From Bhutan to the Iroquois Nursing Home


Pusbah is twenty-two years old and, as my grandmother would have said, no bigger than a minute. She has a five-month-old daughter who probably is no bigger than a half-second. The baby—whose name starts with A and who was named by Pusbah’s husband—has been spitting up for fifteen days so this afternoon they are taking her to a specialist doctor at the direction of her pediatrician at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Pusbah is the aide assigned to me this morning at the Iroquois Nursing Home and we have just come out of the shower, which is where women share their secrets. It was in the bathroom that Betty Petrie, special assistant to Frank Kobliski, executive director of Centro, told me that Frank dyes his hair. You’ve got to wonder about loyalty and to whom you trust your secrets.

Pusbah’s husband, who is four years older than Pusbah, was born in Bhutan. Bhutan is a land-locked country of about 16,000 square miles which means that it is bigger than Maryland and smaller than West Virginia. The population is about three-quarters of a million, which puts it between Alaska and South Dakota.

According to Business Week Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world, which probably would come as a big surprise to Pusbah and her husband, who got kicked out of Bhutan when he was a little kid—nothing personal, you understand— his parents and probably grandparents were kicked out, too.

The story, as best as I can make it out, is that the Bhutan government, back around 1890, began to bring in citizens of Nepal. Their plan was that the Nepalis would clear the land in the southern part of Bhutan and then farm it. They ended up feeding the nation, which consisted of Western Bhutan and Eastern Bhutan. The Nepalese who were brought into southern Bhutan were not given citizenship or any other little thing, like title to the land they lived on and farmed.

Bhutan and Nepal each are surrounded on three sides by India, and one side by China. Nepal is almost four times as large as Bhutan but has 27 million people compared it Bhutan’s three-quarters of one million. It’s kind of crowded and when Bhutan started bringing in Nepalese to build roads, they weren’t missed.

Bhutan’s religion is mostly Buddhism; Nepal’s is Hinduism: this divergence is always a guarantee for trouble. The Bhutan government was not exactly into free speech or any other such thing. The Nepalese living in Bhutan not only had to speak the Bhutanese language but also wear the Bhutanese native dress, and they only could live in southern Bhutan. This discrimination didn’t sit well with those of Nepalese origin, but worse was to come.

In the 1980s, the shit hit the fan. A census was done that showed about 45% of the residents of Bhutan to be of Nepalese origin. The Bhutanese responded to this by kicking out of the country all the Bhutanese who could not demonstrate Bhutan residence prior to 1948. Yeppers. If you, your parents and grandparents couldn’t prove that you’d been living there then you got booted out of the country. Keep in mind that Bhutan had refused to give citizenship or land title to the Nepalese who lived in Bhutan, fed the country and built its roads.

So the Bhutanese kicked out the Bhutanese-Nepalese, and hurried them on their way by confiscating their land, beating them and raping the women. Additionally, the Bhutanese government used kidnapping, murder and the occasional bombing to expedite the process. Wikipedia calls this “mass emigration”; those doing the emigrating called it “running for our lives.” And where did they run?

To Nepal, which did not give them a welcome-home party. It gave the 107,000 refugees from Bhutan seven camps in Eastern Nepal. According to Wikipedia, “Due to less people remaining Camps Goldhap and Timai have been merged with Beldangi II.” According to Pusbah, the reason there were less people in Camp Goldhap was because it burned down a month before she and her family were scheduled to leave for parts unknown.

And now we come to the Iroquois Nursing Home certified nurse’s aides—people like the two Pusbahs and Tanka and Govinda and Hom and so many others whose names I can’t spell but whose stories I have been learning. The first commonality of all these people is that they self-identify as Bhutanese. That was home—except for today’s Pusbah who was born in Camp Goldhap. She lived there for twenty years. All of these aides spent a minimum of thirteen years in the refugee camps.

They lived in single huts that housed seven people, or doubles that had fifteen people. The larger huts appear to be about the size of a three-car garage. To eat, once a month they got insufficient rice and little else. They had, simply, nothing but each other.

Pusbah met her husband to-be in the camp. Another Iroquois aide married her husband in the camp. Pusbah’s parents, brother and sisters were relocated to Maryland. Her future husband and his family were sent to Syracuse. None of the refugees know why Syracuse was chosen for them. A man in a shirt sat at a table with papers in the camp, and they came to Syracuse.

Hom was a teacher; now he empties bedpans. Tanka’s friends from the camp are now in Australia, Canada and California; he is alone here. The other Pusbah and her husband have gotten her brother and sister here, and they hope to buy a house now. The husbands of most of the female aides here are working in small manufacturing companies.

The man in the shirt in the refugee camp was from the United Nations, which has gotten about 30,000 refugees resettled to other parts of the world. Figures vary by tens of thousands; it is impossible to tell what is real. Many refugees linger in the camps because they still hope to go home to Bhutan.

The Bhutan-by-way-of-Nepal aides are substantially happy, despite the very long years spent in the refugee camps.

The residents of the Iroquois Nursing Home are not so happy.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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2 Responses to From Bhutan to the Iroquois Nursing Home

  1. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow
    you if that would be okay. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

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