Until he became a U.S. citizen when he was thirty years old, Gyanendra Subba never had a passport for any country. He was born in Bhutan, but only those born to two Bhutanese parents were automatically granted citizenship, and Gyanendra’s mother was Nepali.
In 1989, when Gyanendra was 4 years old, Bhutan declared all non-citizens to be “illegal settlers”, and forced many out of the country, leading to protests against the government. Even though his father and grandfather were well-respected Bhutanese citizens, his father was targeted because of his anti-government activities.
“I think my father already knew what was going to happen next because he was one of the leaders organizing things happening in the country against the government, protesting. His friend got arrested so he already knew what was coming.
“He did not tell my mom, he just said that he was leaving to India. After he left and crossed the border, he sent somebody else to tell my mom to lock the door and take the kids and go back to her parents. So she just locked the house, gave the keys to the neighbor, packed some bags. Maybe she thought we were going for a vacation. I was four years old, my brother was two years older than me. So we went to my mother’s house in Nepal and that was it. We could never go back.
“People started getting arrested, lots of people got evicted. Bhutan is a small country, maybe 700,000 people. Out of 700,000, 100,000 were evicted. That makes the biggest refugee crisis by proportion.”
Gyanendra’s father helped set up the first refugee camps, working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
“[The camp] was okay, it was bamboo huts, lots of people were living there. It was fun to live there as a kid. I was a good student. [When] I was 14 years old, they sent me to a residential school in South India, almost 2 days on the train. It was really hard for me, leaving my mom for the first time, going to a place where I don’t know the language or anything. I did 5 years there. After that I decided to come to Calcutta (Kolkata), I did my bachelor’s in physics. I wanted to go closer to home. Calcutta was good because I could go back and forth to the camp.
“All this time nobody asked me about my identity. Although we were refugees, I could go to India and study and nobody asked me for my ID. I crossed the border and nobody asked me, ‘what’s your nationality?’ or anything like that. It’s an open border between India and Nepal
“My mom is Nepali but that part of India is all Nepali ethnically. During the British, [areas] were taken away from Nepal and that turned into India. It’s not that people from Nepal came to India; they were originally living there, it just got a different name of a country. She does not have [Nepali] citizenship, it’s just that she was born in Nepal.”
In 2007, the U.S. and seven other countries agreed to resettle the refugees. Gyanendra and his mother and brother were among the first refugees to leave Nepal for resettlement in the U.S.
“There were lots of people against the resettlement process. My dad and the leaders, they wanted to go back to Bhutan. [Bhutan’s] stand is very clear: they don’t consider us their citizens. We were refugees there, although they might put it in different words.
“Nobody took [resettlement] seriously, nobody thought someone would take us to a different country. And even if they take us, what would it look like? Everybody was scared. But we have to take a chance. We cannot live like that forever, like refugees. Already our families have suffered a lot. This is the first time we’re thinking we’d be like a family living together somewhere.
“We were the first lot of people getting resettled from the refugee camp. You have no idea where you are going, just that we’re going to America. We were thinking that we were going to a forest or something where we don’t get anything. My mom wanted to take lots of things, even a rice cooker. And I think, maybe she’s right, maybe we won’t get it there!
“[When we got to Seattle], people from World Relief were already there waiting for us. Since we were the first Bhutanese refugees for World Relief, they had lots of questions; how do they look, what do they eat? They took us to the apartment in Kent; the case manager saw that Bhutanese eat red rice, so they cook for us a Bhutanese dish, it was really nice. That apartment had nothing in it. It was really depressing in the beginning. You know no one here. It was very difficult, being the first people resettled, trying to figure out things.”
Gyanendra first found work as a dishwasher in a Thai restaurant, and then became a purchasing manager for a Hilton Hotel in Bellevue, where he was confronted with strange foods and customs: “I didn’t know gallons or pints or muffins or croissants or anything! I’d go to meetings and take notes, I come back and Google it, how does that look?”
He has since worked for the Nonprofit Assistance Center, as a case manager for Refugee Women’s Alliance, as lead career coach at Seattle Housing Authority at New Holly, and has studied for his MBA at Seattle University.
“I consider myself very lucky as a refugee. There were struggles coming to the United States, [but] I was ready, I was able to speak English. Hard work is what’s helped me, being open and willing to take any job, whatever is available. Those survival jobs teach you a lot of things about American culture. I had a degree in physics, and my friend always used to tell me, ‘if we can do this we can do anything.’ I always had that: I’ve done physics, I can do this!
“This is the most grounded place for me. My kids are born here. I’m married, my family’s here. [Before I became a U.S. citizen], I never had citizenship, I was moving to different countries. So [applying for citizenship] was the first thing we did, as soon as we were here 4 years and almost 10 months.
“I’m an American — it feels proud to say American. If somebody asks me who am I, if I say I’m an American from Seattle, they say no, no, where are you originally from? My answer will not be straight. I’m from Bhutan, but I’m actually not from Bhutan, I was just born in that country. I moved to Nepal, and spent almost 20 years in India and now 10 years in America. So for people like us with hybrid nationalities, hybrid identities, it’s not a simple answer. I don’t have concrete ties to any of those countries.
“My whole family, my community, we’re all really thankful to this country for giving us a chance to come here. We also contribute. People need to know that refugees contribute a lot. Refugees and immigrants are hard working people. It’s unfortunate that things happen to them, and they have to leave. Nobody likes to simply leave where they were born. Those are hard choices.”