From Bhutanese Jail Cell to U.S. Voter Booth

Pasaputi Acharya | November 4, 2014

Pasaputi Acharya and his family. Photo: courtesy Acharya family

Pasaputi Acharya and his family. Photo: courtesy Acharya family

Pasaputi Acharya shares his journey as a Bhutanese refugee to the U.S. and voting as a new American citizen.

Why did you need to leave Bhutan and why couldn’t you go back?

In Bhutan, my family comes from a minority ethnic group from the south of the country and the government was trying to force us to stop practicing our religion — and to not speak in our language in the schools and even on documents.  We had no equal rights and our rights as humans were being violated.

In 1991, there was a protest and the government arrested me and put me in prison. During that time I was tortured. Soldiers beat my back with an iron pole. I was asked to sign an agreement stating that I would forfeit my property and leave Bhutan.

My family had everything in Bhutan: a home with a garden, land and cattle.  I refused to sign the document and they put me in a bathroom and didn’t feed me for days. The Bhutanese army went to my family’s home and tortured my parents and family.

Eventually, I became very ill and they told me to sign the document or I would be killed. I was forced to sign away my property and right to live in Bhutan with my wrists still in handcuffs. I was finally released but the government wouldn’t allow me to reunite with my family.

What was your life like as a refugee in Nepal?

Fortunately, my family and I were reunited in Nepal. We lived in the Sanischere refugee camp and life was incredibly difficult. For the next 18 years we were confined to the camp and our food was rationed. We spent 18 years in the camp and during that time my parents passed away from the health complications that they had from being tortured by the Bhutanese government.

I served as a volunteer social worker in the camp and really enjoyed doing community work but life in the camp was controlled and we weren’t truly free.

How did you find your way to the U.S. and what was life like when you first arrived?

The UN Refugee Agency gave us information about our options and we chose to apply for resettlement. I chose the United States for my family and myself because the U.S. meant that we would have freedom to practice our religion and our children could get an education.

In December 2008, we resettled in Greensboro, N.C. There were major cultural differences that my family and I had to get used to. In the camp it was easy to know how to get places and everything was open. You always left the door to your home open, but here in the U.S. people seem to keep their homes locked. It took us a while to learn how to get around and where to go.

The CWS staff gave me the services needed to become a citizen.  Through the CWS citizenship program I able to take classes and access legal services. Many of my family members have also naturalized through CWS. The staff helped me to learn about the voting process.

As time went on, I became more comfortable in American society. I learned about United States laws and how to navigate American life. Many things were different from our life in the camp. In the camp, if you felt mistreated you had to handle the problem with the community but in the U.S. there are laws that protect you and you can even call the police – who are there to actually protect you.

My family and I lived for 18 years without a country and without citizenship. It was so important for us to belong to a country. I am very grateful to the U.S. government.

What does it mean to you to vote for the first time as a U.S. citizen?

As an American citizen, I believe it is my responsibility to choose a good candidate to represent the whole community.

And I believe voting is a great opportunity for me to participate in the diverse community that I live in – and to be around others from many backgrounds as we vote in the same space. This brings me so much happiness.

I have hopes and expectations that my family will take the same path to become citizens of this great country and exercise their right to vote as well.

And lastly, voting for the first time allows me to learn this process of voting and will allow me to share this knowledge with my community. I hope to encourage my community to become citizens, register to vote and to vote in future elections.

What are the issues that are most important to you as a new U.S. citizen and a voter?

I plan to use my knowledge to help me choose a candidate that will act in the best interest of our local community. The candidates I vote for will need to care about all the people of the community including refugees and immigrants.

I am looking for candidates that will improve the services being offered to the community. Education is very important to me and my family as well as health-related services.

What is your message to other new citizens and refugees?

For refugees who are interested in becoming a citizen – don’t fear the process and take a chance! Be active and use the opportunity this great country has given us to become naturalized citizens and to start new lives.

Voting is a way to put the Constitution into practice and to realize our full rights as citizens. Every new citizen should register to vote and then to go vote! I want to help others in the Bhutanese community learn this process and overcome any obstacles to becoming active voting citizens.