Suicide in Worcester’s Bhutanese Refugee Community

By Ganesh Gurung

Parents of Nandalal Dhungel

Worcester, MA – Nandalal Dhungel, a 17 year-old Bhutanese Refugee who arrived in America in March 2012 with his whole family, was very friendly and supportive of his family and friends. He took all the family’s household responsibilities on his shoulders, including shopping, reading official papers, making medical appointments, answering phone calls, and even advising other family members. He was a role model and the backbone of his family.

One day, as usual, he returned home after staying at a friend’s house for a couple of days.

“He directly went inside his room and was continuously speaking with someone on the phone and was very disturbed,” said his mother, Tulasha Dhungel, 42. “After sometime he was silent and we did not hear any noise or phone calls from his room.”

In curiosity, she knocked on the door, but did not hear any response. Finally, she opened the door and went inside his room and was shocked to see him hanged inside a small closet room.

“He was very simple, caring, friendly and had always been very helpful to [the] whole of us in every steps of our lives. He was not involved in any kind of bad habits like tobacco, cigarettes, drugs or others toxic materials,” Dhungel said. “We did not know what could have made him… take his own life.”

Sadly, the Dhungel family is not alone in dealing with this type of tragedy. According to a study in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, the Bhutanese suicide rate in 2015 was recorded as the highest among all the resettled refugees in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates that one million people die from suicide annually, and the global mortality rate is about 16 per 100,000 population per year. Meanwhile, the rate of suicide among U.S.-resettled Bhutanese Refugees was 20.3 per 100,000 — higher than both the global and the US rates. This was consistent with the rate of suicide in Bhutanese Refugee Camps in Nepal of 20.7 per 100,000, according to the study.

By February 2012, 16 suicides among Bhutanese refugees in the United States had been confirmed. Studies made by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center, and the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement collectively identified the cause of this trend as the perception of burdensomeness, which includes depression, hopelessness, and functional impairment.

Additional causes include a thwarted sense of belonging caused by linguistic and cultural isolation from the communities of resettlement, dissolution of the refugee ethnic identity, and lack of physical proximity in the new country. Some refugees had to leave dignified posts to come here, and in America, they work alongside their former employees and juniors. Also, their degrees, certificates, training and other skills in specific areas are not recognized or not transferred with equal credits.

The 579 Bhutanese refugees randomly selected for the participation in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry suicide study revealed the following problems as major cause of suicide: teens not getting the opportunity to continue their higher education, family separation, huge bills, language barriers, an inability to access help and other available resources, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty maintaining religious traditions, a fear of getting sick and not being able to pay the house rent and other additional bills, and the sickening burden of not being able to read official documents and fill them in on time.

Hem Gurung, 45, a Bhutanese refugee living in Worcester, said the causes of the crisis are complex.

“Family separation, insufficient income to pay bills, isolation, unemployment, and language barriers are some of the root cause of the suicide,” said Mrs. Padma Gurung, a 38-year-old Bhutanese refugee from Worcester.

“Not having [the] basic idea to quickly access the help-line resources, language barrier, unemployment, high bills and being unable to adjust in American mainstream society has depressed lot of Bhutanese people,” said Chandra Kafley, vice-president of the Bhutanese Community of Massachusetts in Worcester.

Kafley said that there have been three incidents of suicide in the Bhutanese community of Worcester between 2012 and 2014. He pointed to similar causes for the suicides.

“A sense of not being able to live a dignified life as they used to in their county, the language barrier, unemployment, illiteracy, unexpectedly high bills, family conflicts, isolation, family separation, being unable to cope up with new laws and regulations and depression,” Kafley said.

In the late 1800s, the ancestors of some current day Bhutanese refugees were Nepalese migrants who moved to Bhutan, bringing with them their Nepali culture, costume and language. After 1990, their rights were severely curtailed by the Bhutanese government under the political program “One nation, one people,” which alienated these Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people based on their cultural heritage, language and religion.

Some of these people were tortured, imprisoned or raped, and they had no choice but to leave the country. After being evicted forcefully from Bhutan, these Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people lived in Nepal as refugees for more than 25 years. Some of them are still in Nepal’s refugee camp. During this period, peace rallies for justice and human rights were banned by the Indian government. Several ministerial level diplomatic discussions ended without any resolutions. Bhutanese refugees were betrayed many times by foreign ministers from different countries and high-ranking international officials from International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) that made emotional speeches in favor of repatriation, but whose sweet speech vanished when they left the refugee camps.

Bhutanese refugees made a petition to international human rights agencies and an array of powerful countries asking for their support in returning to their motherland. However, the agencies ignored their petitions for more than two decades. Therefore, having no other options, they were compelled to choose third country resettlement as the only way to live a better life. Finally, with the combined effort of countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark as well as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), they got an opportunity to choose different countries and were resettled accordingly.

Most Bhutanese refugees chose to come to the USA because they saw it as a safe place and as the land of the opportunity. The USA has accepted the highest number of Bhutanese refugees. As of today, 92,323 Bhutanese refugees have resettled to the U.S. according to the Himalayan Times. The data extracted from the U.S refugee processing center shows that 154 families arrived in eight different states after the newly elected president signed the temporary ban order on January 27, 2017.

Related Articles:

A Bhutanese Refugee’s Resettlement Diary: Part 1

A Bhutanese Refugee’s Resettlement Diary: Part 2


1 Comment

  1. Good afternoon, my name is Kelly Austin and I am a junior nursing student here at Worcester State. I am conducting a diversity project on Nepal Refugees and how we can improve healthcare for the population. I would like to include the Bhutanese refugee population as well. I was wondering if you would be interested in setting up an interview within the next week or answering some questions over email. Thank you!

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