Notes From The Road: Life In A Refugee Camp

life in a refugee campFriends, I would be lying if I told you that I was 100% confident about spending time at a refugee camp. When I decided to visit the Timai refugee camp in eastern Nepal, I was haunted by visions of starving, sad-faced kiddos and a crowd chasing down one, harassed chicken with sharpened sticks.And maybe a little bit concerned about how one showers or uses the bathroom in a refugee camp, in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

What is Life in a Refugee Camp?

what is life like in a refugee campThe politics and history surrounding refugees is rarely straight forward and the Bhutanese/Nepali refugee situation is particularly complex because most of these refugees are actually ethnically Nepali. About two hundred years ago, Bhutan invited Nepalis to settle in the southern part of Bhutan, a swampy, malaria-infested area. In the 1990s, new citizenship laws were implemented and the Nepalis who had been settled in Bhutan for generations were sent back to Nepal. Their homes were bulldozed, families were imprisoned, those who argued disappeared.

visiting a refugee camp

visiting a refugee campFor the last 18 years, the Bhutanese/Nepalis have been refugees within Nepal. They are given the options of repatriating in Nepal, attempting Bhutanese citizenship or resettling (again) in a third country. And in the greater scheme of “refugee-ism” the Bhutanese/Nepalis are quite “lucky” – they receive an English-medium education, they’re respected within their communities, their camps are (relatively) safe and they’re free to take jobs and live anywhere they want.

refugee camp lifeBut many of them choose to stay in the camps, preparing to relocate in a yet another country. Many of them end up in St. Paul, Minnesota in my classroom. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to visit Timai was to meet my student’s families.

It was absolutely mind-blowing to duck into a thatched bamboo hut and see an older version of my student’s face staring back at me. Purna’s entire extended family crowded into his mom’s hut, all the better to take photos and eat sweet sticky rice. Of Purna’s 20 relatives that I met, 12 of them are heading to St. Paul, Minnesota in February. So I obviously spent twenty minutes expressing shock over this and acting out how I’d freak out over seeing them on the street in St. Paul. They nodded sagely at this and admitted that yep, that’d be weird.

life in a refugee campI spent the rest of my time at the camp leading orientations, teaching mini English classes, talking to people about which jobs they could get with their current training and addressing concerns like “American women are so tall! How am I ever going to find a wife there?! Everyone will think I’m a dwarf, right?”

I had a fantastic time meeting new people, talking to them about their lives and doing my little part to make the transition to their new lives easier.

visit a refugee camp
And those showers I was so worried about? They were buckets. Which I can totally do!

Have you ever stayed some placed really, really rustic? Once I slept in a Bolivian barn on a bed made of sticks – but that was a one-night gig!

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  1. LynnieBee

    The buckets are an Eastern European thing too, I think. A friend of mine went on a humanitarian trip to Croatia a few years back, to break ground for a new school/orphanage. The place they were staying had no plumbing and no electricity. Every morning, instead of a shower, they would take a small bucket of water (cold), soap up quickly, and then rinse by pouring the bucket of water over their heads and down their body. BRRRRRRR…

  2. Dena Dyer

    I work in refugee resettlement in Amarillo, Texas. We recently had an orientation specialist who had to go into a family's home, stand in their shower and show them how to use the faucet, soap and shampoo. They were using buckets in the bathtub! 🙂

    I loved your pictures and the story. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Darcie

    sar, i really love this post. perfect combination of you teaching me somethhing i didn't know, being funny and then turning it all into a bawlfest of happiness/wonder about a family parted and reunited. omg. TEAR.

  4. Anna

    I slept in a school in Nicaragua once. I also took bucket showers there too. It is totally doable. Cold but doable.

  5. Melissa-Leigh

    Sarah, you are so cool, adventurous, and inspiring. Your down-to-earth way of talking about your travels make me feel like I can do it too! Thanks for keeping us posted on your journey.

  6. Hope Johnson

    Had to comment after reading your latest email about web time wasters! I'm a researcher in Australia, and one of my co-workers is studying the journey refugees take to Australia. Whether they 'choose' Australia and why. There's controversy here about refugees that arrive in boats instead of waiting it out in camps. Obviously the term waiting is very loose since they seem to spend most of their lives in them. She is going to interview refugees on whether they paid people smugglers etc. I loved reading this and hearing about the funny connection – first through your students but then that they were moving to your State! I wonder if you have met up with them since and if there third resettlement was a winner.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I have! I saw them when I first got back from my trip (which was a while ago now) and they were a big shell-shocked but happy. I haven't seen them since, but I'm hoping they're doing well. There's a pretty big Nepali refugee community here and many of them speak English so in terms of resettlement I think they're relatively 'lucky' 🙂

  7. Peggy

    I am about to work in a context with Nepali refugees and am simultaneously taking my last TESOL class. I was trying to "do my homework" to get ready and stumbled on your page. I worked with Nepali middle schoolers last fall. I really appreciate the pictures and story! Do you have any resources about helping Nepali language learners?

  8. Bhuwan

    Hey Sarah —

    I am so glad to see these pictures. I was born and raised in Timai Camp. The first picture, I believe you took while standing at the gate of Oasis Academy School. Second and third ones are from sector C3. Am I right ? I would like to talk to you more about your trip and all that, if it's possible. You can find me on facebook : VOne Sannyasi. Please add me, so, we can chat further. Oh btw, I live in Springfield, Massachusetts.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Wow! That's amazing! I'm so glad to hear your made it over!

  9. Erin

    2018 is the year I resolved to volunteer more so after learning about a group called, “Heartfelt Tidbits,” who partners with a Franciscan community garden for the refugees they help, I volunteered to help at ESL classes for HT. A few of the students are from Syria but most are from Bhutan. They are delightful, charming and lovely people and I admire their courage and tenacity. The ESL team of volunteers are also my heroes. How great to read a story that taught me more about the Nepali/Bhutanese backstory.

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