Becoming a Canadian - living the experience
Leaving a refugee camp, one family discovers the difficulties of becoming Canadian

The Daily Gleaner
Lauren Bird


Stacks of shoes pile up around the doorway of Kharga Chhetri's family home on York Street.

There isn't much space between the door and a side table that holds an old television set, so the shoes pile up as more people come.

Leaning against the opposite wall is a mattress with three teddy bears on top. At night it's laid out and slept on.

The two-bedroom apartment houses Chhetri's wife and son, his elderly parents and his brother's family of five. The 10 people don't fit comfortably.

Chhetri arrived in Fredericton on March 28. His parents, who don't speak English, came in September. They were placed here by IOM, the International Organization of Migration, an agency that finds countries for displaced people.

It cost money they didn't have, but they also didn't have another option.

Chhetri's family had been living in a refugee camp in Nepal for almost 20 years.

"It was really horrible. I don't want to remember those days. It was really horrible in the refugee camp," Chhetri said.

Originally from Bhutan, the family was exiled along with more than 100,000 Southern Bhutanese, Nepali-speaking people, who were discriminated against because of their heritage.

The family lived in a village in the south of Bhutan far from the city. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government began to restrict the freedom of the people in that area.

"Myself and my brother, we went very far from that village and, when my parents and family members were forced to go out, it was not home. We came later on because they said that we had to produce a certificate of origin but we didn't have that because our parents had already left that place and that's why, again, we are forced to go out of that country," Chhetri said.

Those who resisted the exile were beaten and imprisoned. Chhetri's family escaped both.

By 1992, more than 80,000 Southern Bhutanese people were living in Nepali refugee camps set up by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We pitched a tent there ... nearby our parents and we started living there and I nearly just stayed there for two decades."

Chhetri describes his home for those years as a small house made of bamboo and sticks. He said it was low and short and uncomfortable.

"The rain used to fall down on our own beds and it was sort of pathetic condition for having food. We used to a have coal-like (substance), they used to give us a sack of coal. It was dusty and smoky, so that many people felt asthma and many people, they suffer," he said.

Still, he managed to get an education while living there. He'd travel to the government college, but it was expensive. In order to pay for his studies, he began to tutor. He completed his Masters in English language and eventually became a teacher.

As the years passed, life didn't get better in the refugee camp. The heat made it unbearably dusty then the rain made it equally muddy.

"At that time, when I become sick or one of my parents become sick, it is the worst condition I would feel because the trip money used to cost (so much) ... and right now I am very happy we are getting at least the facilities of health. A lot of reduction is being done for our health facilities here in Canada," he said.

Getting his immediate family here cost Chhetri about $5,200 - money he still doesn't have since he hasn't been able to find work. His wife recently started working as a housekeeper at the Best Western on Bishop Drive to help support the large family, though she also is a trained teacher.

"My son, myself and my wife are getting $1,062 (a month from Citizenship and Immigration Canada). But I have to pay house rent, something like $800. That means $362, it's not very much. (We) can't afford food and everything, can't afford clothes and everything."

The last three months have been a struggle for the family.

Chhetri's niece, Chandra, 19, hasn't been able to attend school. Before she can complete her GED, she needs to take language classes at the multicultural centre, which she's doing.

"We expected that we just get a better education here but we didn't," Chhetri said.

Their new life hasn't been everything they expected. It's been almost impossible to make ends meet even though, as government assisted refugees, they receive a monthly assistance for the first 12 months they are in the country. Still, the burden of repaying, within three years, the CIC for getting them here, weighs on the family.

And it's under that weight that Chhetri searches on Kijiji for a new home for just him, his wife, his son, and his parents because their lease is up in September.

"I would like to just go finding other places," he said.

His son, Aaz, three, wears a pair of sunglasses too big for him. He waves miniature Canadian flags in his hands and has a red-and-white hat made of construction paper with a maple leaf pinned to the side. Like any three-year-old, he sings and dances his way to the centre of attention.

Chhetri said despite the difficulties they've faced since coming here, and the ones they will face ahead, on his first Canada Day in the country, he feels like a Canadian.

"I was in torture back home and I was in exile for many years and I am in a better place now. So I need to feel that, and really from the heart. It is only a starting point, I need to say, but I feel that, yes."

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