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No Longer Stateless, This Colorado Refugee Is Ensuring Others Can Follow His Example

Ann Marie Awad
Sher Mizer chats with a family of Nepalese refugees living in Denver.

Sher Mizer fled his native Bhutan in 1990, when he was just 13. Mizer is an ethnic Nepali - known in Bhutan as Lhotshampa - a group whose citizenship was stripped by the government. Now 37 and about to swear an oath of U.S. citizenship in Denver, Colorado, it will mark the first time he’s held citizenship in any country since he was a boy.

“‘One nation, one people,’ that was the slogan used by Bhutan,” Mizer says. “It means that the government wanted to bring the people of Bhutan under one nation, one culture, one script, one language.”

After the ruling Wangchuck Dynasty invalidated the Lhotshampa people’s citizenship, other reforms sought to drive them from Bhutan. Lhotshampa were no longer permitted to wear their ethnic dress, and the government outlawed the teaching or speaking of Nepali in schools. Then came the unrest.

“Some of the young women were raped and killed and some of them were kidnapped at night and then taken to the prison, and then some of them were arrested and then taken somewhere unknown, and no one knew where they were taken,” Mizer says.

His own uncle was arrested, but set free shortly after. Mizer believes it was to send a message to his family: get out while you still can.

So they did. The United Nations set up camps in eastern Nepal, where more than 100,000 Lhotshampa were effectively parked for decades. Nepal refused them citizenship and barred them from resettling in the country or even leaving their camps. In the early 1990s, these camps were rife with disease and malnourishment, although conditions improved in the early 2000s. Mizer’s parents spent 19 years in such a camp.

Credit Google Maps
Seen here in this screen capture, Bhutan, one of the world's smallest countries, is bordered on all sides by India, except in the North where it shares a border with Tibet.

The silver lining was education, which was of good quality compared to other services provided in the camps. Their good grades allowed Mizer and his siblings to get scholarships and study outside the camps. He went to India to complete high school and college. Another scholarship took him back to Nepal, but allowed him to live and study in Kathmandu, eventually earning a master's degree in English.

The United States and a handful other countries stepped up to take in refugees like Mizer and his family. The first Bhutanese refugee arrived stateside in 2008. Since then, the U.S. has admitted by far the most Bhutanese refugees, more than 75,000. Austria, Norway and Canada have also taken a number in. Even Nepal has changed their stance, allowing some to settle within the country, but the government restricts their travel and where they are permitted to work.

In 2011, Mizer’s family was approved for resettlement in the U.S.

“The relatives surrounded us, they started crying, some of them were praying for us - and by seeing their tears, I also felt that I was really leaving my country,” he says, pausing for a moment as tears well up in his eyes. “It was not that I was leaving Nepal, but I was leaving my country Bhutan.” When they first arrived in Los Angeles, Mizer was stunned by the reach of the city and the heights of the buildings. After a few days, they boarded another flight to Colorado, where the sight of the mountains reminded him of Nepal’s Mount Everest.

Mizer and his family were connected to one of Denver’s resettlement agencies, the African Community Center, which was originally founded by Africans to aid African refugees. Five years later, he works for a similar group called the Colorado African Organization. He co-manages their community navigator program. He and five other refugees act as point people for communities in the Denver area that share their language. Mizer deals mostly with the Nepali, Bhutanese and Tibetan communities.

There’s lots of paperwork. Applying for driver's licenses, setting up utility bills, signing leases, enrolling in health insurance, applying for schools, navigating the public transit system; navigators like Mizer smooth the rough edges of culture shock for those already grappling with untold traumas. Mizer has a handful of families he takes care of. Sometimes he takes them to the movies - he’ll have them ride the bus so they can learn where to go. Sometimes he’ll have them other to his apartment and cook dinner for them, sharing their native dishes and piping hot tea, creamy with steamed milk and sweet with cardamom. It’s the real work of community building that doesn’t take a single shred of paperwork.

"By seeing their tears, I also felt that I was really leaving my country."

And it’s home.

Mizer has already taken his citizenship test on. Next will come the oath of allegiance to the United States, a ceremony required of all naturalized citizens. He’ll receive a certificate, a symbol that he is no longer adrift, that he is a citizen someplace.

But, he says, he’ll always be a refugee.

“One gets changed to the permanent resident, from permanent resident to the citizen - there is a transition - but the concept goes always back to refugees, because refugees are people who fled because of some reason back home, and get refuge not only here in the United States, but wherever they feel comfortable,” he says. “So that part is to be understood well, because vulnerable people, forgotten people are refugee people.”

Mizer feels more strongly about that than ever given the discussion around refugees during the 2016 presidential election season.

“When refugees are not supported by the federal government, when refugees are not supported by the local government, we feel we may be [made] to go back to our country,” he says. “But, you know, we can’t go back to our country, that is the thing.”

Indeed, Bhutan has refused to readmit a single Lhotshampa refugee.

The idea that he could have a voice in choosing his nation’s leader is certainly foreign for a man expelled by a monarchy. That’s all the more reason for refugees like him to cast their vote, he says, because they can.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the name of the organization that aided in Mizer's resettlement and the name of the organization that currently employs him. Additionally, Mizer left Bhutan in 1992, not 1990 as the story originally stated. The date was also updated in the audio version of the story along with a clarification for the role of the Colorado African Organization. We regret the oversights.

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