On a hot summer sunday morning, 30 people gather in a small apartment in Austin, Texas. Primarily refugees from Bhutan and Nepal, they range in age from 3 to 106. Some arrived in the U.S. 10 days ago. All leave their shoes in a pile by the door. They begin by singing an enthusiastic chorus of Kati Mahan—"How Great Thou Art," in Nepalese—from a handwritten folder of songs.
Their host, Bhim Monger, delivers a sermon, alternating between English and Nepalese. Monger, who has gone by "John" since becoming a Christian 18 years ago, tells his living room congregation that they are now free from oppression, free to live openly in Christ.
Monger and his congregation represent a global movement initiated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle more than 100,000 Bhutanese expatriates who have lived in camps in Nepal since the 1990s. Some 60,000 of them will end up in the U.S. over a five-year period ending in 2012. The U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics records the arrival of 13,452 Bhutanese refugees in 2009, a 153 percent increase from 5,320 in 2008. Nearly 200 of them have landed in Austin and the surrounding Travis County; Monger says about nine Bhutanese families live in his apartment complex.
Mountainous Bhutan, a small country located between China and India, maintains a strict "one nation and one people" policy regarding ethnicity and the official Buddhist religion. According to the U.S. State Department, no refugees have been permitted to return to Bhutan, despite at least 15 negotiation attempts between Nepal and Bhutan. Refugees who have re-entered Bhutan to demonstrate for the right to return have been arrested, reports UNHCR. Bhutan's government, a democratic monarchy, calls the exodus voluntary and maintains that the refugees are non-nationals with no guaranteed right to return.
Leaders in the refugee community—including Monger—are critical players in resettlement success, according to World Relief, a Christian agency that specializes in helping refugees. Its Fort Worth office has seen some ethnic churches begin as refugee gatherings. When established local churches partner with these groups, immediate needs are met and the refugee community builds self-sufficiency. "As refugees exit [resettlement] programs, a community of support has already been developed for long-term adaptation," says World Relief Field Director Dale Williams.
Power Inside the Jungle
"Jesus was a very strange name for me in 1992," Monger says. Then 17 and living in Bhutan, Monger noticed a younger boy who always smiled—unusual during a year when citizens' violent demands for democracy were met with violence by the monarchy. "I was always expecting that one day I would die, because the army may come," Monger says. The boy, a Christian, gave him a booklet called "The Wonderful Love of Jesus Christ" and invited Monger to a church in the jungle. "There was no church building," says Monger, "but there was power inside that jungle." That's where Monger came to Christ.
His conversion helped with his fear of death and made him a fearless if brash spokesman for his new faith, but also separated him from his Buddhist family. At a Christmas celebration, the Bhutanese police arrested Monger and other believers, giving them a choice between renouncing Christ or death. Monger fled to Nepal, where he began evangelizing in refugee camps, for which he says he was arrested. He then spent 15 months in a Nepalese prison, where he says he was often beaten for expressing his faith.