Reporter’s Notebook: A world away from Bhutan, refugee starts new life in Maryland suburb

Rizal family

Kharananda Rizal came to America with his three children as Bhutanese refugees four months ago. Rizal said it was hard to leave but the feeling that his children would have a better future drove him to come.

UPDATE: This story was published on WashingtonPost.com on July 2. Hop on over there and check it out.

A behind-the-scenes look at my story on a family of Bhutanese refugees and their challenges and triumphs as the settle into American life. 

I spent part of the spring semester in a class focused on community reporting. We were assigned different neighborhoods and had to go out and find a story.

Looking back, I can say this was one of the most challenging reporting assignments I’ve ever had. Relatively new to D.C., it is daunting, at first, to walk the streets of a neighborhood, approaching strangers and searching for a meaningful story that communicates the essence of a community.

My final assignment for the class was to explore Riverdale, Md., a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. that has recently received an influx of Bhutanese refugees.

Bhutan, which is about the size of Indiana, is a small country sandwiched between China and India. In the early 1990s, more than 100,000 Bhutanese citizens were exiled to Nepal, forced to live in refugee camps for almost 20 years.

In 2007, the United Nations started a resettlement program and over the years, many of the refugees have ended up in the United States, some in Riverdale.

Finding the perfect story 

The first time I went to Riverdale, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew from my research that most of the Bhutanese refugees were settled in one apartment complex, about half a mile off the main highway. I also knew that a majority of refugees spoke Nepalese and knew little-to-no English.

I went to the apartment complex with another classmate on a cold, rainy Saturday. We walked around in the mist for about 20 minutes, not sure what to do. The complex has several buildings and there were not many people outside because of the weather.

Finally, after stumbling around the complex, unsure of what to do, we saw a two men chatting, one was wearing a traditional Nepalese hat. After debating for a minute about what to do, we finally just walked up to the two men.

“Hi, we’re looking for Bhutanese refugees to speak to,” Kate, my classmate said. The man in the Nepalese hat scrunched up his face, looking confused. Oh no, they don’t speak English, I thought.

“Do you speak English?” I asked, unsure of what to say. “I’m hoping to talk to teenagers who are refugees from Bhutan.”

The man’s face lit up. “Oh yes! Come, come this way,” he said, motioning us down the stairs toward his apartment.

Walking into a dark apartment

The man, Kharananda Rizal, led us into his dark apartment where a mattress was propped behind a brown sofa and blankets stood in place of curtains across the broad living room windows.

As we walked in, Rizal flipped on the lights of the dim room and called for his children. His son, 17, and two daughters, 13 and 9, soon settled on the couch. Rizal spoke to them in Nepalese and soon the 13-year-old daughter, Priya, was in the kitchen making a milky honey-flavored tea.

Kate and I spent almost three hours with the Rizal family that day. We learned they had just came from Nepal four months before. Although considered Bhutanese refugees, the children were born and raised in Nepal.  Kharananda had started a successful boarding school in Nepal, allowing him to move his children out of the refugee camps, a place many refugees never leave.

During that visit, the family would shift back and forth between English and Nepalese. Everyone spoke English–it was a requirement at the Rizal boarding school–but sometimes, when the dad wanted to instruct the children, he would revert to Nepalese.

Where’s mom?

Kharananda told Kate and I that the family was adjusting well to America but were sad because they had to leave his wife/the children’s mother behind in Nepal because she wasn’t a Bhutanese citizen.

He said it was especially a struggle for his two daughters. Poonyashila, 9, was unsure of how to adjust without having her mother around and Priya, 13, worked to fulfill some of the vacancies left by her mother’s absence, including cooking dinner, cleaning the house and getting Priya ready for school.

The girls showed me screen grabs they had taken on their computer of Skype chats with their mother. On one side of the screen was the Rizal family, all four heads crowded in with beaming smiles. On the other side was their mother, smiling back, wearing glass and a brightly colored Nepalese dress.

Making a real connection 

A few weeks later, I returned, alone, to interview the Rizal family again. I had decided I wanted to profile them for my final assignment and wanted to spend more time together.

Over a period of five hours, I learned many things, including the proper way to eat mangos and what a traditional Nepalese noodle dish tastes like, courtesy of Priya.

I also learned something very important–that the matriarch of the family was not forced to stay in Nepal as they had previously told me. Instead, they made the mutual decision to keep her behind so she could run the family’s boarding school. This is a big deal because, due to resettlement rules, the family won’t be reunited for at least a year, probably longer.

It meant a lot that the family could trust me enough to tell me the truth, knowing that on the first visit they were unsure what Kate and I, as Americans, would think about their choice.

I think this story really speaks to the heart of community reporting–finding a story where, at first, it seems hopeless.

And, not just any story, but a great story about a family, struggling to hold on to their Bhutanese/Nepalese identities while adjusting to America. A story about a father who started a boarding school with $20 to his name yet can not find a job in America. A story about a mother who chose to stay behind to run the school to support the family. A story about three children who are adjusting to life not only in a new place, but without their mom to guide the way.

The final product (with slideshow): “A world away…”

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