Special exhibit features Bhutanese-Nepali refugees in Ohio

A special exhibit coming the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums on Feb. 2 features the stories of one of Ohio’s largest current-day refugee groups, the Bhutanese-Nepali community.

About 20,000 Bhutanese-Nepalis now live in Columbus and central Ohio after being forced to leave their native Bhutan and living for as long 20 years in a temporary camp in nearby Nepal.

Their story is rapidly becoming part of Ohio’s history.

“Bhutanese-Nepali Neighbors: Photographs by Tariq Tarey” shares their experiences and introduces viewers to this community. The exhibit showcases 30 photographs of members of the Bhutanese-Nepali community. Each photograph was taken by award-winning photographer Tariq Tarey and is accompanied by a narrative written by Doug Rutledge, which details each individual’s history.

The photographs emphasize the historic sequence of the Bhutanese-Nepali refugee experience; from living and working in Bhutan, to being forced to leave, the experience of living in refugee camps in Nepal, to resettlement in Columbus, finding jobs, buying homes and finally becoming American citizens. 

“Bhutanese-Nepali Neighbors” is open from Feb. 2 – May 25 in the lower level of the Hayes Museum. This exhibit was created through the Ohio History Connection and will travel throughout Ohio. HPLM is its first stop.

The exhibit is a good fit at HPLM because it connects concerns about immigration during President Rutherford B. Hayes’ time to modern immigration.

During President Hayes’ era, there was an influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who were more likely to be poor and Catholic or Jewish instead of Protestant, which was the dominant religion at the time in the United States, said Dustin McLochlin, Hayes Presidential Library & Museums curator.

“This shift in immigration caused many to question what cultural and economic problems this new stream of immigrants might cause,” McLochlin said. “Just as people witnessed a concern over disruptions in mainstream American society in Hayes’s final years, we are witnessing these concerns today.

“The Bhutanese-Nepali are a great example of how an influx of people (in this case, refugees) integrate into a new society, and how other people, their American ‘neighbors,’ perceive these individuals, whether on a cultural or economic level.”

Through vibrant imagery of the Bhutanese-Nepalis, Tarey and Rutledge seek to humanize the Bhutanese-Nepali immigrants’ stories.

“We want to get museum visitors looking at the refugees in these portraits to see them as equals,” Tarey said. “We want them to say, ‘This could be my uncle’ or ‘This could be my neighbor.’

“We’re really excited about bringing the latest Ohioans to your community.”

Tarey has a personal connection to the Bhutanese-Nepali people in that he, too, is a refugee.

He was born in Somalia and spent his childhood in the Middle East while his father served in the Somali Democratic Corps in various Middle Eastern locations. In 1991, the Somali civil war started and continues today. In 2011, he came to the United States as a refugee and has settled in Columbus.

“I share that I cannot return to my home,” Tarey said. “Because of who you are because of what background you have, you will be executed.”

This shared experience is one of the reasons Tarey wanted to work on this project. He and Rutledge worked together for many years at Jewish Family Services. They helped the Bhutanese-Nepalis find work and settle into the Columbus area.

“We quickly made a lot of friends,” Rutledge said. “We realized the depth and complexity of the culture and the beauties of it and realized we should start documenting it.”

They spent four years meeting with the refugees and learning their stories before putting together this exhibit.

The Bhutanese-Nepali people were jailed, tortured and pushed out of their country when they refused to change their religion and culture, Rutledge said. Many lived in the refugee camp for 20 years before coming to the United States.

“Bhutanese-Nepali Neighbors” will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Members are admitted for free. Admission for non-members is included with the purchase of a regular museum admission ticket.

The exhibit is sponsored by William Rutherford and Nancy Gaines Platt.

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is America’s first presidential library and the forerunner for the federal presidential library system. It is partially funded by the state of Ohio and affiliated with the Ohio History Connection. The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is located at Spiegel Grove at the corner of Hayes and Buckland avenues.

For information, call 419-332-2081, or visit rbhayes.org. Like HPLM on Facebook at fb.me/rbhayespres and follow on Twitter at @rbhayespres and Instagram at rbhayespres.