When the government of Bhutan began evicting the Lhotsampas minority (people of Nepali origin living in Southern Bhutan) from their homes and country in the late 80’s, the crisis in schooling and education began for thousands of refugees. Children and adults alike were taken out of their schools and forced to leave the country.
When they arrived in Nepal, they were entirely lacking in educational opportunities besides some teaching that took place in a few ramshackle huts on the banks of the Kankai Mai river. The need for the children to continue with their schooling was urgent and the refugees had little options to establish one. Despite the odds that were against them, a few pioneers stepped in and began working selflessly to establish a school in the refugee camp.
With the generous help of the Nepali government and a few local community members from the host country, they were able to form the Bhutanese Refugee Education Project (BREP) and ultimately establish the Panchawoti English School in 1991. Without a roof, school supplies and even furniture, enrollment by the refugee community began immediately. On the first day of school, 199 children came to attend eager to learn and get back on track with their education.
It did not take long for people from all professions to start stepping forward and offering their time and expertise to teach the growing student body, help with school administration and any other area their skills may be of use. Doctors, engineers, professors, recent university and high school graduates—they were all there helping to make this school a success.
As more and more Lhotsampas were forced to leave their homes in Bhutan and make there way to the Nepali border refugee camp, the number of students enrolled at the school became larger and larger. Sadly the school had still not acquired any text books, notebooks or other materials that are crucial for the learning process. The students would simply sit on the bare ground and listen to the teachers speak. As there was still no roof at this time, classes were often canceled due to the rainy conditions.
The challenges they faced to run the school were daunting and other concerns seemed overbearing at times. With only morsels of food to survive on, children were dying every day from malnutrition. Lack of hygiene and sanitation was contributing to an even larger number of deaths. Conditions were getting worse and worse as time went on, and hope was wearing thin.
Progress is made
In 1992, thanks to the extended assistance from Caritas Nepal – an international NGO dedicated to human development so that people in the worst off and most disadvantaged communities are free to flourish and live in peace and dignity – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed to intervene and offer their assistance to improve the deteriorating humanitarian crisis which was happening to tens of thousands of refugees.
The timely intervention of the UNHCR not only saved thousands of lives but assisted the refugee population in relocating the camp and school to a safer and better equipped location. The entire feeling that swept the camp had changed by this point – the refugee community had better huts to live in, a roof for their school and hope for the future.
Shortly thereafter came the aid of the Red Cross, Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Food Program among others. Health clinics were set up by the Red Cross, construction materials to build better shelters and schools were provided by LWF, and food rations were provided by WFP.
Through the LWF aid, UNHCR with hundreds of refugees were able to construct bamboo- walled-thatch/panel-roofed buildings in seven different camps. Caritas Nepal then established a sub-office in Damak and began supplying school materials and training for the teachers. Soon with the help of various donors, small rectangular mats made by the refugees were given to the children to sit on during their classes. Next came benches and then came desks. The teachers were given a furnished staff room.
As more and more refugees continued to come in, the schools multiplied to each camp and were soon run by head masters and principals representing an established school like the children used to attend in their home country. In 1993, the Nepalese curriculum was fully implemented and the students studied many subjects including English, Science, Social Studies and Math. A few years later, Dzongkha – the national language of Bhutan – was also added to the curriculum in order to allow the younger generations to stay in touch with their cultural roots.
Upon graduating and obtaining their School Leaving Certificate (SLC), the UNHCR awarded scholarships on merit basis. Most students would go on to attend local colleges and some even excelled further to attend higher universities in both Nepal and India. These students worked in the private schools to pay for their education.
In 1994, trained educators began coming in from all parts of the world – Ireland, England and Australia to name a few – to assist in teaching the New Approach to Primary Education (NAPE) curriculum. They trained the refugee teachers to advance the curriculum but unfortunately the NAPE system collapsed in 1998 due to a lack of funding.
In addition to classroom education, co-curricular activities began to be organized and later the different refugee schools would go on to compete in these areas. Vocational courses also became available at this time – these included short-hand typing, basic computer skills, sewing and mechanic class to name a few.
Another great advancement which came later was the establishment of adult education for the older refugee population. Hundreds of adults and previous school drop-outs enrolled with great enthusiasm to continue their studies. Many of these adults were even those who never had the opportunity to attend school back in Bhutan. With the establishment of adult education, the literacy rate jumped to two-fold.
The education provided to refugees in the end was a grey success as thousands graduated from high schools and universities, later going on to obtain employment in Nepal. By 2008 however, the third country resettlement began whereby the educated refugees – many of them whom were teachers – were selected to resettle in the various countries who agreed to welcome a certain number of Bhutanese refugees to resettle in their respective countries. As many of the teachers left the camps for their new host countries, this unfortunately resulted in a lack of available teachers and school administrators causing the school programs to dwindle for the remaining refugees.
Today, approximately 30, 000 refugees remain in the camps in Nepal.