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Refugee discusses personal story as part of StuCo class

Ashok Gurung, a Bhutanese refugee, talks to students about his life. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager) Ashok Gurung, a Bhutanese refugee, talks to students about his life. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager)

Freelance writer and translator Ashok Gurung delivered a speech at Carnegie Mellon last Thursday regarding his life as a Bhutanese refugee.

As event co-organizer Inyoung Song described, Gurung spoke about “how his journey took him to Pittsburgh.”

The event was organized as part of a speaker series for the StuCo Refugee Studies in Pittsburgh (98-170).

The Refugee Studies StuCo class is taught by Song, a second-year master’s student in public policy and management, and Audrey Williams, a senior international relations and politics and clarinet double major who is also pursuing an accelerated master’s degree in public policy and management.

“The format of our class deals with refugee issues, and having the perspective of a refugee really crystalizes this,” Williams said.

The speech was delivered to a crowd of roughly 20 people. Many attendees were enrolled in the class, but several were students unaffiliated with the course. In his speech, Gurung reflected upon the experience of leaving his country in 1990 as a fourth grader.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, the Bhutanese refugee problem came about in the early 1990s because of ethnic conflicts within Bhutan. Tensions had been growing throughout the second half of the 20th century due to the growth in the population of Nepali-speaking southern Bhutanese citizens. In 1988, the Bhutanese government reclassified many of these ethnically Nepalese people as illegal migrants.

Protests prompted the mass deportations of ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan, an action that has attracted attention from groups such as Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

Further complicating matters, Nepal itself claims little responsibility for these refugees, leading many Western nations to sponsor resettlement efforts.

As Gurung explained, in 1988 the Bhutanese government enacted the “One Nation, One People” policy which, in turn, began the conflict between the Bhutanese government and ethnic Nepalese residents of southern Bhutan.

“[The Nepali-speaking Bhutanese] speak a different language and believed in a pluralistic culture,” Gurung said. He contended that the cultural conflict could be attributed to those differences.

He said that the act caused “a lot of harassment for the Nepalese people,” and detailed that in addition to the imprisonment of many people, including his father, systematic beatings, rapes, torture, and other abuses were also carried out under the law.

Gurung described the 17 years he spent in a refugee camp in Nepal, and the life he lived there. He spoke of the crude, “superstitious” medical care available, as well as the briquettes provided for cooking that flooded the villages with smoke, and were linked with respiratory diseases.

In addition, refugees were not allowed to leave the camp unless given direct permission, a daunting restriction on individual freedom that Gurung managed to overcome by receiving permission to pursue his higher education off the grounds of the camp.

Gurung concluded his speech by acknowledging the role of foreign nations in funding refugee efforts and accepting refugees into their countries. The city of Pittsburgh in particular, according to Gurung, houses approximately 2,500 Bhutanese refugees. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, he found people to be extremely helpful. Gurung has since taken up residence, and is considering applying for U.S. citizenship.

However, when asked if he would return to Bhutan, Gurung replied, “I would definitely go,” stating that he’d love to visit his mother, who still calls him every day.

Nick Zuniga, a sophomore biological sciences and psychology major, enjoyed the lecture. “You see in movies horrible things happen but you just think ‘well, that’s just TV,’ but this actually happens,” Zuniga said.

Wrapping up his talk on a hopeful note, Gurung revealed that policies within Bhutan are “slowly being changed,” and that he is hoping for a better future for his country, and people.