Dec. 9, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 8

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    Chance encounter leads student to write book on refugees

    Chris Strawn, a fourth-year College student concentrating in public policy, sought fieldwork experience and exposure to a culture radically different from his own when he chose to spend his third year in Nepal. But a chance encounter with a 40-year-old Bhutanese man changed Strawn's course of study, leading him to co-write a forthcoming book that may help determine the fate of 140,000 refugees from Bhutan.

    Strawn's program, coordinated by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sent him to Nepal with 17 other American students for nine months of independent study, beginning in August 1992. The students spent their first four months abroad in Katmandu, living with Nepali families, learning the language and doing small preliminary projects with local experts. Strawn, for example, studied folk music with a popular Nepali musician and law with an attorney who divided his time between tutoring Strawn and arguing a case before the Nepali Supreme Court.

    "It was kind of hard to believe," Strawn said of the students' opportunity to meet and work with prominent Nepalis. "The person I did folk music with was on the radio a lot and known throughout the country. And the guy I studied law with once told me, 'I can't meet you today because I have a case before the Supreme Court. How about the day after?' I'd sit back and kind of feel like I was almost wasting their time. But they were really amazing people who were interested in foreigners, wanted to help out and were willing to share a lot. It was a great experience."

    The students also spent time developing the major projects to which they would devote themselves after a break for the holidays. With some assistance from William Axinn, Assistant Professor in Sociology, Strawn created a course exploring attitudes about education in Nepal -- specifically, how parental attitudes toward education affect the choice to send children to public or private schools.

    "I had this nice little study in rural Nepal all set up," Strawn said. "But when we were traveling there, we had this porter for the group who happened to be from Bhutan. We were talking with him and it turned out that he was a refugee. He told us this story about how the militia in Bhutan had been forcing people out of his village. He had heard he would be arrested, so in the middle of the night he left the country and walked for several days to India.

    "We were all silenced by this story," Strawn recalled. "He talked about how in Bhutan he had a farm, cattle, a house and how everything was so good there. Then he was forced to leave, and in Nepal he had to be a porter. The reason he was working for us was that during the holidays everybody got together with family, and he didn't have any family -- he was the only person we could find who would work."

    While on their tour in the country, the students met a second Bhutanese refugee, a woman who spoke English and offered to guide them while they were in the area of the refugee camps. "It turns out that she was one of the most active people in the refugee camps in terms of organizing and things like that. She asked us if we wanted to see the camps. We said yes.

    "The first reaction we had was 'This doesn't look like a refugee camp,' " Strawn said. "There was water, the shelters were made of bamboo with canvas over them. There was a small medical facility, there was food distribution. The U.N. supported it.

    "But I was really struck. I was wondering why I'd never heard of this before. When you see these camps it's not something you can just kind of go and see and think 'Wow, that was interesting.' You feel like you have to do something more. It was really strange because I was coming back from this project I'd set up, but I was really interested in finding out what my place might be -- what I could do for the refugees."

    Strawn returned to Katmandu, scrapped his original project, began reading everything about Bhutanese refugees he could find and started talking to people about a project in the camps. He decided to do a small, but substantive, survey to collect more information on the Bhutanese refugees.

    "The Bhutanese government was saying that these people were illegal immigrants," Strawn said. "It accused them of being from India and Nepal, because they were of ethnic descent, and of trying to take advantage of the U.N. So they were denying that the people were even from Bhutan. Then other people were admitting the people in the camps were indeed refugees, but were questioning where the refugees came from and saying that they weren't really Bhutanese citizens. Nepal insisted that the people in the camps were bona fide refugees who had fled persecution in Bhutan. So, there were all these questions about who the refugees were. I was interested in doing fieldwork to gain a really broad description of who they were. At first, the U.N. staff and the Nepalis I talked to seemed to support that more or less."

    Strawn spent the month of December planning his survey project. He met with D.N.S. Dhakal, the Harvard-educated former general secretary of the Bhutanese Democratic Party, who was living in the camps and had narrowly escaped imprisonment in Bhutan.

    Ultimately, though, the United Nations decided not to allow Strawn to distribute the survey, and Strawn instead got a room in the home of a refugee doctor who worked in the camps. He began gathering data from printed sources, and he also began conducting interviews with refugee and other political leaders.

    "I spent January to May interviewing, doing fieldwork, talking to Nepali political leaders and traveling around India and Nepal to talk with people who knew about the situation," Strawn said. "In May I had the use of a computer for about a week so I got to put that information together. Then I packed up everything I couldn't write about in that week and returned to Katmandu.

    "For a month I worked my butt off -- as hard as I could," Strawn continued. "I put together a document, a rough draft that ended up being a 150-page comprehensive account of Bhutanese history and how the Nepalis work into that, the history of Nepalis in Bhutan, the refugee crisis -- what happened and how it happened -- and then an analysis of the internal politics of Bhutan and the geopolitics of the situation. Dhakal came and read it and decided that we should write a book.

    "We basically lived together for two months," Strawn said, "trying to get at the truth of why, how and when 15 percent of Bhutan's population left the country. We tried to detail it as much as possible, to make it irrefutable, to establish the facts with the idea that maybe this would help the negotiating process."

    Strawn spent the summer in Nepal -- three months longer than his program officially ran -- completing "Falling off the Mountain: Bhutan, Bhutanese Refugees and the Movement in Exile," to be published this winter in Katmandu by Mandala Press.

    "I kind of got into something really big while I was away," Strawn said, laughing. "Way over my head." It was an experience that focused Strawn's perspective and provided him with a path he intends to follow well beyond his years in college.

    "I didn't know what I wanted to do in public policy before I went to Nepal," Strawn says. "Now, I'm interested in getting involved with refugee issues as sort of a lifelong thing. There's a refugee studies program at Oxford that's just amazing -- so much scholarship and thinking and talking going on about these issues. Knowing that there are people out there who are interested in this, that there are people to talk with about it, really cemented it for me."

    -- Carmen Marti