Six months ago, when I agreed to travel to Nepal to work on a
documentary about refugees from Bhutan, I truly had no idea what I
was getting myself into. I had recently escaped the imaginary
shackles of life in Los Angeles and had entered into what I was
optimistically referring to as a "state of listening."
I was doing my best to accept all opportunities that came my
way, whether they made sense at the time or not. I hoped that
if I kept saying "yes" with faith and trust then, at the very
least, I would learn a lesson or two along the way. As it
turned out, in saying "yes" to this project to document the
transformation of lives of Bhutanese refugees, I received not only
a lifetime's worth of lessons but a transformation of my own.
When I received the invitation to work on this film, I had never
even heard of Bhutan. I was completely unaware of its
reputation as an idyllic Buddhist utopia, the elusive "Shangri-la,"
a country that – in defiance of the global status quo –
measures the success of its economy with the metric of Gross
National Happiness rather than Gross National Product.
I also learned about the rarely mentioned group of Bhutanese
refugees living in camps in southeastern Nepal, who would be the
subject of our documentary.
The refugee story I was suddenly submerged in had, amazingly,
never found its way into my world history books, newspapers or
magazines. Filming interviews and collecting stories from
refugee camp residents and community leaders, we heard stories of
oppression, racism, imprisonment and exile.
Cameras in hand, and inspiration in our hearts, producer Adam
Fish and I dove in.
coast. © Doria Bramante 2008 - MUS0074
In a meeting on our first day at the IOM Sub-office in Damak, I
was shocked to learn that hundreds of Bhutanese refugees were in
the process of resettling in the state of New Hampshire, less than
30 minutes from where I was born and grew up, and where my family
still lives. In an instant, a project that I had expected to
be limited to a 10-day stint in Nepal shooting a TV documentary,
wove itself into a web of relationships that reached beyond my
A few days later, as we were making our way through the villages
and shooting hours of footage of the camps, Ann Strandoo, IOM's
Head of Cultural Orientation in Damak, made a bold prediction:
"These people are going to change your life," she told me with a
smile. "You are going to go home, get your community
together, gather clothes and blankets for them," she said, as if
telling my fortune. Then she repeated, "These people are
going to change your life."
As I sat across from Ann in the air-conditioned frost of her IOM
office, it was tough to doubt the confidence in her voice.
That glimmer in her eye told me that she knew what she was talking
about. Regardless, I was still finding it a little difficult
to imagine Bhutanese refugees actually living in Manchester, New
Hampshire. Was I really supposed to believe that they would
in fact be back there on the Atlantic coast this winter, living
next to my friends and family, throwing snowballs and raking leaves
in provincial, folksy, Caucasian New England?
This vision contrasted starkly with the oppressive daily
realities of the monsoon-shredded refugee camps. It seemed
inconceivable, but despite the shortcomings of my imagination, the
resettlement was already underway. Many refugees had already
found their new homes in my old home and many more were en
I knew that the transition to the US would be turbulent, even
for the openhearted, optimistic, brilliant Bhutanese. I was
increasingly inspired to serve as a familiar face back in New
Hampshire for my new friends as they built their lives and homes -
once more - in a strange new world. And so, the mission that
drew me to Nepal was to follow me back home again.
I suffered the standard culture shock symptoms when I arrived
back in New Hampshire - traffic was organized - the streets were
clean - cars outnumbered livestock. I was disoriented, and I
had only been transplanted to Damak for ten days. I couldn't
begin to guess what was whirling through the upside-down world of
the relocated Bhutanese, who were now my new neighbors.
I learned that every day is a new series of tests. Instead of
patching up leaks in their straw roofs, they are negotiating ink
cartridges for their second hand printers. Every day is
filled with discoveries in this foreign place they are admirably
navigating with grace and strength.
My life has been deeply touched by these people. Their
steadfastness, in both enduring relentless rains in the refugee
camps as well as negotiating the complexities of everything new,
from seatbelts to stovetops in Manchester, has been a true
inspiration. With so many reasons to give up and say
‘no,' they have chosen to move forward time and time again
with ever enduring smiles on their faces.
As winter approaches, I realize that Ann may be a fortune-teller
after all. Her prediction back in Damak was right. I am
getting my community in New Hampshire together, gathering extra
clothes and blankets so that my new dear friends may stay warm as
cooler months approach.
Recently, I took one of the families to the Atlantic Ocean where
they saw the sea for the first time. As I watched them,
standing on the edge of a continent, and standing on the edge of a
new life in a new home, I reflected on their courageous journey and
how far all of us have come by saying ‘yes' to life.