Humble people, majestic landscapes

The Lhotshampa (or ‘southern’) people are ethnic Nepalis living in Bhutan. Many were forcibly expelled by the Bhutanese government in the 1990s and spent several years in refugee camps in Nepal before being resettled by the UNHCR. Among them was Tula Ram Chhetri, a Partnership Community Worker at CRS.

Tula was in his late teens, studying in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, when he got a message from his parents that the military had arrived in their village. Having been given some money for their land (a fraction of its worth), the villagers were made to sign papers stating that they were voluntarily migrating.

We were crying, leaving the country. We didn’t know where we go and how we settle.

The family booked a truck, put in their belongings, and crossed the border from Bhutan into Nepal. This happened in mid-1992, and Tula can still readily recall the exact date.

Tula and his family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal. Whereas in Bhutan, the family used to be almost entirely self-reliant, only needing to go to market for a few things like salt; in Nepal, it was common for people to cultivate the land, sell their produce, then buy it back again. Life in the camp was difficult, and Tula did what he could to support his family, including his parents and younger brother and sisters. He became a teacher, teaching in English, the language of his education in Bhutan. It was from one of his fellow teachers that Tula learnt Nepali. He now speaks five languages: Nepali, English, Hindi, Urdu and Bengali.

Tula with his parents and in-laws in Nepal, 2017

Tula lived in the refugee camp in Nepal for 17 years, until March 2008 when he came to New Zealand as part of the first intake of Bhutanese refugees to this country. He came with his wife and two young daughters. Most of Tula’s family also eventually came to Christchurch through the refugee quota system, although he also has two brothers who were resettled in the USA and some extended family in Australia.

Wearing Bhutanese ethnic dress at International Day at Hagley Community College

Reflecting on his arrival in Christchurch, Tula tells the story of when his family’s settlement volunteer took them to Sumner. She had thought the family might enjoy the experience – but they were so worried by such a big mass of water!

Tula feels at home in Christchurch because the people here are similar to Bhutanese in that they are very humble. There are also similarities between the natural environments of New Zealand and Bhutan, and the ways in which flora, fauna and natural resources are cared for.

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