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A Ray of Light in the Dark Life

words & photographs by Narendra Mainali

That afternoon the sun hastened to disappear so as not to see the fate of the newborn child in that poor village of Southern Bhutan. The birth of a girl child in a conservative patriarchal society was enough for the disappointment. In addition, when it was revealed that the child was disabled, the villagers concluded that she was a curse of the god. In a society absorbed by poverty and illiteracy where a mother had to work in the field the next day after giving birth, the helpless disabled child was left unattended and the faint chances of getting recovered with proper care and medication ebbed away. The fate of the setting sun and that of the disabled child were both fading against the darkness of that vivid night.

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In the past eighteen months, the time has taken a different course in the life of Pampha Maya Gurung. Pampha, 26, arrived Bornholm, a Danish island located in the Baltic Sea in September 2009, along-with the family of his brother Suk Bahadur Gurung. They are among the several Bhutanese refugee families resettled in Denmark by the Danish Government. Pampha is speechless, she cannot communicate verbally. Her ears are of no functional use and occasionally she loses control of her body. “My disability was the reason for people to laugh at me,” Pampha expresses her anxiety in the sign language with Seti Maya Gurung, her sister-in-law. “It was not just the local kids, but also the neighbors in the refugee camps who would tease and harass me.” Pampha lost her speaking and hearing abilities by birth. Her physical state got further worse as the Lhotsampa community in Bhutan was caught in the middle of a great crisis during the 1990s when she was just a kid. Suk Bahadur Gurung, Pampha’s elder brother tells the entire story of their suffering: “Our ancestors were of Nepali origin who migrated to Southern Bhutan from the early 1600s. In general Lhotsampa speak Nepali

and practice Hinduism. But the Bhutanese government began discrimination by introducing One Nation One People policy which stipulated that only one culture and social etiquette including Dzongkha, the language of the Buddhist ruling class were permitted. As a result a large number of Lhotsampa lost their citizenship, and the use of Nepali language became outlawed. We were fired from the jobs, threatened and when there were attempts to protest, the Bhutanese government responded with military rule. The army closed the schools, hospitals, businesses and post offices in the Southern Bhutan and then started to torture us. Men were beaten and imprisoned; the women were raped and harassed. Even the little girls of Pampha’s age were not spared.” “When we could not protect our family and the property, we had no choice than to flee to a safe place. We landed in the plains of Eastern Nepal and lived in the temporary camps. It was a tough decision.” Suk Bahadur speaks with a pale shade in his face. One sixth of the population of Bhutan belonging to Lhotsampa community lived a miserable life in the camps in Nepal. With the international pressure and intervention, Bhutanese government officials agreed to repatriate the refugees, but it turned out to be a mere political agenda that never materialized.

Clockwise from left: Pampha Maya Gurung stares outside her window into the sky, from the bedroom in her apartment in Bornholm, Denmark. Pampha, who arrived in Bornholm with her brother Suk Bahadur Gurung in 2009, is a Bhutanese refugee who spent almost 17 years in the refugee camps in Nepal being a victim of social stigma against her disability of hearing and speaking. A chart with the hand alphabets is hung in the living room of the Gurung family in Bornholm. To facilitate Pampha Maya Gurung to communicate with each other, all the family members have learnt the sign language. Pampha Maya Gurung practices to learn the new Danish alphabets using the sign language. Pampha never attended school before coming to Denmark, but she has already completed the basic sign language course in the special school in Bornholm. Though her course is finished, she keeps practising in her home. page #

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Pampha Maya Gurung often loses the control of her body. While her sister-in-law Seti Maya Gurung cooks food for the family, Pampha helps to clean the house when she is capable. Pampha was still a child when Seti married with Pampha’s brother Suk Bahadur Gurung in the refugee camp in Nepal, so they are a family bonded well together.

The living condition at the camps was pitiful. They had to struggle for food, shelter and even for the access to clean drinking water. There were no facilities that could accommodate disabled refugees like Pampha in the camps. The concern of disabled, women and children were subdued under the big political issues and the vulnerable group continued to suffer more than the rest of the refugees. Pampha was ignorant about why all the changes were happening but she continued to face the social stigma of being disabled. She went to the general primary school but in the first day of her attendance, a teacher slapped in her face accusing her of tearing a piece of paper. The incident created a different perception about the school in her innocent mind. She never went back to any schools again. After waiting for 17 futile years in the camps, wanting to go back to their house and their property in Bhutan, Suk Bahadur Gurung

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Pampha enjoys palying with Alisha and Yashaya, the kids of her brother Suk Bahadur Gurung. The kids, too have learnt the sign language so that they can play and joke with each other.

lost all his traces of hopes. He was worried about the future of Pampha and his own children. They opted for third country relocation and came to Denmark to embark on a new life. It was a thrilling experience for Pampha to fly in the plane. She had never seen such a huge bird which could carry so many people but her first flight in a plane was just a beginning of the series of amusements. There was always the scarcity of drinking water in the camps, and she had to walk hours to wash her clothes. But there was a tiny machine, which could wash all her clothes by itself in her own apartment in minutes! And how can she forget about the elevator and the automatic door in the shopping mall, which opened and closed itself. How could it happen? She started to become curious about things around her. One early morning, her brother Suk Bahadur took her to the school of special education in Ronne, Bornholm, and everything else changed.

The Gurung family together prepare a variety of Indian and Nepali dishes for the dinner. During the day time, everyone go to their schools or language classes, so its in the dinner time they meet together and talk about the experiences of the whole day.

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“I was so frightened to go to the school once again, but everyone greeted me with hugs and kisses,” In a thrilled gesture, Pampha says, “I lost all my fear. I never thought going to school would ever be so fun and exciting.” Pampha completed the special course of sign language in a very short period of time showing a very high level of determination. She has completed the course available in Bornholm and Pampha has talked with the school and the local authority for the possibility of joining the advanced courses in Copenhagen. She wants to study further. The support of Suk and his wife Seti has played a vital role in Pampha’s development. “When I was married to Suk, Pampha was still a kid” Seti Maya says, “She’s like my own daughter.” A poster with the alphabets of sign language occupies a special position

in the wall of their living room. Everyone in the Gurung family knows the sign language and can talk with her. Pampha is happy to live with his brother’s family. “I do not know what I can do in the future, but I want to die with them.” Pampha says. Pampha is learning the skills to read and write. But it is not just the ability of communication she has learnt; she has discovered herself as a new person. With the newfound gift, she can express her feelings precisely. She knows she is not perfect, but now she has found her own way of exploring and narrating the incidents around her own world. She never felt so blissful in her life. She ponders it’s the blessing of some unknown force who opened the doors of opportunities for her in Denmark bringing in some rays of light in her dark life.

Pampha Maya Gurung looks through the binaculars in the home of Morten Svenningsen, her facilitator in Bornhlm, Denmark. Pampha explores every details of her new life equipped with the skills of communication.

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Pampha Maya Gurung goes for a walk with her friends in Bornholm, Denmark. Everyone used to tease and harrash her for her disability by showing their tongues and with different weird gestures to annoy her in the refugee camps. But everyone loves her without discrimination in this island. She is very happy to begin the journey of her new life where she can live her own life freely.

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A Ray of Light in the Dark Life