Schools Brace for Bhutanese Wave

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 28, 2008 9 min read
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Sharon Birnkrant, the principal of H.W. Smith School in Syracuse, N.Y., is accustomed to receiving refugees from countries she knows little about. So when she heard from a refugee worker that a group of refugees from Bhutan would be resettled in Syracuse this school year, she went into research mode.

Armed with online information about current events in the Himalayan nation—and about ethnic tensions that have produced thousands of refugees in recent years—Ms. Birnkrant and members of her staff are preparing for the language and cultural challenges posed by their community’s newest immigrant group.

“We have honed our skills at working with new arrivals,” Ms. Birnkrant said this month after her school had enrolled its first two Bhutanese children. “The entire building participates—including custodians and teaching assistants.”

Ms. Birnkrant is among at least dozens of educators across the country getting ready for a wave of Bhutanese refugees expected to arrive in the United States over the next five years, as the U.S. Department of State prepares to interview 60,000 or more Bhutanese seeking resettlement.

Those educators live in cities such as Burlington, Vt., and St. Paul, Minn., that—for reasons including civic culture, existing ethnic communities, availability of jobs, and the location of refugee-resettlement organizations—periodically receive waves of such immigrants.

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Ethnic Dispute Still Echoes

As a result, officials in those communities have become adept at educating themselves on the cultures and educational needs of newly arriving groups, which in recent years have included refugees from Burundi, Burma, Somalia, and now Bhutan.

School administrators and teachers who work with English-language learners browse the Web sites of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the State Department, or the Cultural Orientation Resource Center of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics to learn more about what to expect.

The educators say they typically don’t know what specific needs they’ll have to address until the children of refugee families arrive at the schoolhouse door, however. And the Bhutanese immigrants are no exception.

For example, Heidi Bernal, the director of the department for English-language learners for the 41,000-student St. Paul school system has heard that 50 Bhutanese will likely arrive in the St. Paul area in the next two or three months, and 200 to 300 in the next two or three years.

“What I have found out is that 100 percent of them speak Nepalese, which I didn’t know at all,” said Ms. Bernal. But she doesn’t know how many Bhutanese children will actually enroll in the school system and whether most will need classes for beginning English, or for higher levels.

One bright spot, she said, is that she’s heard that more than a third of the refugees speak some English, “which will be different than some of our groups that speak no English.”

Factors in Resettlement

Where refugees are settled in the United States is decided by 10 national organizations called “voluntary agencies” that work with the State Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Sanja Bebic, the director of the Center for Applied Linguistics’ Cultural Orientation Resource Center, which has a State Department contract to disseminate information about refugees to service providers.

Two of the largest providers are the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

Ms. Bebic said refugees are resettled in a particular community because the voluntary agencies deem it to have conditions conducive to resettlement, or because the refugees already have relatives there. She said agencies consider the availability of jobs, affordable housing, and linguistically and culturally supportive services.

However, since only 150 Bhutanese were living in the United States before the recent resettlement began—and they aren’t necessarily from the same minority group as the refugees—Ms. Bebic said that “we are really starting from a clean slate.”

State Department officials say the Bhutanese refugees are a people without a country.

Bhutan and its Refugees


• Most Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people who moved to southern Bhutan from Nepal in the late 1800s in search of farmland. They became known as the Lhotshampas, “People of the South.”

• In the 1980s, the ruling Druk majority became increasingly worried about the fast-growing Lhotshampas, a Nepalese-speaking, primarily Hindu minority in a majority-Buddhist nation.

• In 1990, protests by the Lhotshampas against what they saw as overly restrictive citizenship requirements and policies favoring the ethnic majority led to violence and mass arrests. In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Lhotshampas fled to Nepal and India.

• About 107,000 refugees live in seven camps in eastern Nepal. More than 35 percent of those refugees are under 18.

• About 60 percent of the refugees are Hindu and 27 percent Buddhist. The rest are Christian or Kirat, an indigenous religion. Almost none of the refugees has ties to the United States.

SOURCE: Center for Applied Linguistics

Called Lhotshampas, “People of the South,” they are members of an ethnic group that retained its Nepalese culture and language while living in Bhutan for generations. But the government of Bhutan, which recently held elections, enacted policies in the early 1990s that made it increasingly difficult for the Lhotshampas to live and work legally in that country. Many fled to India and Nepal.

The Nepalese government didn’t grant the refugees freedom of movement in Nepal or permission to work there, and Bhutan so far has refused to take the refugees back. Many have lived in refugee camps in Nepal for 16 years, and most of the school-age Bhutanese children now bound for resettlement were born in those camps.

“This issue of trying to resolve the plight of over 100,000 people who had been forced out of Bhutan in the early 1990s was on our agenda for several years,” said Nancy Beck, a State Department press officer.

In a speech given last May, James F. Moriarty, then the U.S. ambassador to Nepal and now the ambassador to Bangladesh, said that “60,000 or more Bhutanese refugees now in camps in Nepal” would be considered for resettlement in the United States.

Ms. Beck stressed that the State Department could not estimate how many of those 60,000 would actually be allowed to enter the United States. But she said 200 Bhutanese refugees were expected in the United States by the end of this month, and 4,000 or 5,000 by the end of September.

The first of those refugees have already begun arriving: In the last two months, public school systems in Syracuse; Burlington, Vt.; and Concord, N.H., have enrolled Bhutanese students. Educators in Chicago; St. Louis; Houston; Fargo, N.D.; Greensboro, N.C.; and other communities say they’ve been alerted that they are likely to receive Bhutanese refugees before the end of the school year.

In Syracuse, where a Bhutanese couple registered two daughters at H.W. Smith School on April 4, newcomers will be welcomed by a school administration that is experienced with refugee issues.

Welcome at School

Ms. Birnkrant, the principal, said that about 300 of the K-8 school’s 720 students are English-language learners, and she makes a point of accepting as many refugee children as she can because she believes it’s good for American children to interact with them.

“Kids who have lived in this community have grown up to be international citizens,” she said.

For years, H.W. Smith School enrolled many of the refugee children who moved to Syracuse because for a time it was one of only two elementary schools in the 19,900-student Syracuse city district with an English-as-a-second-language program, said Felicia Castricone, the director of the refugee center for Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, in Syracuse.

“We continue to place a lot of kids there because they are very familiar with the refugee populations, [and] the principal is really welcoming,” Ms. Castricone said.

Ms. Birnkrant said her experience with the first of the Bhutanese refugees has been positive. She was pleased that the older of the two new students, Sangita Dhamala, 11, had a report card showing she had completed 5th grade at the Golden Blossom School in Nepal. She was placed in 6th grade, and her younger sister, 6-year-old Sarswoti Dhamala, was assigned to 1st grade.

Bhutanese refugee Sangita Dhamala, 11, right, receives computer instruction from fellow student Jazmine Green, 12, at the H.W. Smith School, in Syracuse, N.Y. Sangita, who had not used a computer before, is among the first of the Bhutanese refugee students expected at H.W. Smith. The school prides itself on integrating refugee students into its diverse enrollment.

“They have some English and are ready to communicate,” Ms. Birnkrant said about the girls. She said they seem more ready for school than the Burundian children who arrived last school year from refugee camps in Kenya, and the Burmese children who arrived this school year from camps in Malaysia and Thailand.

Hari Adhikari, a 46-year-old Bhutanese refugee, and his wife, Uma Adhikari, 48, recently enrolled their 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter at Nottingham High School in Syracuse.

Mr. Adhikari predicts that Bhutanese children will adjust to U.S. schools well because, he said, the schools in the camps “are not bad.” In the refugee camps of Nepal, schooling is available up to the 10th grade, according to State Department officials.

Mr. Adhikari, a businessman who sold footwear, said his children received a better education than many because, after the 4th grade, he paid for them to attend private schools outside the camp, in both Nepal and India. His teenagers have reported to him that math is particularly easy for them in their new U.S. school.

“They say you are given a calculator to use in class,” Mr. Adhikari said. “You don’t have to calculate anything for yourself.”

Getting Ready

In Vermont, a Bhutanese family enrolled two children in a Burlington elementary school this month, and educators elsewhere in the 3,600-student district are trying to learn more about what to expect.

Lynda Siegel, a teacher of English as a second language at H.O. Wheeler Elementary School, said she typically gets the news four or five days ahead of when refugee children are enrolled in her school.

Ms. Siegel sought to learn more about Bhutanese refugees by attending a session at the recent annual conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, in New York City about new refugee groups.

What struck her from that session, she said, was that “they want to go back to Bhutan. It seems they are caught up in someone’s political disagreement, and they are stuck.”

Ms. Siegel said she looks forward to welcoming the Bhutanese. But she said the arrival of a new group of children who speak little English usually means that she and the school’s one other full-time ESL teacher will have less time to devote to the 70 English-learners already at the school, almost all of whom are refugees.

She said the ESL teachers do their best to get around to all the English-learners to assist them in their regular classes. “We know we’re not meeting all the needs of our kids,” she said.

And Ms. Siegel said she has a number of questions about how best to serve the children she expects to see at her school: “What’s the education system they were exposed to? Are we talking about kids who have never been in a classroom, or are we talking about kids who have been fairly stable and had some education? Do they have any exposure to English? Are they literate in their first language?”

Those answers may have to wait until the children arrive, if the experience of educators elsewhere is any guide.

Concord, the New Hampshire state capital, for example, recently became home to four Bhutanese families with school-age children, and one of those families has already enrolled a boy in middle school and a boy in high school, according to Amy Marchildon, the director for international services for Lutheran Social Services of New England.

Ms. Marchildon, whose organization is based in Concord, said that before the families’ arrival, she was told that the Bhutanese speak some English, but “that’s something we weren’t fully banking on.”

Her group was right to be cautious: The refugees who have arrived so far in Concord, Ms. Marchildon said, speak only “survival English.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Schools Brace for Bhutanese Wave


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