Home > in the community, people > From Bhutan to Portland: Planting the Seeds of A New Life

From Bhutan to Portland: Planting the Seeds of A New Life

Pabitra Dhimal (left) and Koushila Koirala pull weeds in the empty lot they’ve transformed into a productive garden (Photo: Juan-Carlos Delgado for Mercy Corps)

By Andy Parker

Crouched close to the loamy soil, the two women work as one, their ebony hair shining brilliantly in the midday sun as their four hands move seamlessly across the tidy garden plot rows.

Fifteen, 20, then 30 minutes whisk by and never once do they rise from their work, their motions as effortless as the flights of the half-dozen butterflies riding the warm afternoon breezes across the garden. The women are plucking the little leaves of the mustard plant, one at a time, leaf by leaf, then quickly tying them into small bundles and tossing them toward a plastic tub, their fingers back picking greens before the bundles come to rest.

It’s a mesmerizing, well-practiced rhythm, one of the few remaining signature patterns in lives torn apart by the politics and intolerance of their homeland — the mystical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan where, since 1990, the Bhutanese majority has forced more than 100,000 citizens of Nepali descent into refugee camps in Nepal.

A Difficult Journey

Watching Koushila Koirala and Pabitra Dhimal, their easy conversation and laughter rolling across the Sellwood-Moreland residential lot they’ve transformed into a sprawling organic garden, you’d never suspect the journey their families have endured. In recent years, the respected Bhutanese landowners were demonized as despised intruders from Nepal and herded into refugees camps.

It was a bitter chain of violent, sometimes inhumane events that forced the women and their extended families to join the more than 100,000 people who were expelled from Bhutan. They ended up living in refugee camps established by the United Nations in Nepal. Each camp was crowded with thousands of tiny bamboo huts. There was no running water, electricity or jobs. Educational opportunities were severely limited. Camp residents had no rights and, worst of all, no hope.

Finally, after refugees had lived for more than 15 years in these “temporary” camps, a worldwide resettlement effort was launched. Tens of thousands of refugees sought new homes around the world. Among them were about 60,000 Bhutanese people who came to U.S. cities, including Portland.

But if coming to the U.S. offered hope, it was distant. While younger Bhutanese children learned to speak and write English, many parents did not – and therefore were unable to find jobs.

Helping New Neighbors

That’s where Mercy Corps Northwest saw an opportunity. Like its parent organization, Mercy Corps, its mission is to help people help themselves.

Working with the Bhutanese families settling in Portland, Mercy Corps Northwest is pursuing its local mission of helping low-income groups in Oregon and Washington permanently integrate into local communities while working toward long-term economic self-sufficiency. In the same way, Mercy Corps works around the world to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression among populations trapped in negative cycles of conflict and lack of opportunity.

Koirala and Dhimal come from a country that’s still largely rural and agricultural. So they were a perfect fit for Mercy Corps Northwest’s New American Agriculture Program (NAAP). It is designed to partner longstanding residents of local communities with refugee and immigrant populations to help the latter build small farm enterprises that boost both their skills and their income.

By facilitating their access to private farmland and unused urban land, the program works to create direct pathways into the local economy, helping immigrants and refugees connect with farmers markets, restaurants, community-supported agriculture (CSA) and grocery stores.

Loans, Lessons – And A New Way to Work

Participants like Koirala and Dhimal, as well as their farming partner, Kali Dhungel, receive intensive training in agribusiness and risk management. They also can access grants, through a Mercy Corps Northwest program designed to build assets. It not only offers matching grants, but teaches the kind of basic financial literacy that helps people in long-underserved communities to understand the benefit of building a solid credit record.

Much like Mercy Corps Northwest’s Women’s Business Center, the agriculture program offers a life-altering economic education to immigrant and refugee women whose cultural norms often prohibit them from working outside the home.

It’s an opportunity that Koirala and Dhimal appreciate on a personal level. “Without Mercy Corps,” said Koirala (as interpreted by her daughter, Rekha), “we would never be able to sell our crops. We are so grateful to them.”

During the summer of 2009 – their first year working the residential garden plot – local residents reached out and embraced their efforts. Nine families signed on, at a cost of $20 a week, to receive weekly baskets of food fresh from the garden. This summer, Koirala and Dhimal hope to add more customers, while continuing to sell their produce at farmers markets.

From Brambles to Bounty

Tom Jardine may be the Portland resident most crucial to their first step toward economic stability. After retiring from the U.S. Army, Jardine started renovating old houses in Portland. When he spotted one of Mercy Corps Northwest’s NAAP gardens near Reed College, Jardine called and offered the use of a vacant lot adjoining his latest renovation project in Sellwood-Moreland.

A year later, Jardine is amazed at how the three Bhutanese woman have transformed a blackberry-engulfed lot into a lush, highly productive garden. Instead of an impenetrable thicket of brambles, he now sees potatoes, onions, eggplant, sweet peppers, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, squash, parsley, carrots – and more.

“I was aware of what Mercy Corps was doing with their urban farming,” said Jardine, “so I just called them up and said they could use my lot. It’s phenomenal what those women accomplished. So this year, I offered them the side and back yards of another house I’m working on, and they planted pretty much every square inch of it. It’s amazing how hard they work.”

During his 25 years in the Army, Jardine did his share of world traveling and saw his share of loosely organized nonprofit organizations. “I’ve seen the waste and the fraud and the abuse,” he said. “But I like what they’re doing at Mercy Corps. I like supporting them.”

Education and Hope

The women are hardly getting rich off their garden plot. But it does bring in regular income and the hope of economic stability and self-sufficiency. It’s a journey they know is just beginning. But after spending 18 years in refugee camps, they’ve learned to be patient. And they feel blessed by the support of local residents and Mercy Corps Northwest.

To be sure, there will always be a sense of loss for the lives they once lived in southern Bhutan, a region of sweeping plains and sub-tropical forests. But Koirala says whatever she feels she’s lost by leaving her homeland, is topped by what’s she’s gained here in Portland. “I’m so happy here, because all my kids are growing up and getting good educations. That means everything to me.”

“Now, we have hope,” added her daughter, Rekha. “Now I have so much opportunity for advancement and education. Everything is different now.”

If you would like to receive a weekly box of fresh, organic vegetables from the women’s garden plot this year, please contact Rekha Koirala at 503-839-7845 or kalikc42@yahoo.com. The vegetable boxes, which cost $400 for 16 weeks, will be available each Wednesday from June 23 to October 13.

Andy Parker is a Portland freelance writer.

Categories: in the community, people Tags: ,
  1. June 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    This is a really lovely post and yes, it is hopeful. I love that these women have their garden plot and that it brings them to a certain level of self sufficiency.

    • June 25, 2010 at 9:38 am

      Hi Tammy – thanks for stopping by! Andy did a wonderful job writing this article. It is inspiring to hear Koushila’s and Pabitra’s story, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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