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‘The Last Refugees of Bhutan,’ a series of photos by VCU’s Julia Rendleman, now featured in Chicago exhibit

The university photographer’s work is part of ‘Sanctuary/Sustenance,’ curated by Art Works Projects

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Bhutanese refugee Prabesh Ray sits inside a hut at the United Nations camp in Nepal in 2014. (All photos by Julia Rendleman unless otherwise noted)

Julia Rendleman was a staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014 when she and journalist Moriah Balingit received a tip about people living in a rundown apartment complex in Carrick, a neighborhood south of the city. 

“In order to get water they were running hoses out their kitchens and into their neighbor's homes,” Rendleman said. “It was cold and the hoses were cracking. A large pool of standing sewage filled the parking lot in front of the homes.”

The people living in the complex were refugees from Bhutan. Balingit and Rendleman’s reporting on the poor living conditions led to a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which later allowed them to travel to a Bhutanese refugee camp in eastern Nepal. They produced an extensive report on refugees in September 2014.

Rendleman’s photos documenting the refugee experience — both in Nepal and after relocation in the United States — is featured as part of a new exhibit curated by Art Works Projects that opened Thursday in Chicago.“Sanctuary/Sustenance: The Story of Many Journeys” will run Feb. 9 to May 18, and will explore stories of refugees who have resettled in five U.S. cities — Chicago, Minneapolis, San Diego, Seattle and Pittsburgh. 

“The exhibition is about the refugee journey — from homeland, to being displaced, to resettlement,” said Rendleman, now a part-time staff photographer at Virginia Commonwealth University and a freelance editorial photojournalist.

There is a permanence to the camps, even though it is not home, Rendleman said. Some people have been living there for decades. An entire generation of displaced Lhotsampas have been born there.
There is a permanence to the camps, even though it is not home, Rendleman said. Some people have been living there for decades. An entire generation of displaced Lhotsampas have been born there.

‘A whole generation had been born in the camp’ 

In the early 1990s, the Bhutanese government expelled thousands of Lhotshampas (Bhutanese people of Nepalese descent) from Bhutan. More than 100,000 fled to eastern Nepal, where the United Nations built seven refugee camps. After failed repatriation negotiations with Bhutan, the UN began helping the Lhotshampas find homes in third countries in 2008.

In the decade since, nearly 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have resettled, most in the United States. But thousands remain in the camps, which are closing this year. And President Donald Trump’s executive order halting the admission of refugees — which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the government's request to reinstate Thursday — adds uncertainty to the fate of those still displaced.

Julia Rendleman traveled to eastern Nepal to document the Lhotsampas living in UN refugee camps. The following images are from her 2014 photo essay,
Click to view slideshow. Julia Rendleman traveled to eastern Nepal to document the Lhotsampas living in UN refugee camps. The following images are from her 2014 photo essay, "The Last Refugees of Bhutan." Cutlines have been edited for length.

That feeling of displacement stood out to Rendleman when she and Balingit traveled to Nepal in July 2014. There is a permanence to the camps, even though it is not home, she said.

“The huts are made of bamboo, thatch and mud, yet some people have lived in them for decades,” Rendleman said. “A whole generation had been born in the camp.”

Temperatures peaked near 100 degrees during their trip. Most of the huts lacked electricity. The camp had access to running water only twice a day, when the taps were turned on. 

It felt like a waiting room, Rendleman said.

“You have to wait for water, you have to wait for your food rations, you have to wait for the International Organization for Migration to tell you where you are in your resettlement process,” she said. “It was all about waiting until they could move on with their lives.” 

That is a universal truth for refugees worldwide, said Heidi Diedrich, executive director of Art Works Projects. 

“Refugees are one of the most, if not the most, vulnerable populations in the world,” she said. “They are fleeing violence, persecution, war. Any refugee camp, or refugee situation, is a life in limbo.”

Kala Siwakoti cries during a 2014 group therapy session in Carrick, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Rup Pokhrel, who led the session, said Siwakoti was crying for the family she misses and will never see again in Bhutan.
Kala Siwakoti cries during a 2014 group therapy session in Carrick, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Rup Pokhrel, who led the session, said Siwakoti was crying for the family she misses and will never see again in Bhutan.

The resettled, and the stateless

Diedrich joined Art Works Projects last summer after working in human rights in Iraq for five years. According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, the world is currently witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. More than 65 million people have been forced from their homes. More than 21 million of them are refugees.

It is the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, Diedrich said.

“The number is daunting,” she said. “But when you see these images, they’re not numbers; they’re people. I think we have a responsibility to see the humanity.”

“Sanctuary/Sustenance” captures that humanity, Diedrich said. Rendleman’s photos are particularly powerful because they document refugees in the camp, and after resettlement in the United States. 

“Her images are very moving,” Diedrich said. “They capture the human being behind the story.” 

Third-country resettlement is a mix of conflicting emotions, Rendleman said. She first noticed it among the resettled Bhutanese living in Carrick.

“Half their lives were still in refugee camps — brothers, sisters, mothers,” she said. “Third-country resettlement is always tainted with that sadness.”

Resettlement means a new life, but it also means never going home again, Rendleman said. The process is long and invasive. It often becomes a painful reiteration of the horrible experiences that led refugees to their displacement. 

Balingit called it a “torturous limbo” that causes pain for those leaving and those who remain.

“I interviewed an 81-year-old woman [in Nepal] who said, ‘All my beloved are buried here, why would I want to leave?’” Rendleman said. “At 80 years old, she has no interest in having a new life. But the camps will close later this year. So the people who are left, what happens to them?

“They are stateless.”

Rendleman’s work was made possible by granting from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.