Following a Refugee Family's Long Journey to U.S. Citizenship

Following a Refugee Family’s Long Journey to U.S. Citizenship


Originally published by The NY Times

One suitcase each.

That was all the Mainali family took from their home in Bhutan when they fled to a refugee camp. As members of the Lhotshampas, an ethnic group of Nepali origin, the three-generation family was ensnared in Bhutan’s mass expulsion of more than 100,000 people in 1992.

Almost instantly, the king of Bhutan pushed out one-sixth of the small Buddhist country’s population. The Drukpas, the Buddhist elite, and the Hindu Lhotshampa had peacefully coexisted until 1989, when the king introduced his “One Nation, One People” policy. The measure required all Bhutanese to accept Drukpa social norms — how they ate, dressed and even talked.

By the early 1990s, the Lhotshampas were declared illegal immigrants. The Mainalis, along with tens of thousands of Nepalese descent, were cast to the shadows and sent to United Nations refugee camps in Nepal.

Radika Mainali, center, with her son, her daughter-in-law and her two granddaughters. The Mainalis had been living as refugees for the past 18 years. August 2009.CreditViviane Dalles

The Mainali family bathing in the holy Mai River in Nepal in August 2009 before their journey to the United States.CreditViviane Dalles

Those who remained in the refugee camps said their last goodbyes. August 2009.CreditViviane Dalles

The photographer Viviane Dalles was interested in learning more.

“What happens next when you lost everything and you have to start again?” Ms. Dalles asked.

She arrived at the refugee camps in Nepal in 2009 and learned that 60,000 of these refugees were about to be resettled around the world. She planned to follow one family’s journey from their final days in camp to their new home.

That’s when she met the Mainali family, who after 18 years of living in a refugee camp, were headed to their new home in Dallas. Nine years later, Ms. Dalles visited the Mainali family one more time to complete her project, “Namaste America, From Bhutan to USA.”


When Ms. Dalles arrived in 2009, the camps had been around for so long that they looked more like small villages than refugee camps, she said, cemented in a landscape once known as “the last Shangri-La.”


Rabina and Bidhya eating dal bath, a traditional Nepali dish, in their living room in Dallas. September 2009.CreditViviane Dalles

Rabina helping her grandmother sign official documents at a Catholic Charity office in Dallas. 2009.CreditViviane Dalles

Every Saturday the Bhutannese community in Dallas gathers and performs a puja. February 2010.CreditViviane Dalles

Rabina with her grandmother. September 2009.CreditViviane Dalles

There were days she would spend with the family without ever lifting her camera. Talking with them, she said, allowed them to explore intimate subjects of family and loss.

The family of five — grandmother, mother, father and two daughters — lived in a small one-bedroom hut. The parents and children shared the bedroom and the grandmother slept in the living room. There were a few cooking pots, but not much else.


They had flown together from Damak, Nepal, to Kathmandu and on to Hong Kong, New York and finally Dallas. It was the first time the grandmother, Radika Mainali, had ever been on a plane.

“Everything was a shock” when the Mainalis arrived, Ms. Dalles said.

The father, Rabi Mainali, described going to the supermarket: “You have everything here, but what’s the point if you don’t have the money?”


Rabi Mainali, center, on a rare day when he is home from work with his daughters and mother, doing housework, shopping and cooking. Dallas, March 2018.CreditViviane Dalles

Radika Mainali, who is retired and receives a state pension, spends most of her time at home. March 2018.CreditViviane Dalles

Rabina Mainali helps her sister Angelina do her homework. Rabina is studying in North Carolina and wants to become a microbiology lecturer. March 2018.CreditViviane Dalles

The Mainalis quickly found work. Mr. Mainali and his wife, Hema, were both teachers in Bhutan. But their certifications were not valid in Texas. Mr. Mainali became a cashier, spending more than three hours a day traveling to and from work. His wife cleaned rooms at a nearby hospital.

“They could feel the pressure,” Ms. Dalles said. “From the beginning they knew they would work very hard.”


The girls, Bidhya and Rabina, “were excited about everything,” Ms. Dalles recalled. They studied with other refugees in their first few weeks in Dallas before moving on to public school, right alongside American students.

Flash forward 9 years, and another child for the Mainali family. Ms. Dalles visited them in March to check back in after almost a decade in the United States. She approached them the same way she had when she first met them — quietly, like part of the backdrop of their lives.

But this time was different: They’ve abandoned many of their Bhutanese traditions and immersed themselves in the American experience, Ms. Dalles said.

The Mainalis now all had their U.S. citizenship.


Radika Mainali visiting neighbors, also from camps in Nepal, in the Keller neighborhood in Dallas. March 2018.CreditViviane Dalles

Radika Mainali praying in her bedroom in front of an altar representing Hindu gods. March 2018.CreditViviane Dalles

Bidhya Mainali doing her makeup at home. She wants to continue studying in the United States to become a nurse. March 2018.CreditViviane Dalles

“They were not refugees anymore,” Ms. Dalles said. “I was not taking pictures of refugees, but just people — it was much harder for me to show the changes,” she said.


“I worked the same, but it was a bit more difficult for me” as a photographer “because daily life was so common,” she said. “It was their new life.”

The Mainalis prefer to say they are from Nepal rather than Bhutan, shedding the refugee status they once knew.

The family largely sticks to the Bhutanese community, Ms. Dalles said. “When you are with them, you feel like you are in Nepal,” she said.

But they’re committed to the American dream.

Mr. Mainali works 12 hours a day, six days a week at an electronics company.

“He wants to make money, it’s kind of an obsession for him,” Ms. Dalles said. “He wants to save the money to get a bigger house and buy a car and pay for his daughters’ educations.”

Eventually he wants to start a business in Nepal, five or 10 years down the line. He’s the only one in the family who wants to go back.


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