He was born 18 years ago to a Hindu family in the Kingdom of Bhutan where, in the 13th century, Tibet-origin people brought his Nepali-origin ancestors to work. Skilled in constructing beautiful buildings and monasteries, they also applied their know-how in growing oranges. Buddhism is the state religion, and a Tibet-origin monarch rules this South Asian land at the eastern end of the Himalayas mountain range and wedged between India and Chinese-ruled Tibet.
"We love our country a lot and we can even
die for our motherland. We are patriotic." (Kamal)
When Kamal was three months old, his family fled political, social, and religious persecution in a violent mass exodus to United Nations-run refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Living in squalid makeshift huts of bamboo and plastic, the homeless, stateless victims endured 17 years' struggle and poverty with hundreds of thousands of other exiles. And, while they could not return to their beloved homeland, they dreamed of a new beginning, to live in freedom and dignity as productive members of a society.
The chance to seek resettlement to a third country under the United Nations Third-Country Resettlement Program for Refugees (UNHCR) reversed their fortunes. And so, eleven months ago, as part of one of the world's largest resettlement efforts, Kamal and his family — already traumatized by their decades-long ordeal, were relocated to Atlanta, Georgia.
From southeast Bhutan to southeast USA
While kerosene powered lights and cooking stoves in the refugee camps — where cell phones and personal computers were unheard of, Kamal has mastered these technologies in his first year here. This summer, in a coveted internship with Amnesty International (AI), he is helping to calculate budgets for human rights projects and to prepare presentations on AI activities in the U.S.
Kamal is a top-performing student, the first Bhutanese in a Georgia public high school. His gentle manner, self-reliance, initiative, and can-do approach have earned him high marks from teachers, classmates, and volunteer groups. (We met in a group spearheaded by a family I met in synagogue whose daughters attend high school with Kamal. The family has galvanized others and scores of their fellow-employees at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help support our new neighbors, doing what my tradition calls tikkun olam [Hebrew: "world repair"].)
Rebuilding shattered lives,
Going from strength to strength
As a key go-to problem solver and troubleshooter — whether for his juniors, peers, or elders, Kamal often dedicates days and nights addressing, for example —
- Evictions on account of scarce jobs to earn rent and utilities costs
- Emergency medical crises unattended for lack of insurance
- One-bedroom apartments without electricity where newly-arrived large families were brought
- Lack of technical skills and training suitable to apply for work opportunities, and lack of exposure to jobs requiring existing skills
- Limited orientation to local customs and resources, promoting inactivity and isolation
"Treat foreign residents living among you as native-born. Love each one as yourself because you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19:34)
The plight of refugees does not elude me, and my tradition teaches that we lift up our kin, especially strangers in our midst. My grandparents came to these shores, too, from Russia via Europe in the previous century. They, too, were escaping persecution, seeking refuge, bringing optimism and hope, and working nonstop to address the persistent challenges of being and belonging in a new land.
Earlier this spring, in a public park near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv I participated in the Joint Passover Seder for Israelis and African Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. The magnitude of the African communities' burdens and needs, which they shared in our conversations (in English or, through a quick-learning Hebrew-speaking child) nearly undid me. I still can't shake the voice of Johannes (shown in the photo with me) as he replied to my dumb question, "Why come here?" As I probed my Eritrean witness, with his permission, the narrative of his suffering unfolded. "I came through the way that Moses and his people, your people crossed. Help us, please help us get out of this suffering," he pleaded.
In Kamal, as in Johannes, I caught a glimpse of something I don't often see: the unabashed vigor of life, the courage and stamina to confront longing for home, loneliness, language barriers, fears, and the unknown. And I felt their drive to go forward, embracing all possibilities despite risking more danger or greater loss.
Encounters with such heroes pull me up out of the pettiness and stupidity of daily life. And I know that almost anyone can meet these kinds of heroes any day. Just pay attention and be present.
Update | July 4, 2009 The Atlanta-Journal Constitution profiled Kamal in Teen rises up as go-to guide for refugees from Bhutan.
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