Walking through the center of the bustle at Tucson Meet Yourself in search of an Iskashitaa banner, an overwhelming wave of smells, sounds and movement crashed my sense of focus. It didn't take me long to find what I was looking for: the Iskashitaa crafts tables in the Folk Arts and Global Market center. Covered with hand-woven baskets, palm leaves, scarves, and other vibrant merchandise, the color-blasted tables were not hard to miss, much less the smiling and welcoming faces of the Iskashitaa members.
I introduced myself to the craft-makers and asked about their work. After learning about the patient skill behind the palm-frond and recycled plastic baskets, my interest directed itself towards the only child at the table. Expecting a shy character, I was surprised when she jumped at the questions directed towards her. Wondering which method she used to make the colorful scarves, she offered to teach me how she finger weaves each one, putting a whole new meaning behind the phrase "made by hand." Watching her wrap the yarn around my fingers, I began to ask her about herself and how she came to be the sweet Nepalese teen teaching the silly American girl how to make her own clothes. Originally from Bhutan, fifteen year-old Krishna told me about her family's journey.
A sophomore at Catalina High School, Krishna came to Tucson with her brother, sister, and mother in March of 2010. Before coming to America, Krishna's family spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.
"So why did you come here?" I asked her.
"Why? To have a better education, and to live in peace, freedom..." A nice answer, of course, but an expected answer, almost rehearsed. I wanted to know more, if the stereotypical belief that everyone wants to come to America is a falsifiable truth, or if obtaining the real answer is like drilling someone at a poker table. I drilled anyway.
"Did you always want to come to America or did it just turn out that way?"
"It just happened," she admitted. "We were in refugee camp for 18 years.... People from Bhutan start war and they came (to Nepal) to run away. I stayed in refugee camp for 11 years but them (her family) they stay for like 18 or 19."
Due to the rising population of the Nepali-speaking minority in Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began a policy that resulted in the expulsion of roughly 100,000 members of the ethnic minority from the 1980s to 1990s by the Royal Ghutan Army. By 2010, around 40,000 Bhutanese refugees in camps in Nepal were resettled in Western countries like the United States due to Bhutan's refusal to allow the return of its citizens (Subba and Mishra 2010). According to a relative 1995 article in the academic journal Pakistan Horizon, the "pro-democracy protests in Thiumphu, a corollary of the democratic movement in Nepal, seem to have triggered the eviction of the ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan" (Shakoor 1995: 33).
"Do you ever want to go back?" I inquired.
"Maybe... probably not" Krishna replied, a serious look on her face. But when asked about the future, her positivism remained undimmed. "I want to go to U of A. I want to be a doctor."
"What kind of doctor"
"Family doctor? Or Dentist? My sister wants to be a nurse, yeah and my brother's study nurse now."
As I continued to weave the scarf on my own, I asked, "So how do you learn to finger weave?"
"Her." She gestured to the women to her right weaving a scarf of her own. "My cousin." Brought to attention, the women I now knew to be named Pompa joined our casual banter, although her limited English produced Krishna as our on-deck carrier pigeon.
"So when did you come here, to Tucson? I asked.
"Uh, I came 2009. March."
"Before Krishna?" I asked for clarification.
"Yes before Krishna."
"And you're originally from Bhutan?
"Yes, yes my country is Bhutan," Pompa answered with an air of pride. When asked about anything related to her experience in Tucson, she would answer simply, "Yes, I like United States," as her face lit up in a smile. Although details were difficult to extract due to the language barrier, the message was clear; her resettlement experience has been a positive one. "It's difficult because the system I think is good and law here is good. Two things I don't like." With the help of Krishna's translations, Pompa then went on to describe her dislike of the common attire by the students at schools in Tucson and the normalcy of street smokers, a lighthearted air to her disapproval.
Resulting in a similar reaction, any questions about their involvement with Iskashitaa Refugee Network, or anything related to Iskashitaa for that matter, produced Pompa's repeated remark, "Too much help, Iskashitaa, too much help, Barbara" Their positive reaction towards Iskashitaa's programs and presence in their lives was undeniable. Krishna elaborated for her cousin, explaining how Iskashitaa provides fabric to make clothes, supplies to make the merchandise they sell at local events such as this festival, and helps her communicate with people in the community. Along with supplies, Pompa also acquires much of her produce from Iskashitaa harvests, including "apples, oranges, pomegranate..." she added with another bright smile.
As I continued my finger weaving, Krishna noticed my length, wrapped one end around my neck and said, "Maybe a little bit more. It's good."
Pompa may not think of America or Tucson as her home, at least not in the way that she thinks of Bhutan as her home, but she appeared happier than most people I know. A constant expression of complacent contentedness rested on her face in the time I spent with her. Other than the expected anxiousness one feels after spending a long day in the heat, Krishna seemed happy too. A feeling that may have been harder to come by without a community, a home, to call her own-a community whose doors were undoubtedly opened through the Iskashitaa Refugee Network.
-Kayla Halsey, Journalism Intern