Growing Bitter Melon, Growing Home

While sitting in the garden, Dropada exudes confidence and dreams of a brighter future for the next generation of Nepali-American youth.

Dropada is sitting at a picnic table in NSC’s Growing Home Gardens, looking over her garden plot as she recounts her life back in Bhutan. Dropada reminisces about her family’s former agrarian lifestyle, with a hint of longing in her expression. She smiles as she says “We were young, not so wise, raising cattle, pretty much living a simple life”. These were back in the days before the Bhutanese government implemented a program of ethnic cleansing that would force Dropoda and her family along with tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis from their homes and off their land. For Dropada, it began an 18 year process that would end with her and her family putting down roots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her flight out of Bhutan and journey to Philadelphia was treacherous at times. Sitting in the garden now, those memories seem paradoxically distant yet close. 

Dropada arrived in Nepal in 1992, after traversing the mountainous Himalayan landscape carrying only the most basic items and a little food. Her family, including her young children, faced an uncertain future ahead. She recalls that “When we left Bhutan we felt like ‘ok we are going to go and use this supply and we don’t know after that. Pretty much we are up to dying after that’. But luckily dad found us when we got to Nepal”, with dad being a cheeky nickname Dropada has conferred onto the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the intergovernmental humanitarian agency established to assist refugees. The UNHCR allocated regular rations of rice and vegetables, but sometimes there were shortages. Dropada’s family was also given plastic to build a makeshift tent-like structure she refers to as a hut. The coordinated international response to the refugee crisis that was beginning to unfold in Nepal in the early 1990s was still in its early stages and key protections and protocols had not yet been firmly established, contributing to untenable conditions.

When the Kaflay family first entered Nepal, they temporarily settled in Mai, a settlement located in a warm valley, surrounded by high peaked mountain tops. Dropada recounts that when “We first arrived in Mai, we lived there for 6 months and it was really tough. A lot of people who came there used to live in the cold region, much colder where they lived [in Mai], and it was much hotter down there, and there was a river bank [nearby]. They didn’t have sanitized water, they didn’t have good water or toilets. A lot of people died there because of pneumonia and diarrhea epidemics. Even in our family, 2 people died.” Eventually the family was relocated to a better constructed refugee camp in Beldangi, where they lived until 2010.

Dropada remarks that in Beldangi, “life was okay, not that bad in the refugee camp, we used to get a lot of supplies from UNHCR, but not enough. We used to fall short for a couple of days sometimes with rations”.  She expresses appreciation to the organization Caritas, who funded schools and made it possible for her children to receive a free education. While many of Dropada’s most basic needs were met, life in the camps could be static and there was very little opportunity. Life in Beldangi was restricted, resources were scarce. Dropada’s years in the camp provide a stark contrast to the earlier years in Bhutan where her family had farmed and were able to make a living off of the land. In reflecting back on life in Beldangi, she concludes “We lived a long, poor and miserable life… there can be little things every now and then, here and there but that’s it”.

Dropada and her family came to the United States in 2010, as part of an international agreement brokered by the United Nations that allowed countries with capacity to integrate refugees to begin resettlement. Nationalities Service Center (NSC) resettled Dropada and her family into Philadelphia in 2010, with her case manager greeting her at the airport and driving her to her new home. After 18 years of being stateless, Dropoda now calls Philadelphia and the United States home. Since 2010, Dropada has participated in a variety of programming offered by NSC, including a beginning farmer training program, ESL classes and NSC’s refugee gardening program. Speaking about how she feels about Philadelphia after being a resident for five years, she exclaims “It’s good in a lot of ways. Now after so many years it’s just a different place. Now we find people are friendly. We can go down the block and talk to someone. I think it’s great”.

For the past 5 years, Dropada has been building a new life with the opportunities afforded to her and her family. She exudes confidence and she dreams for the next generation of American-Nepali youth and celebrates the first high school graduates that are now entering colleges and vocational programs. A strong, healthy community appears to be flourishing here, and in it narratives of journeys like Dropada’s are common. Looking at her garden bed, her mustard green leaves are starting to get big. Around us some of her friends have stopped by. A few are checking on their gardens, others just want to chat. They will head out soon to enjoy the beautiful fall day together in their South Philadelphia neighborhood.