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Bhutanese Refugee Finds A 'Second Life' In Columbus

Jhuma Natha Achayra
Jhuma Natha Achayra

Jhuma Nath Achayra had never heard the word “refugee” until he and his family were forced from their homeland in Bhutan. They found themselves part of the Bhutanese refugee crisis, during which over 100,000 people were expelled from the country in the early '90s. 

As part of StoryCorps COLUMBUS, Achayra recalled his journey from Bhutan to the United States—what it meant to lose one home, and gain a second chance to find another.

Achayra was born and raised in Bhutan until he was 13 years old. That's when he says his family was "evicted" from their home by the Bhutan government.

Achayra remembers when his father told him that the family would have to leave their village.

"One evening he called me and my brother together and said, 'Guys, you need to pack up your things for tomorrow night. We are leaving tomorrow night,'" Achayra said.

The next night they left their home forever. Like thousands of other families from the Lhotshampa ethnic group, Achayra was registered at a refugee processing center in Nepal.

That day—July 16, 1992—Achayra says he learned the meaning of the word "refugee" for the first time.

The family was then driven to a refugee camp. "That was the day that Nepal received the heaviest influx of Bhutanese refugees," Achayra said. "There were 57 trucks lined up."

Though people were thankful to be there, life at the refugee camp proved isolated and challenging. Refugees could not travel freely or work without a permit.  

"Local communities would not welcome you because they think that we are... we suck their benefits," Achayra said. 

According to Achrayra, he and his family lived a life of scarcity for 20 years.

In 2011, Achraya landed in Rhode Island as part of a refugee resettlement program. He recalls touching snow for the first time when he got there.

"I thought snow was very hard, but it's not," Achayra said. "It's like cotton."

After a year, Achayra came to Columbus to visit his uncle and fell in love with the city. In 2012, he moved his family to Central Ohio, and today he and his three siblings own homes in the same neighborhood.

"I always introduce myself as a former refugee from Bhutan because if I was not a refugee, I would have never been to the U.S.," Achayra said. "Not everybody gets to come to the U.S. This is my second life."

Jhuma Natha Achayra was recorded in the StoryCorps mobile recording booth when it was in Columbus in 2019. 

To hear more stories from your neighbors, be sure to subscribe to the StoryCorps COLUMBUS podcast on AppleSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.