If anybody asks me, “How are you today?” tears roll down before I say I feel blessed and am full of boundless joy. For the first time in my life, after living for 24 years in exile from my country, Bhutan, I feel that I have found meaning in my life.
I am a fortunate one among many unfortunates who have endured so much for their nationality, identity and their basic rights living in refugee camps. I am one of those who hid my embarrassment and crushed rocks in river banks in order to feed my family and keep them warm in winter.
Today, I am shedding tears of contentment because on Thursday I took an oath of allegiance to the United States flag and forfeited loyalty to Bhutan. I waited for almost 24 years as a refugee in Nepal, hoping for rightful repatriation to my homeland. All those years, I venerated and sang the Bhutanese National Anthem, marked Bhutan’s national day, and honored the royal family of Bhutan from my heart, believing that one day I would be accepted by the Bhutanese government. However, it was in vain; instead I was treated as an outcast or even a ready-made terrorist.
From now on, I can proudly say that I belong to America. I am a proud Bhutanese American. This is the dream that I have been holding on to since 1990, when I was forcefully driven out by Gigmey Singey Wangchuk, former king of Bhutan, a country that banished 20 percent of its citizens while promoting happiness as an ultimate goal for its people. Now, I can proudly say that I belong to this land: America.
In 1958, the then king of Bhutan passed the first citizenship law giving citizenship rights to people living in Bhutan who could prove their presence in the country 10 years prior to the law’s enactment. This act was intended to prevent constant skirmishes between the king and the southern Bhutanese, who were mostly ethnic Nepali, and to cement better relations between the two parties. However, after 19 years, this law was altered and then superseded by the Citizenship Act of 1985.
By doing this, the people who acquired citizenship through the 1958 citizenship law were rendered non-nationals. According to census data of 1985, the Southern Bhutanese comprise 43 percent of the total population. This law stripped ethnic Nepalis of citizenship cards and other government-provided documentary evidence, out of which almost 20 percent of ethnic Nepalis were termed anti-nationals and turned into illegal immigrants; they were evicted in early 1990.
In the meantime, a “one people, one nation” policy was stringently imposed to make Bhutan a Buddhist nation with a uniform society instead of acknowledging Bhutan’s pluralistic demographic structure.
It was a sunny afternoon; I was in my school washing my platter in a tap located outside the kitchen. Out of the blue, with the loudest roaring a huge whirlwind of dust came rolling behind the school. Immediately, I saw a surge of students running towards the playground. Within a second or two five army trucks barged into our school compound and began loading students in the truck. I rushed to get my brother and sister from their class, and we ran.
When we reached our house, we were happy to see our father, but we were frightened to see bruises on his body. He told us, “We are left with two options. The first is to leave this country and the other is to face persecution.” We decided to leave. I was too young to fully understand the situation in Bhutan then. However, now I know that my grandparents and my family were put into F1 status (Genuine Bhutanese) by the census team of 1989, but even so, we were expelled.
Now, with the generous help of the United States, I am able to build my life and a meaningful identity. My loyalty toward this country is strong, and I am proud today to call myself a citizen of the United States.
Suraj K. Budathoki is an American citizen in Manchester.