Was born in Bhutan and grew up in Goldhap refugee camp where she lived 17 years in the refugee camp. When her parents fled Bhutan when she was young, they lived in the Mai River for six months, where they all developed sickness. Many Bhutanese died there before reaching the camps. When she left to be resettled in Minnesota it was very emotional to leave everyone because they thought they would never see her friends and extended family again. She just graduated from high school in Minneapolis and her biggest expectation is to go to college. She had many leadership roles while in high school, like being class president. She continues to practice her religion and continues to practice and perform her culture’s traditional dance.
AKB: I am in the home of Renuka Humagai in South Minneapolis to do an oral history interview for the Bhutanese Oral History Project. Why don’t we begin by you telling me who you are and a little bit about yourself.
A century ago from Nepal, Drukpa took 400 Nepalese to Bhutan by giving citizen[ship]. They took Nepalese people because they were hard worker. You may ask why Nepalese people were lot in Bhutan because of their generation increased from 400 people who went for farming century ago. Before we became refugee, we stayed in Mai. Mai is the name of the God river. My parents and many other Nepalese who fled to Nepal lived six months in the Mai River. We stayed in tents or wells. Many people died because of the different climate in Nepal. When they arrived at the Mai River, there was sand which we could not walk on because of the sun made it so hot. Bhutanese Nepali who fled from Bhutan walked barefoot. In Bhutan my parents had always formed barefoot. May parents told me about when we fled the Mai River. My mom, my older brother, and I developed a sickness because of dirty place, people use to defecate outside, they did not have a toilet and people used to eat outside in dirty and smelly place. My parents told me three of us were near death, especially me. Most people died or fell ill like my mom, brother, and I because of the smells, dirt, and the malaria. Later they provided medicine, and after that not as many people died. My parents and neighbors used to say to me, “You are so tiny and thin. Everyone thought you wouldn’t live, but you are lucky because now you are a little heavier than before.” But whenever my mom took me to the hospital my weight was still lower than other kids my age. While we were living in Mai River, hundreds of people died in one day. When we lived in Mai River for six months, later they provide rice. They gave 6kg of rice for one week. My mom told me, that much rice is nothing, not enough. Also, when we used to live Mai River people did not eat lot food because of the feces, stench, and sickness. After six months the U.N.H.C.R, Care-tosh Nepal, L.W.F, and H.C.F. Those agencies divided the refugees in seven different camps. They provided us rice every 15 days. They also provided bamboo and thatch to build houses. When I said thatch, people do not understand, its means to make roof for house and it looks like hay. They also provided school for refugees. We had a nursery and grade 1 to grade 10, we had high school. If students passed grade 10, they could to college from grade 11. We did not have an opportunity to get scholarships like in the US. We never got scholarship even if we had a low income. Only 1% of people got scholarships. Of all the seven camps only one student got a scholarship. This is the reason people who were very poor quit going to school and started working and helping their family. Some people they loan money by interest and go to culinary college. If you borrow money it’s very difficult because you do not have a job.
Living in refugee camp was so difficult because some people were good who were not refugee or who live outside of refugee camp and some were bad. Some people used to call us refugees a nick name. We were from Bhutan and people from outside of refugee camp use to call us, “Bhutangy”. It felt bad to be called this nickname because we did not have human rights in Bhutan and were compelled to leave our country, Bhutan. Even so, some people called us by this nick name. They do not consider how we felt. Instead of calling us such names they should have shown love for us. We heard 2006-2007 US going to take Bhutanese refugee to settle and we filled out the form very fast and did paper work very fast to come US citizens. We lied in a refugee camp for 17 years. Three months before we came to US there was a big fire in our refugee camp. 1528 houses burned to the ground. The fire started at 7pm and ended at 9pm. Fire fighters came, but too late. We ran to the forest and slept and ate in the forest. In the forest we lived three months. We ate just millet for one week that they provided us. After one week they provided rice. We kept having our papers processed to come to the US. Our trip to come to the US took very long. We changed five planes and my family was third trip who left the refugee camp. A lot of people to say bye. It was so sad and a lot of people cried because they thought we were never going to see each other. The thousands of people from refugee camps and outside of refugee camps came to say bye and watch. It was so difficult to leave loving people, friends, neighbors, and relatives and people who knew us.
People in the refugee camp all knew each other and we had a relationship of going to their house and then coming to our house, not like the US. In the US people never come to each other’s houses except saying “hi” and some people even do not say “hi”. We took an airplane from Chanragodi to Kathmandu, Barren, London, New York, Chicago, and finally Minnesota. I was so tired I did not know where I was for 22 days. When I arrived in Minnesota, I did not eat anything. I always slept day and night for 22 days. After I did not feel airplane smell or feel sleepy. I started eating food and when I woke up in the morning I saw outside. Because after 22 days in my mind comes, I am in America. How it looks, I felt like America was heavenly place when I get America, but in morning when I looked from window, the environment was just the same except house are different because where I live was house made by bamboo and thatch. But in America they have big buildings. Before I came to America whenever people talked about America they said it was heaven. For me it’s not a heavenly place, but it better to live I America because we can buy food cheap money and if you have job, America is better place to live, but people have to have job. Now I am in America what I knew and understand about America is people have freedom and lot of opportunities and I start thinking about America. This is better place to live where every people treated equal way and independent. They can do whatever they want as long as it is legal.
I think living in Minnesota is very wonderful because I heard from many people Minnesota is better place than any other state. And I can see that and there is one of my friend who’s name is Rebecca and she use to work in agency where there the office of where we came from and I don’t remember agency name. But she use to work there and we met her in her office and she also been in India for six months, so she went to meet with Hindu people and that’s why we making friend and she joined school in Wellstone International High School. And when I came first came to school it was so wonderful, the friends, teachers all welcome me because there was no one Nepalese student before than me, you know? And they celebrate my birthday, and they give a surprise to me and until I graduate are just happy, you know? Like happy to meet me, what else? I think that’s it!
AKB: Today is Saturday, June 16th and I’m in the home of Renuka again in South Minneapolis and we’re going to conclude our interview for the Oral History project. So did you want to talk a little bit about what it was like being the first family here?
RH: Our family is the first family in Minnesota and at that time it was so hard because we didn’t see none of them—like Nepali, we are the only one. And whenever we meet, one person from Nepali and we just like to talk and just don’t want to part, you know? And it’s too boring to live alone, and not to have friend.
AKB: What is it like now that there is a larger Bhutanese community here?
RH: Like right now, there is small Nepalese, in Arlington, but in Minneapolis there is eleven families, so it’s very good than before so we have conversations, can go to their house, they can come to our house some time, can talk, have fun, so it’s very good.
AKB: We did we talk last time about how you and Shara didn’t know each other before? When you were living in the camps?
RH: No, we didn’t talk about that.
AKB: I think that’s a great story. Do you want to say a little bit about that?
RH: My friend Shara, we didn’t see each other in Nepal. She’s from Timai Camp, and I’m from Goldhap Camp. And when she arrive in Minnesota, she’s my neighbor in Minneapolis so we know. So whenever new people come in, all the Nepal people go to visit them, and talk about how it’s going in Nepal. So we talk about that and where they come, and everything. So like that we know each other and we became very close. I use to dance, and she didn’t dance in Nepal, but she start dancing when she met me. Me too, I didn’t dance in Nepal; I dance, but it was Dzongkha from Bhutan, but I didn’t dance Nepali before. When I arrive in America, I started dancing in Nepali culture. But when I was in refugee camp, there was a program sometimes, like drama, I use to do that—I love to do that! I did Dzongkha dance. But when I came to Minnesota I started doing Nepali dance, and I asked her if she wanted to dance because I really needed another person with me. She was interested and that is one person—he’s my brother’s friend—so he’s like my brother. He use to teach the dance in Nepal, so he’s from same camp where Shara is from. So he teach us, and sometimes we just make our dance steps. It’s very good to meet with Shara and knowing each other and now we are like best friends.
AKB: Did you want to talk about your young leadership roles in school?
RH: When I came I thought every person that I will meet is American. But when I get to school, there is lot of people from many different countries. Like Somali, American, African, Hmong, Laos, and I was the only person from Bhutan and speak Nepali. So they highly welcome me and it was so good because I was so nervous the first time I go, but they really welcome me and it makes me very excited, there is no word to say. I didn’t know the school rules, the first time, but I wanted to know. I was so anxious. The first year when I was in 9th grade, I didn’t know anything about the school rules. Like I saw there is leadership team, and they are organizing the program that the school have, and then “Why are doing like this?” I asked a lot of questions and I was anxious to know about that. They talked about all of that program, what they are doing and what their leadership position. And then I learned everything when I was in 9th grade. And when I was in 10th grade I was interested in being a leader, so in 10th and 11th grade I did just member. And when I was in 12th grade I became Student President, but also before that I was involved in Peer Mediation, which if a student is misunderstanding, and you know, yell at each other and fight, so I solved that problem. I also use to organize the dance at school, and the dance was very important for me because I love to dance. I did lot of things, so I forget! And also, when I was 10th grade they choose the three students to go St. Catherine College to learn about college, and how is it and how is the college life. So I went there—me and my two friends who are from Ethiopia, and other is from Laos, I think. I stayed there for one week and when I was in 11th week, they choose me again, me and one another guy, his name is Akil, and we went to the capitol for one week to talk to our representatives and the work in capital and how do they do the debate. And we also practiced that! We also learned many things from capital; it is also for one week. And others, I just organized outside of school, like fun things in leadership. Because I like to become leadership and doing things which will make my experience and more confident. And when I was in student council, I went to Chicago and Alexandra and Walker, Minnesota for meeting and it was so good to meet many new people and having conversation with each other, and it was so good to be in leadership.
AKB: So you got a crash course how governments work, how debates work, how important leadership is to get your voice heard.
RH: Yeah! You know I did a lot of things I forget! I also did, this year, in 2012 when I was in 12th grade, I help the underclass which is one level than mine, I already took that class, so I use to help them. Even after school if they need help from me, so I did volunteer too.
AKB: I can’t help but think all of these really amazing experiences you’ve had in school has helped shape that things you want to do as an adult. What are you thinking about for your hopes and dreams for the future and the things you want to be doing?
RH: Oh my God! If I tell my dream, people will laugh!
AKB: No laughing.
RH: It’s just my dream, nothing is so simple, it’s the big dream for me. Because I love to dance and do drama, more than the dance. I like to work in movies, so I’m really interested in that, I don’t know if it will come true or not, but I hope I can make it true. That is my big goal in my future. But other, I think, I don’t know. I will study nursing or in dental—that is my short-term goal.