As American Airlines Flight 1804 approached Sea-Tac Airport, Birkha Biswa stared at a sea of green trees, skyscrapers and dense neighborhoods below.
Birkha, 33, was amazed at the number of planes parked on the runways and the maze of highways circling the airport. Once inside the terminal, he was wowed by the variety of faces bustling past.
Just a few days before, Birkha, his wife, Sunita, and their two daughters, Prashana, 13, and Pranshu, 8, had left their bamboo home in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal and boarded a plane for the first time in their lives.
Birkha had once feared he would never see his mother, father and siblings again.
But on this August evening, he scanned the crowds near the baggage carousel and spotted his father, Chatur. After years of being stateless and separated by thousands of miles from his loved ones, Birkha was finally back in their embrace.
The Biswa family was among the more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis who were expelled from or fled the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the early 1990s after years of political unrest following the government’s adoption of a “One Nation, One People” policy. That policy, among other actions, banned the teaching of the Nepali language, forced people to adopt the Bhutanese national dress and denied citizenship to many ethnic Nepalis.
In 1992, 15 members of the Biswa family fled their home in the back of a truck, after quickly selling off their livestock and the land they had farmed for generations. They crossed India and found safety at the Pathri refugee camp in eastern Nepal.
Family members remember that there initially wasn’t enough to eat at the camps. Eventually, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees brought beans, rice and salt, and then rations of vegetables and flour. Schools and a hospital were built. But jobs and opportunities were limited.
Starting in 2009, waves of the Biswa family were resettled in Tukwila. Birkha, Sunita and their daughters were the last of the family to leave the refugee camp, exchanging tearful goodbyes as they departed this summer.
Their relatives in South King County live in apartments within walking distance. Many grow their own food at a Bhutanese community garden near Foster High School. Some work at packing companies, hotels and the airport. One is an Uber driver. Three young women in the family attend college with plans to become doctors.
Those family members are now teaching Birkha, Sunita and their daughters the skills to adapt to their new lives in Washington state.
This Seattle Times project was a collaboration with ART WORKS Projects "Sanctuary/Sustenance: The Story of Many Journeys" an international multimedia exhibition, the University of Washington Center for Global Studies, The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and University of Washington Libraries, as well as the King County Library System and the KCLS Foundation.
A special thanks goes to the Seattle office of the International Rescue Committee.