressed a desire to resettle. With hundreds of refugees leaving each week, it is no surprise that community structures are in a state of total upheaval.

The history of other refugee populations (Tibetans are a case in point) show that periods of dramatic change and social flux do not signal certain extinction of an ethnocultural community. Refugees Voice is living proof that community is not defined by its geographic boundaries, but rather can flourish in exile, in resettlement countries, over the internet, in print…

The Bhutanese refugee community is not falling apart, it is transforming, metamorphosing, replacing gathering points in the refugee camps with chat rooms; news bulletins with blogs. More than this, I have no doubt that it will eventually replace camp infrastructure with a new community infrastructure that is at once local and global. I have already seen several community-based support programs sprout up in resettlement cities, and connect over the web. With external recognition, these programs could be the key to fostering psychosocial resilience and promoting healthy adjustment in a population that has always valued community above all else.

 On this note, I am thrilled to report that a group of refugee leaders I lived and worked with in Burlington are starting their own community-based non-profit for the betterment of the Bhutanese refugee society. I will be sure to highlight their progress as time goes on.

Some fun links to the growing global online community of Bhutanese refugees:






Suicide of young Bhutanese refugee resettled in Australia

A recent blog post on the blog Refugees Voice (http://refugeesvoice.wordpress.com/) documents the tragic suicide of a 22-year old female Bhutanese refugee resettled in Australia. Her boyfriend was resettled in the US where he supposedly “betrayed” her.  The post offers insights into the serious nature of “love affairs” in Nepali culture (note “affair” refers to any relationship prior to marriage). Love is literally a life and death matter here, and this is a well known reality among Nepalese evidenced, often, by such tragedies. Within the past few months, both a Bhutanese refugee and a local Nepali citizen have recently committed suicide over love affairs here in Damak. One left a note about his love affair-gone-wrong, another hung himself with a lover’s picture around his neck.

The advice offered in this article evokes traditional Nepali values: don’t keep secrets from your parents, include your parents in your decisions about choosing a life partner, and if you are interested in someone, marry young to avoid being separated during resettlement (even if you are younger than the “legal age bar”!).

However, this advice does not reflect prevailing values in most resettlement countries. This may be one of the great challenges of  resettlement: navigating old relationships, often long distance, in a new cultural context that prescribes its own pressures and practices surrounding relationships.

Lesson for Lovebirds.

Here is a picture from the wedding  my refugee colleague at TPO. Both are younger than me, but seemed happy and undaunted by the prospect of life together. Quite a beautiful ceremony!

Nepali-style wedding in the refugee camps

Coping Socially

In several group settings (including training of my refugee assistants) I have asked Bhutanese refugees to generate lists of coping strategies they use. I have compared these findings with the results of coping-themed focus groups conducted by Sharma and Van Ommeren  in the refugee camps  in 1998 . Then, I compared our lists with the “fundamental coping concepts” in the Western psychiatry literature (Carver 1997, http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/ccarver/sclBrCOPE.html).

According to Carver, all coping strategies can be grouped into 14 basic concepts:

Active coping
Substance use
Use of emotional support
Use of instrumental support
Behavioral disengagement
Positive reframing

By and large, the coping concepts Sharma, Van Ommeren, and myself have identified fit into these categories, and Carver’s constructs have been extremely useful to me in understanding refugee coping.

However, in the list above, there is a notable lack of a negative coping concept related to relationships (or “projection” in Freudian terms). Unfortunately, coping through social projection is ubiquitous in Bhutanese refugee discourse on coping. In my experience, even uneducated refugees make the connection between feeling distress and committing acts of violence, harming another, or otherwise damaging a relationship  (summarized below in a presentation I gave recently in India).

The highlighted strategies represent what I am calling "social projection coping

This is an interesting omission from one of the most widely cited articles on coping in the field of psychiatry. According to Carver, his concepts have been drawn from both psychiatric literature and psychiatric theory. Is social projection coping less common in America? Or is the connection between our own feelings of distress and the hurt we inflict on others simply less obvious?

I find it fascinating that social projection as coping is common knowledge in the Bhutanese refugee camps. It reaffirms my belief that each cultural group has developed ideas about how we function psychologically, and that these ideas may represent the accumulation of years of empirical observation of human behavior transmitted orally through the generations. Unfortunately, the ideas of most cultural groups have not been translated and recorded in a systematic way (like American/Western psychology has), which makes them almost inaccessible to outsiders.

Elephant attacks and psychosocial distress: mapping neighborhood vulnerability

During the past 5 months of fieldwork, geography has emerged as an important influence on psychosocial wellness.  Hut location affects proximity to camp-level resources as well as perceived dangers. Moreover, neighborhoods vary in psychosocial assets such as security guards, residential counselors, community leaders, religious leaders, etc.

One example of this relationship is the occurrence of elephant attacks  experienced by some neighborhoods bordering the jungle. Elephants wander into the camps seeking food, and often seriously damage the feeble bamboo huts of the refugees. During some times of year, this becomes a serious source of distress in these people’s lives. The families I interviewed reported not being able to sleep at night. Many of the men were red-eyed from standing guard outside for days on end. They have no weapons, no electricity, and insufficient kerosene, making it impossible to see incoming elephants from far off or to drive them away.

A Bhutanese refugee woman sits in the remains of her kitchen. The walls have been destroyed by elephants wandering into the camps at night. (This family granted permission for me to show this photograph to raise awareness about dangers of elephant incursions to Nepal's refugees)

Elephant damage to one refugee hut. (This family granted permission for me to show this photograph to raise awareness about dangers of elephant incursions to Nepal's refugees)

To respond to this theme, I’m adding a mapping component to my Fulbright work. This project will incorporate GIS/GPS technology to map the distribution of different aspects of psychosocial vulnerability at the neighborhood (sub-sector) level. A close friend and GIS-expert will be doing most of the technical piece for me as a consultant (thank you Amy!). This will hopefully yield a series of maps depicting relative concentrations of risk and protective factors at the sub-sector level. Through weighting of these factors, we can then create a composite map comparing net psychosocial vulnerability of the sub-sectors and identifying high-risk neighborhoods.

Those fulfilling set criteria will be accepted back home : PM Thinley

Those fulfilling set criteria will be accepted back home : PM Thinley.