Taking Refuge

In Her Words: From Bhutan to America, Serving my Community

Written by Manikala Basnet

Edited by Becky Allen

June 10, 2015

My name is Manikala Gurung Basnet. I was born on December 18, 1948 in the southern part of Bhutan, called Sibsoo Bhutan.

My great-grandfather migrated from Nepal and settled down in Bhutan in the 1800s. My grandfather was born in Bhutan, his name was Garjaman Gurung, and he served as governor of southern Bhutan. He had five sons. My father was the third son, named Jas Raj Gurung. He married Janaki Maya Gurung.

We are eight sisters and three brothers. I am the sixth born in the family. I was educated at Convent School - St. Helen's in Darjeeling (India) until tenth grade. There were not many good schools in Bhutan at the time. In 1974, I married Ran Bahadur Basnet from Chirang Bhutan. He was a high-level government civil officer. We were blessed with three daughters; life was wonderful, comfortable, and happy. I also had a job in government and, besides this, was busy doing volunteer work. The government had set up a rural development project, whose president was one of the royal princesses. She opened knitting and sewing projects in southern Bhutan. I was in charge of the smokeless stoves project.

Suddenly, in 1986, political problems erupted between the southern Bhutanese and the government. There was harassment, killings, and arrests of innocent villagers. The situation became worse day by day. We were forced to leave our country in 1991 as a result of ethnic cleansing. We traveled to Nepal and received refugee asylum from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). We went to Kathmandu and started requesting help from the government and NGOs.

Day by day more and more people started coming to Nepal. We ladies began running around, asking for donations. We collected very little cash so we decided to contribute 500.00 Indian rupees ($7.84) each. We now had a total of 2000.00 Indian rupees ($31.37). My husband rushed to Jhapa, another small city, to build temporary houses and arrange food for the refugees. One of my relatives took me to another house to ask for a donation - it was the house of the director of Caritas. After listening to my stories, he immediately sent a message to his head of office and got funds to help us. This was the best donation I had helped to collect in my life.

As time passed, it became more and more difficult to survive. I sold all my jewelry - whatever I had to meet our expenses. My husband was elected president of one of the political parties representing the refugee movement and he became busy trying to fight for our rights. I opened a daycare center for two- and three-year olds with ten children. I worked very hard day and night. But I did not realize that my health was going down hill and I soon fell ill. I had to undergo immediate open-heart surgery in 2006 and then, one year later, my husband passed away. Maybe his life held too much tension. I was left with our three daughters. Now, all three are married and I live with my youngest daughter, Roma Basnet, and my son-in-law in Atlanta.

We came to the United States with a resettlement program on August 5, 2010 with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I was lost and did not know what to do and how to start my life again. But luckily I was soon elected president of the Hindu Bhutanese Temple in Clarkston, GA. I again started my volunteer service in the Bhutanese community, arranging health camps with Indian doctors, collecting donations, and organizing Hindu religious festivals all year round. I served as president until January 1, 2015 and I still help our people when they need my service in our community.

Last month, I was presented with the humanitarian award from the Georgia Association of Physicians of Indian Heritage for my community service and work with our Bhutanese community in Atlanta for four years. I am very humbled and grateful for where my life has brought me in spite of all the hardship. I have learned many lessons from the different phases of my life.

I desired to serve my community since childhood and truly love helping people. I am lucky and blessed with what I have achieved in my life so far. Now, I mostly spend my time praying, reading holy books, and watching good movies. I am happy where I am and with whom I am today.

I am very grateful to UNHCR and IOM for bringing us all to the United States and for giving us another opportunity to start new and better lives. I'm especially grateful that our younger generations have this chance - they have promising futures ahead of them. But I hope they will never forget where they came from and that they will have the opportunity to go back and learn more about their roots.

Bhutanese Chicken Curry
  • Half chicken or six thighs, cut in small pieces (if you prefer white meat, boneless breasts would work too)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 tomato
  • 2-3 chillies
  • Ginger and garlic to taste (I made this recipe last weekend and personally recommend about an 1x1 inch piece ginger and 2-3 garlic cloves)
  • Salt to taste
  • Splash soy sauce
  • Splash olive oil
  • Cilantro for garnish before serving

  1. Slice the onion and chop the ginger, garlic, tomato, and chillies. Place all the veggies into a large frying pan or wok, greased with oil. Cook over medium heat until the onions become translucent and veggies begin to soften.
  2. Add the chicken and continue cooking over medium heat until fully cooked, about 5-10 minutes.
  3. Add a splash of soy sauce and oil olive, plus more for taste if you would like. Add salt to taste.
  4. Garnish with cilantro before serving.

Manikala delivers remarks to the Georgia Association of Physicians of Indian Heritage (GAPIH).

Manikala is presented with the humanitarian award from GAPIH.