Bhutanese refugees fear for loved ones in Nepal

Janga Tamang and Albina Gurung are Bhutanese refugees who spent nearly two decades living in Nepal in refugee camps before coming to the U.S. The camps where they lived are in southeastern Nepal, about 600 miles from the capital, Kathmandu, the region hardest hit by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the country on April 25. But, they say, the entire country feels the effects of the disaster.

Both Tamang and Gurung have had difficulty contacting family members and loved ones still living in Nepal. In the first five days following the earthquake, both had only been able to make contact with family members once.

The refugee camps where they lived have no electricity, so refugees living there regularly travel outside the camps to access internet and charge cell phones. That access to power has been even further limited by the quake, as has cell phone service.

“We haven’t been able to contact them well,” Gurung said of friends and family members living in the country. “There have been problems with electricity. There’s no phone signal. A lot of people are missing.”

Tamang and Gurung both used Facebook for updates from friends on the status of their family members and each has had one precious phone call go through. Both have been able to confirm that family members still living in the country are safe, but they worry about friends who worked in the capital region.

“There’s no opportunity, no work in the refugee camps,” Tamang said. “People go to Kathmandu to work or to study, and that’s where the earthquake happened. We worry about the Bhutanese people who might have been living there.”

The death toll from the earthquake has reached 7,200 people with at least 14,300 injured. The U.N. estimates that more than 8 million people have been affected across the country.

Tamang and Gurung are bilingual case manager aides with Catholic Charities’ refugee services program. They work out of the agency’s Trenton office, helping to serve the large Bhutanese refugee community that has been resettled there. Both were resettled in Trenton in 2009.

In the 1990s, thousands of Bhutanese people of Nepali descent were forcibly deported by the Bhutanese government and became refugees in Nepal. Many were resettled in the West beginning in 2007, leaving the terrible conditions of the refugee camps. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 69,424 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since 2007.

The U.N. agency estimates that 34,350 Bhutanese refugees remain in Nepal. Although the camps are hundreds of miles from the center of the earthquake, the already difficult conditions there will only get worse with the disaster, Gurung and Tamang say. The two case worker aides described life in the camps in tiny huts made of bamboo without electricity, using kerosene lamps for light.

“We have not heard anything about the refugee camps. They’re getting the same amount of food we were getting before, but this was not enough,” Tamang said.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), working with their in-country Catholic social services partner Caritas Nepal, plan to support 10,000 families with emergency shelter, blankets, water treatment kits and hygiene kits. CRS has made an initial commitment of $825,000 to relief efforts in Nepal, a figure that is expected to rise.

To donate and learn more, visit crs.org. Some parishes in the Diocese of Camden took up collections for the work of CRS in Nepal last weekend and others will this weekend. Contact your parish’s pastor for more information.

Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, while Catholic Charities is the official domestic services agency of the church in the U.S.

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