Telling Her Story to Change History

Pujan Mapchen’s father and grandfather were arrested and tortured by the government of Bhutan for refusting to comply with its ethnic purity laws in the 1990s. When they were released from prison, they fled to a refugee camp in Nepal. That’s where Mapchen was born; 15 years later, she and her family emigrated to Oakland, California.

Learning English and adjusting to America wasn’t easy—but the hardest part for Mapchen was feeling like she wasn’t supposed to talk about her life in the camp.

Mapchen’s story starts in Bhutan, the small, landlocked Himalayan country of roughly 800,000 people. Most westerners associate Bhutan with “Gross National Happiness,” the concept that measures a country by the health and happiness of its people rather than by its Gross Domestic Product. This idea, coined by Bhutan’s fourth king, has informed many of the country’s domestic social policies since the 1970s. It’s a popular concept and is known far beyond Bhutan’s borders. But the idea of “Gross National Happiness” is starkly at odds with Bhutan’s treatment of its ethnic minorities—including roughly 100,000 people with Nepalese roots who have lived in southern Bhutan for generations. People like Mapchen and her family.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bhutan government began instituting a “one nation one people” policy in which it banned the traditions of those who trace their ancestral roots to Nepal, known as “southerners.” Anyone who resisted these ethnic purity laws, including Mapchen’s father and grandfather, were arrested and tortured. The government crackdown resulted in the expulsion of over 100,000 people, most of whom were forced to seek asylum in neighboring Nepal.

For two years, before the United Nations set up refugee camps in Nepal, people faced starvation, disease and death. Even after the UN came in and the situation improved, the Nepalese government refused to view the refugees as Nepalese.

Without a recognized nationality, the Bhutanese refugees languished for years inside the camps. Mapchen was born in one of the largest—Baldangi II. In 2008, her family secured third country settlement in Oakland, where a small number of refugees from Bhutan have been settled. Since then, nearly all of the refugees from camps in Nepal have secured such settlement, most in the United States.

Even though the Bhutan government’s policy of ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion of its minority communities has been reported on, and despite evidence that the government continues to discriminate against minority communities, the idea that Bhutan is a just society that espouses a “gross national happiness” index persists.

When I traveled to Bhutan as a tourist in 2015 and experienced the country’s beauty and hospitality, my time there was carefully managed by official guides and government protocols, and I was told many times that Bhutan was a peaceful place and that the population was content.

I talked to Mapchen to get the real story, and to find out what growing up in the camps was like.

What was the refugee camp in Nepal like and what was it like to move to the United States?

As a teenager in the camp, I never thought of finishing high school. In the camp, we relied on other people for rice, beans, salt and basic needs. That’s what I knew my whole life, so coming to the U.S. was very challenging.

Even though we had enough food and we had a safe house and I had my family, I had to start everything from the beginning. I had to act like my life [in the camp] didn’t happen. That was the hardest thing. My culture played a huge role—because we don’t usually express things that are difficult. I didn’t know how to express what was happening.

As a teen, I was mad at what the Bhutanese government had done to my family. If it wasn’t for them, we would not be in this situation. But now I am learning to move forward with my experience.

You say that when you arrived in the U.S. you had to act like your life in the camp didn’t happen. Why was that?

When we came to the U.S., it was like a new concept to talk about mental health and how it works. We didn’t talk about it. It’s a big problem in our community. My father doesn’t talk about it.

I went back to Nepal in 2016 to visit my grandparents, who are still in the camps. I talked to my grandmother, and she told me more about what had happened to my father. She told me how they took people from their houses and arrested them. A lot of people don’t know what [the Bhutan government] did. It happened to my family.

So your family doesn’t talk a lot about what happened?

In my culture, men don’t talk about this. It’s hard. I talked about what happened with my grandmother, but not with my parents.

You came to the U.S. when you were 15. What was that like?

It was hard to adjust at school and to learn English and try to fit in. I tried to figure myself out. Even now, I don’t feel like I’m an American, even though I have papers—and I don’t feel like I’m Nepalese either. I’m still trying to figure it out. But one of the things that changed for me is rain. It’s a small thing, but it’s big to me. In the camps I hated it, because our house leaked and the water came in, but I feel differently now. I like rain in the U.S.

You became a community health care worker in Haiti. Why did you decide to do this?

Moving to the U.S. and seeing my parents struggle to find entry level jobs pushed me to pursue a higher level of education. My mother works at Walmart and my father drives Uber. It made me want to help people who are in a similar situation like me. People helped us in the camps, and I so want to do something to help people.

Did growing up in a refugee camp help prepare you to work in rural areas of Haiti?

I chose to volunteer in Haiti because I wanted to help others and I wanted to learn how about public health. I was very fortunate to finish my university without any loans. I was able to go to Haiti without lot of worries.

Growing up in a refugee camp, I thought that working in Haiti would be an easier transition since I have lived and seen poverty in other countries—but it was very different than what I imagined. There was a different kind of poverty in Haiti: a lot of people didn’t have clean drinking water, toilets or other basic needs.

In the refugee camp I where I grew up in Nepal, we had clean drinking water and squat toilets. I lived in a camp, but we at least had two meals—even if it was rice, we at least had something to eat. But many times, people in Haiti say, they don’t eat every day.

After natural disasters, donations always pour into Haiti, but the money doesn’t necessarily help in the long term.  

There are a lot of NGOs in Haiti, but I feel like if you want to work in Haiti, you can’t go and say, oh, you should do this and this. I worked in Gros-Morne in the north, a rural city. I helped train people to become health educators in their own villages and communities. We need to show people examples, but it’s important to know that we’re not there to change them. It’s all about empowering and listening to the community. It’s grassroots, not top-down.

Who are the rural leaders in Haiti?

Women bring families together in Haiti. In Nepal, and my own culture, women don’t speak up. In Haiti, they speak up and are more confrontational. They say what they want to say.

What are you doing now and what are your plans?

I am a public health master’s student at NYU with a focus on Global Public Health. I hope to learn skills and knowledge that will help me expand service for people in need whose voices are not heard either in the U.S. or abroad.

What would you say to people about the importance of telling their stories and talking about difficult subjects like yours?

I feel that very similar things are happening now in other places like in Myanmar. I feel like if we don’t talk about this kind of thing, it will keep happening.


Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at her at