Bhima Bhandari sets a tray on the table in her living room. She serves freshly cut cucumber, slices of mango and guava, a special sweet treat and a cup of homemade chai tea. The scent is intoxicating.
She says: “The smell of cardamom reminds me of drinking tea with my family, and the way we could see the jungle from the back of our house.
“We had 1,000 orange trees in Bhutan and a big field of cardamom plants — green leaves, deep red flowers — seeds small like fingernails.”
Bhutan is the place of Bhima’s childhood. As such, it will always tug at her heart. She grew up with her parents and 10 sisters and nine brothers, tending the family’s big farm. Though she remembers playing marbles and swinging in the trees — the town was too far away and too expensive to visit — she also had responsibilities.
“We were always working. We worked in the fields. We went to school. Life was too busy in Bhutan.”
Bhima was 15 years old. Had she stayed in Bhutan, she would have married (her mother was 11 when she wed) and lived the life set out for her.
Her daughter, Susila, 11, says: “She had no idea she would be living here.”
Her son, Surya, 15, says: “She would be working on the farm her whole life. Then one night, it changed.”
Bhima’s family is Nepalese, workers who came to Bhutan generations ago. In the 1980s, this ethnic group was seen as a threat to the political order; they were tortured, beaten, imprisoned. One night, officials came to her father’s house.
Surya: “They told them to get out or they’d kill them.”
Bhima: “We are all crying.”
Susila: “They had no choice but to leave.”
Between 1990 and 1993, more than one-sixth of the population — 100,000 Bhutanese Nepali people — left in mass exile and a political situation that is unresolved today. Bhima’s huge family fled with nothing, cramming themselves on a truck with 75 or 80 people. For three days, they traveled through the jungle, without food, fearing for their lives, to reach Nepal — the border that offered safety. But only marginally.
Bhima: “(There), 15 people died each day from malaria, starving, diarrhea, vomiting. I was sick for 22 days. ... I almost died.”
The heat was relentless; shelters were made of plastic; there were no toilets. Though the makeshift camp was beside a river, its water made people ill. This was their refuge.
The family moved to a more permanent refugee camp six months later, where Bhima would live for 18 years. Life was not easy, but it speaks to Bhima’s resilience, grace and her ability to give and receive that Nepal, too, came to hold fond memories for her. Nepal is where Bhima became an adult, a wife and a mother.
Bhima: “When I was 15 and I left Bhutan, I had my parents. When I left Nepal, I had my own family.”
Krishna, a teacher, poet and the man who would become Bhima’s husband, has his own story. He fled Bhutan with his family, although they went into hiding in India. But at 27 years old, Krishna went to Nepal looking for work. He and a group of friends began a school in the refugee camp, which grew from a few students on the bank of the river to 32,700 students in seven camps in three years.
Krishna: “I started from volunteer.”
His teaching turned into a job, and later, he also became director of a school for adults. When Bhima had been in Nepal for a year and a half, one day Krishna visited her father. And thus, their marriage was arranged.
Susila: “That was the biggest marriage in camp. They gave students a holiday (because Krishna was a teacher). It was like a special holiday. The celebration lasted five days.”
Bhima: “It was a big party. I was making food, cooking — a Nepalese bread called roti. … I was proud and tired.”
In the refugee camp, Bhima learned to sew, a skill that would carry her from Nepal to Boise.
“I sewed at home — I made shirts and pants, scarves and skirts — everything my children wore, I made. I helped poor people, too. I sewed clothes and gave them away.”
Bhima and Krishna have four children. The eldest two have their own memories of Nepal, and the younger ones have heard stories so often, they tell them as their own. But a refugee camp is still a refugee camp. Bhima cooked on an unhealthy coal fire. Food was scarce. Political differences in the camps turned violent.
Susila: “We had no citizenship in Nepal. … You would die if you left (the camp — it’s not possible to make a living elsewhere in Nepal). It’s not peaceful. People would, like, kill for money. People were fighting.”
So when Bhima and Krishna had the opportunity to apply to come to America, they took it.
Surya: “They were poor, poor. They had no money. They thought to themselves, they have children who need more education.
“They came here for our future.”
The first night in Boise, arriving at midnight, was traumatic. The children were crying, it was dark, so much was incomprehensible. They laugh now, especially hard, at their memory of trying to make tea in their apartment but not being able to find milk. They didn’t know what the refrigerator was for.
Bhima: “I understand a little bit of English, but I don’t know how to say (things). It’s better now.”
Bhima’s sewing became her transition. She became involved in Artisans4Hope, which teaches knitting and sewing along with English and confidence, and offered friendship, a haven and resources.
“I say, I know a little sewing. If you give a chance for me, I will learn more. OK, they give a chance. I come; I am learning many things.”
In this last year, Bhima has earned nearly $3,000 from her sewing projects — purses, hats, bags, journal covers, quilts, coin purses. After two and a half years, she is now Artisans4Hope’s first paid employee.
Krishna: “She is teacher now. Everything changed — Mom and Dad changed (roles). It is funny. (He laughs.) In the beginning, she was a volunteer.”
Krishna works in a plastic recycling business. Bhima’s sewing bought them a second car.
Surya: “In Nepal, you have to be the richest person to have a car. Even to ride in a car seemed impossible. Now we own two. … Even I am driving now. I never dreamed I would drive a car.”
The family has been in Boise for nearly five years. Their eldest daughter, Sujata, 17, graduated from high school and will attend the University of Idaho on a full scholarship. She has wanted to be a doctor ever since she was a child. Sujata contrasts that to her mother, who did not think about what she wanted to be when she grew up.
Sujata: “She never thought. She didn’t have time to think.”
But now she does. Bhima sews, and as she does, she sews her memories and her hopes.
Bhima: “I am so happy in Boise. My daughter is going to college in the fall. She will be a nurse, and my other children — they all have big dreams.
“This is what I want. My children to have big dreams for their lives and their children.”
NOTE: Some of Bhima’s quotes come from a project with writer Malia Collins through the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.