Born in Bhutan and exiled in 1992. Her daughter was the fifth generation born in Bhutan before they were exiled. While in the camps she helped start and run programs to teach people to sew, weave, and knit. She also helped girls get scholarships to get an education. In addition, she started BRAVE (Bhutanese Refugees Aid for Victims of Violence), a self-help organization for people who were tortured by the government of Bhutan. While working as an advocate on behalf of the Bhutanese refugees, she asked for asylum and came to the United States in 2000. She began working for an organization called, Refugee Women Network. Her family was able to join her in 2002. After arriving in Minnesota in 2007, Mangala and her husband started the Nirvana Center and has continued to help families resettle when they started to arrive in 2008.
AKB: I’m in the home of Mangala Sharma for an oral history interview for the Bhutanese Oral History Project. Why don’t we start with you telling me about yourself, your background, where you were born, when you were exiled from Bhutan, which camps you lived in, how long you lived there, and what life was like in the camps.
People didn’t have safety boxes to keep, and they were not aware they had to keep all these documents. So when they had this so called census, the Bhutanese government said that in order to pass of a citizen of Bhutan you have to show documents and prove that you have lived and paid taxes thirty years ago. And many of our families and friends and relatives—imagine—can you keep a receipt thirty years ago? So similarly, that happened to my family. So, when many of our family members and friends were not able to produce these documents, Bhutan government started discriminating them, separating them: those who can prove documents they are Bhutanese, those who cannot prove, they are not Bhutanese. So there was this separation within the family, and that brought a lot of stress and even in my village on daily life, for example, there was a lady in our village, who was forced to separate from her husband, and instead of being separated, she killed herself. And that lead to a movement in Bhutan where other Bhutanese leaders and all of us ask for our basic rates. But the Bhutanese government, instead of giving us our basic rights, both politically and culturally, they forcefully evicted us. Many of our family members—by brother was put in prison, my uncle was put in prison, my mom was forced to sign voluntary form to leave the country. And I was working for United Nations at that time, in Thimphu, the capital. My husband was a doctor, and I tried to advocate on behalf of mom, but my life was at risk, so ultimately, we decided to go to safe place and we landed up in refugee camp in Nepal. Because of our human rights work to advocate for my family and my village. While in refugee camp, life was really tough. When we first came in 1992, there were [UNHC] United Nation high commissioner had not yet come in the camp, it was first initial time and people were dying. I remember a time when there were like eight, nine dead children that were dying because of cholera. But people were really happy to have a doctor there. We decided to live with the people. At first we lived in Timai refugee camp, where my husband’s family and my family were living. Then my husband started working as a medical doctor right in Timai refugee camp; and I had two little girls and my daughters. After a few months we moved out of the camps, we stayed closed to the camp called Birtamod, but that was a center place for my husband to work in two different refugee camps. He worked in Timai refugee camp and Goldhap refugee camp as a camp medical doctor, and myself started organizing women’s group to give them skills training. And my first idea was to help these women’s to advocate themselves, and we formed an organization called, BRAVE: Bhutanese Refugees Aid for Victims of Violence. And it is a self-help organization. Basically, we started with the hope of helping people that were tortured in Bhutan, women who were in prison or their husbands were tortured, and they were suffering on the way to refugee camp, but that was idea when we started. But later on, the need was so high, we started expanding to all the camps. We started in Goldhap refugee camp, a small project of helping twenty refugee women, with a sewing machine and giving some tailoring program. But the need was so high we expanded to all the camps. We had many, many programs, tailoring programs, programs for people to make their own shoes. People use to weave, make shawls, and then we started scholarship program for refugee girls. Many refugee girls, about one hundred girls were helped by BRAVE at that time. I remember, girls after Class 10 people had to pay, refugees don’t have money, so we gave scholarship to one hundred girls to go to college. I met some of them; I met one girl in California when I went for vacation last year, and she recognized me and she was so thankful saying, “If it was not for BRAVE, the organization, I would have not been able to finish my college. My parents would have never been able to send me to college. I would have just finished Class 10 and not been able to do what I’m doing now.” Also, we give scholarship to young men. Besides that, as the project was running, we felt that the biggest need was advocacy. I was the Chief Executive of the organization, chairperson of the organization. The organization was expanding and we had a lot of people working, but we thought the immediate program is to do advocacy on behalf of refugees. So I started getting involved with human rights work. I visited a number of international forums, like High Commissioner for Human Rights Organization. We went to Beijing in 1995. We had world conference of a woman: it was an international conference. Thousands of women from all over the world came, we took a bunch of refugee women from the camp and we did a demonstration there, we were able to let the world know that our voices should be heard, we needed a durable solution. Bhutanese refugee voices need to be heard international forum. And that is how I was one of the persons going to different countries, through the help of US government, the help of United Nations, Australian government, and talking about the need for durable solution. Then ultimately in 2000, while working as an advocate, I came to US, and asked for political asylum and that was in California first. Within two years my family came, my husband and my two daughters. But I continue to do my advocacy work, in fact, I use to work for an organization called, Refugee Women Network, which was based in Atlanta, and we’re working for advocacy of all refugees in the world. I use to work especially for the Bhutanese. Every year I attended the UN Conference, and made sure Bhutanese refugee voices are being there in some way or other. And luckily in 2008, with the help of many, many advocates around the world, US government and United Nations heard about our voices, and they decided to start this resettlement program. Because our first option, refugees was to go back to Bhutan. We tried our best. Many of our leaders, AMCC movement, it’s called, A-M-C-C, AMCC movement that started in 1996, which means it was a peaceful demonstration that people wanted to go back to Bhutan. They left the camp, they went in masses inside Bhutan, but they were thrown back. They were not allowed. And other group of people did the same thing, and Nepalese government who gave us a shelter in the refugee camp, also tried to advocate on our behalf and tried to do this peaceful talk between Bhutan. For the eight time it failed; so when option to go back to Bhutan had failed, option two live in Nepal didn’t work for us because Nepal is a really poor country, we don’t have—Nepal has not signed a UN Signatory form which means refugees don’t have equal rights there, so the third option was resettlement—that’s why from 2008 we are happy that thousands of people have been resettled, and US government is one government that has generously decided to bring 60,000 Bhutanese in five years’ time. This is the biggest commitment that US government has done, and I’m really, really grateful to them. And through that program, many, many refugees have come and the reason I’m here in Minnesota, as I told you my husband is medical doctor, and he worked for almost twenty years in Bhutan and Nepal as a doctor. When he came to the United States as my spouse, he was not able to practice as a doctor because they did not recognize his degree, so he worked in gas station, we tried to raise our girls according to our culture, according to our—tried to encourage them to be American but keep our culture, our tradition, our religion in the meantime. So we both had to work really hard to give them a good education, and so my husband was working at gas station and trying to save money and we had enough money he did the exams, and he passed even though he passed at this late age—he’s almost 51—he just got residency program in Minnesota, at CNC Hennepin County Medical Center, that is why we moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Minnesota and finally he completed his residency and was able to get a job at Health Partners and we are settled and we have a house here in Roseville. That is the reason I came to Minnesota with my husband and my girls, and Minnesota has been our home. But when we heard in 2008 that US government is going to bring people to the US, we wanted our families and friends to come here. But we came to realize that Minnesota at that time was not bringing refugees as free cases, they were only bringing refugees that have connections here. Like, they need to have families or they need to have some ties. For Bhutanese we didn’t have anybody here, because first of all, Bhutan is such a small county, second thing, we were exposed to the outside world only from 1975 onwards, or maybe 60s, not much ago. So we didn’t have that many Bhutanese people altogether there were like 50-60 Bhutanese who came earlier like me, who got political asylum, in Minnesota there was no one except myself and my husband. So we were the first sponsors of Bhutanese refugees in Minnesota. That’s why our families that came here: my mother, my husband’s sisters family—the one you interviewed—and Adhikari families and a few other—about eight to nine families we sponsored them. They came through resettlement agencies like Lutheran Social Service, World Relief, Catholic Charities, but they needed somebody to sponsor them initially. My husband and I were the only ones so we thought it was really hard for us to help all these people, so we started looking for volunteers, that’s why we made connections with churches. The church that—Christina—the person you had talked about—she’s a member of a church and we went to give a presentation to tell them, give the history about Bhutan, and talk about the Bhutanese refugees, and a group of people got together and formed a support group to help refugees. And that’s how our role played, connecting new arrivals with churches, with the people who initially helped them. Ultimately, that lead to formation of an organization called, Nirvana Center, and first two years I was really, really active, in fact we celebrated Bhutan Day, Bhutan Night, if you look at the website you will be able to see tons of pictures of Bhutan Night and Bhutan Day [insert web address]. We raised some money and we were able to at least let Minnesotans know that are Bhutanese –people from Bhutan here. Because many people didn’t even know where Bhutan is, some people don’t even know that Bhutan is a country or a border or anything like that. Anyway, that was our first step. Now, we realize that is beyond our capacity—me and my husband along—because more people have come and there are young leaders in the community have opted to take over. We are no more in charge of Nirvana Center, we stepped down as board members last year. So new group has come, a new board has formed, and Nirvana Center is also called Bhutanese Community of Minnesota now, and they celebrated our festival for the last two years and they did pretty well; and our role is more like advisory role. My husband was a chairperson for a number –two years at least—no more he is a chairperson—but he is also a board member of another organization called, International Institute of Minnesota, we help Bhutanese refugees that have resettled. So we have stepped up to more of an advisory role, we are also stepping ourselves to contribute more to the Minnesotans. For example, I am a citizen now, my daughters are citizens, my husband is going to be a citizen soon. And we feel we have done our part to help the community get organized, to help the community. They have their own leaders, and young people have stepped up to take leadership to encourage other people, and so we want to contribute whatever we have to the mainstream Americans. So I have taken part in the vote elections last time for the local election, and I’m really looking forward to the election in November, and my girls are doing really well in their colleges, my younger daughter graduated from high school in Roseville, and she active member of the local committee, we are members of YMCA, we go to library here, and sometime we also acted in events in churches and places like that because we feel that we come from a very, very small country, and we feel like we have a history, and we also have experience living and going through our life, but we lived in the camps and we have gone through all: from a country to no country and now we have a big country here, so we want to contribute as much as possible, but defiantly we want to keep our culture, we want to go as Bhutanese and be Bhutanese-American.
AB: Just to clarify, can you tell me what year you came here to Minnesota?
AKB: And there weren’t any Bhutanese?
MS: No, no no! It was just me, my husband, and my daughters, nobody! I know the first family when they came we went to pick them up at the airport, we continued to pick them up for at least six or seven, eight families, but after that it was overwhelming. And the older ones were to pick, it was like we were first going to pick our friends and relatives, once our friends and relatives knew about transportation—like Yasoda and all-- they went to pick somebody up, and then they went to pick somebody up, so the community grew. Imagine from one family to now I don’t know how many families are there—maybe 300, 400 families.
AKB: The last count I saw was between 350 and 450.
AKB: Did you want to talk a little bit about your work as a social worker?
MS: So when I come to Minnesota, I started working with Easter Seals, at that time I worked as an employment counselor. Initially there were no Bhutanese, I was working with many mid-west American participants that were attending our construction training. I was finding jobs for guys looking for construction jobs! Imagine a refugee woman making connections with Midwest construction companies to find job for them—but I did pretty well! I think I went though that, but after second year, once the Bhutanese refugees came, I was able to make connections with the resources that we have in Goodwill, and we did help some Bhutanese there, we partnered with agencies that were working with Bhutanese refugees, we give them transitional jobs—I was a case manger for Bhutanese refugees, so it was pretty good. Our refugees got their initial training in some of the Goodwill stores, and those refugees start out working with the job they learn there, the skills they learned in Goodwill, they got a better job now. In fact, the lady, Ambika, that you will be interviewing on Saturday, when she came she spoke zero English, not a word of English, and we were the ones to receive them in the airport, she came here, she learned English a little bit, she was trained in Goodwill for transitional job, Goodwill placed her to a nursing home, now she has a permanent job, she speaks English, she has a driver’s license, she drives the car! So that is what we did in the beginning, after that, after working at Goodwill for three years now, I’m working for an organization called, Commonbond, and this basically providing affordable housing to low income. The place that I work is in Westside [?] and the majority of the population I serve immigrant and refugees and formerly they are from Ethiopia, Somalia, Mexico and places like that. But I’m really, really happy because being a refugee myself at one time I feel like I can use my skills to help my refugees. And I know they are not from my country, but it doesn’t matter to me, refugees are refugees no matter where they are. I understand their feeling. Sometime it’s really interesting, I’m a social worker there, I help people to apply for energy assistance, finding rent for them, you know, enrolling their children to school, and if they have any crisis, I do the counseling, and so even though I don’t know their languages, you know because I’ve gone through that, I can find a way—maybe I use body language, I use action, I use broken English—but I’ve been able to communicate with them, and it’s really been working and I enjoy my work.
AKB: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
MS: I really want to thank you and oral history because I feel like, I was really worried that our history might get lost, as you know in America, all of us are busy, and it’s really hard for us. And sometimes, even my daughters, it’s hard for them to remember what we have gone through, unless we tell them. And I’m really glad this is going to stay, and you are interviewing a number of our people and you know, one day, who knows, my grandchild might walk by and hear my voice and hear the voice of other people, and if it was not because of you and your friends, I don’t think we’d been able to do that. So, I really want to thank you and thank everybody in the project—all the volunteers too!
AKB: Thank you.