Columbus enjoys the distinction of hosting over 20,000 Bhutanese-Nepali refugees, the largest such population of any US city. The majority of these refugees are members of a minority ethnic group, the Lhotshampa, that originated in Nepal. These people moved to Bhutan long ago, but in 1990 the Bhutanese government expelled the Lhotshampa people from Bhutan in retaliation for the participation of some of them in pro-democracy protests.
Many of the Lhotshampa people fled to Nepal, where they were trapped — they could neither obtain Nepalese citizenship nor return to Bhutan. Instead, they spent years or even decades in refugee camps in Nepal. Some of these individuals were granted refugee status and migrated to the United States, eventually settling in Columbus.
Special Characteristics of the Columbus Bhutanese-Nepali Refugee Community
Despite their refugee status in the US, many Bhutanese-Nepali is highly educated people who worked in white-collar occupations before they were expelled from Bhutan. They tend to maintain large households, averaging about 8 people, which includes members of their extended family such as grandparents. The community itself is far from monolithic — it includes various different religions, languages, and subcultures.
The Columbus Bhutanese-Nepali community looks to continue growing in the future, both for economic reasons and out of sheer momentum. Columbus is increasingly attractive to Bhutanese-Nepali refugees because of the large pre-existing Bhutanese-Nepali community, which provides a strong social support system that often includes members of the immigrant’s own extended family. Another driver of immigration is an emerging economic opportunity.
Support Group: Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio (BCCO)
The Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio (BCCO) was founded in 2009 as a Columbus area 501(c)(3) organization (the same tax designation that covers churches and charities). The BCCO’s mission is to help Bhutanese-Nepali refugees adjust to life in Columbus. The BCCO offers resettlement assistance to recent Bhutanese-Nepali refugees as well as a limited number of Lhotshampa refugees who fled to Pakistan instead of Nepal after expulsion from Bhutan.
The BCCO aims to build bridges between the Bhutanese-Nepali community and other communities through cultural exchange activities, language skills training, and other means. At the same time, full assimilation is not its goal — instead, the BCCO seeks to preserve the community’s original languages, cultural values, and traditions.
Obstacles Facing Bhutanese/Nepali Refugees in Columbus
Many unusual obstacles face the Bhutanese-Nepali community in Columbus. Those who spent the longest in refugee camps often face mental health issues such as PTSD, for example. Although many of the community members were highly educated when they were expelled from Bhutan, since the community did not have access to good schooling in the refugee camps, some of the younger members of the community face educational obstacles as well.
Another obstacle faced by these refugees is the increasingly anti-immigration climate washing over the nation in response to Trump administration initiatives. This climate has resulted in some community members being ostracized and discriminated against. This kind of treatment tends to bind immigrant communities ever more tightly together, which only strengthens the invisible walls that separate the refugee community from the wider Columbus community.
Hope for the Future: The Bhutanese-Nepali Refugee Entrepreneurship Boom in Columbus
The Bhutanese-Nepali community and other Columbus immigrant communities such as the Somali community have experienced an economic boom over the last few years, especially in the Northland area. The rate of entrepreneurship is extremely high, and some of the refugees possess strong business skills that were honed in the harsh environments of Nepalese refugee camps. The economic vitality is building hope out of what once was an uncertain future.