30 Days
A refugee family's first month in the U.S.
Click or press

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.

In 1992, several generations of the Biswa family pose for a photograph at their home in Bhutan. One month later, they moved to a refugee camp in Nepal. Birkha, now 33, is the boy at far left.

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.

Relatives and International Rescue Committee caseworkers surround a smiling Birkha Biswa at Sea-Tac Airport in August. Birkha, with his wife and daughters, was the last of his family to be resettled in the United States from the refugee camp. For years, he wasn't sure if they’d ever be reunited. “When I saw my parents, I felt like I found something which I had lost.”
The family’s arrival in Tukwila after leaving the airport, top left, was cause for much anticipation and celebration. Chatur Biswa, bottom right, is happy to have his son’s family in the U.S. with him. Chatur works in a packing company and recently became a U.S. citizen. “Now I can say this is my country," he said. “It's a big deal for me.”

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.

Sunita and Birkha Biswa visit the Namaste Community Garden for the first time. More than 90 families have plots in the garden.
Many Bhutanese immigrants, including Buddhi Biswa, top left, produce a wide variety of vegetables at Namaste Community Garden in Tukwila. Prashana Biswa, 13, cuddles with her mother, Sunita, during their second day in the United States. They said it was colder than they had expected. Community members pray and sing during a home church service, bottom right.
The Biswa family prays during a home church service. About half of the family are Hindu, while others are Christian and attend services several times a week.
Birkha signs forms for his family at Seattle's Downtown Public Health Center. Resettlement agencies help refugee families get health screenings, vaccinations and tools to become self-reliant, such as cultural orientation, job skills and English classes.
Settling in a new country requires a lot of appointments, such as a medical check, top left, vaccinations, bottom left, and a meeting with an International Rescue Committee caseworker in SeaTac to talk about upcoming educational opportunities.
IRC caseworker Birendra Khadka, left, helps Birkha Biswa register Pranshu, 8, for elementary school in Tukwila. Birkha’s hopes for his daughters: “To be well-educated, to have a decent job, and to not face any misery.”

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.

With the help of their family, Birkha, Sunita and Prashana go grocery shopping for the first time at a Tukwila supermarket.
On his second day in the U.S., Birkha gets a shave from Dex Harris, left, at Hi-Def Cuts in Tukwila. Children in the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese community play outside an apartment building in Tukwila, top right, and celebrate a birthday party, bottom right.
Dibbya Biswa, with little cousin Pranshu at her side, wears a gown and tiara at her 18th birthday party. Dibbya, who graduated from Foster High School, is attending UW Bothell and hopes to become a doctor.

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.

Sunita, top left, gets her first glimpses of life in South King County while setting up a banking account. Relatives and friends surround Prashana, bottom left, and Pranshu, 8, right takes a ride in a relative’s toy car at her new home in Tukwila. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
Birkha and Sunita Biswa examine their new apartment in Tukwila. The couple and their two daughters lived for about a month at his parents’ apartment a few blocks away. “For the comfort of the family,” Birkha says, “I want to buy a car, find a good job, and I want to work honestly according to my capacity.”
Sunita and Birkha Biswa said they want to thank America for letting them make a home here as they move into a one-bedroom apartment in Tukwila. The family only brought a few precious belongings from the refugee camp, including traditional clothing, curry pots and spoons and a few decorations.

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.

Pranshu and her relative Dave Biswa, 2, take a ride in a toy luxury convertible in Tukwila. Pranshu’s former home was a bamboo house in a refugee camp in Nepal. Now she delights in eating vanilla ice cream, watching movies and playing with her reunited cousins.
Story and photography: Erika Schultz
Videography: Lauren Frohne, Erika Schultz and Corinne Chin
Video editing: Lauren Frohne
Design: Frank Mina
Web development: Audrey Carlsen
Project editors: Danny Gawlowski and Jim Simon

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.