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Safe Harbor: SA struggles to embrace its current refugee community

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The refugee camps are packed with tents, bamboo huts and nationless people.

There is no electricity to speak of and women, men and children wait in lines 100-deep for hours two times daily just to get drinking water, said Sita Regmi, a refugee from Nepal who has been in the U.S. a little more than three years now.

Regmi lived in a refugee camp along the Nepali border for five years with her husband, Parsuram, who was expelled from his native Bhutan in the early 1990s and spent 18 years in a camp. They met in Regmi’s hometown of Phidim, Nepal, where Parsuram worked when not confined to the refugee camp. Both were eventually resettled in San Antonio and now have jobs in the health care industry—Regmi at a home health care agency and her husband at an area hospital.

“Can you imagine how long without electricity?” Regmi asks. “Eighteen years [for my husband.]

“I lived with my family, and he [Parsuram] found a job over there [in Phidim]. After we married, I came to camp.”

Regmi’s story is proof that love knows no borders, but neither do injustice and tragedy.

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At one point, a couple decades ago, more than 100,000 Bhutanese—most of Nepali descent and known as the Lhostshampa—were herded into the refugee camps set up along the southeastern border of Nepal, which also shares a border with India. They had been forced out of their homes in southern Bhutan, victims of a government crackdown that basically stripped them of their human rights and declared them “illegal immigrants” based on their ethnicity—even though most Lhostshampas traced their roots in Bhutan back to the 19th century or earlier, when they were encouraged to settle there to farm the land.

Those who protested the Bhutanese government’s increasing repression, which escalated starting in the mid-1980s, were persecuted, many tortured. By the early 1990s, thousands found their citizenship revoked, their homes leveled and the majority of their community forced to flee en masse to squalid border camps set up in Nepal to handle the exodus. The United Nations finally intervened in the late 2000s, and since then has helped to resettle some 80,000 Bhutan refugees in other countries—with more than 66,000 accepted by the United States alone. Nearly 800 have been resettled in San Antonio to date, State Department figures show.

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