Bhutanese refugee family celebrates its first Fourth of July in Dallas


When the first fireworks shoot off at Cotton Bowl Stadium, Nanda Sunuwar points to the sky and breaks into a rare, full-fledged smile. He whispers something to his wife, who nods.

Throughout the show, Sunuwar can’t stop clapping. He points to the smoke trailing off in the wind. Once, his hands shoot up to cover his ears.

Sunuwar is fidgety and giddy, like a child seeing fireworks for the first time. And in a way, he is.

In front of him, yellow fireworks cascade like a willow tree. White and pink ones trail down like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Sunuwar jumps up in a moment of excitement. He pumps his fists in the air, American flag in hand, before hastily sitting back down.

When it’s all over, Sunuwar wipes his forehead and shakes his head.

He hadn’t anticipated the finale.

Sunuwar and his family members, who lacked freedom in their home country of Bhutan, celebrated their first Fourth of July on Wednesday. They arrived in the U.S. as refugees in May.

The Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, took the Sunuwars and about 30 other refugees to Fair Park to watch the city of Dallas’ official Independence Day celebration, with fireworks from inside the Cotton Bowl Stadium, a concert by the Dallas Wind Symphony, dancing-water shows at the Esplanade Fountain, carnival games and other activities.

Debi Wheeler, executive director of the Dallas IRC, said it’s important for refugees to learn about the Fourth of July because the holiday stands for everything refugees have recently gained — freedom, independence, a home.

“We don’t want our clients to miss these opportunities and these celebrations,” she said. “They are on a pathway to citizenship. So this is kind of that first step and first celebration.”

As many as 1,500 refugees from all over the world are resettled in the Dallas area each year, Wheeler said. The majority are from Bhutan, Myanmar and Iraq. Bhutanese refugees are typically ethnic Nepalis who have been living in refugee camps in Nepal since being expelled from their homes in Bhutan more than 20 years ago. The refugees can’t return to Bhutan and aren’t allowed to settle permanently in Nepal, according to the United Nations.

Before Wednesday, the Sunuwars knew only the basics about the Fourth of July: They knew that there are fireworks, that they get the day off work and that it’s a day for celebrating happiness. They had never celebrated any sort of “independence day” before. World Refugee Day doesn’t quite count.

And there was no independence day in Bhutan, where Nanda Sunuwar adhered to a national dress code and said he was forced to practice Buddhism.

In the early 1990s, Sunuwar fled to Nepal as a teenager. At a Nepali refugee camp, he met his wife, Pabitra. There, they raised their three children with the help of his mother. For 19 years, the family built a life within the confines of the camp. But it was a limited life, one with far more challenges than opportunities. Sunuwar struggled to provide his children with bread and butter. And the family lived in a mud hut. Their bamboo roof was no match for the rain.

“Even the food was wet,” Sunuwar said through a translator.

It was also a life where calendars and schedules were of little use. Sunuwar can’t recall how old he was when he got married. He deduces he was 20, because Pabitra says she was 18. It takes a long family discussion to figure out when they were approved to come to the U.S.

And their quality of life has improved since their arrival in the U.S. Nanda, 38, and Pabitra, 36, work eight- to 10-hour shifts at a local tobacco factory. Their two-bedroom apartment, near Park Lane and Greenville Avenue, has two couches, a makeshift coffee table and bare walls, but at least the Sunuwars don’t get rained on anymore. The family has enough food for dinner every night around 9 p.m.

On a recent afternoon, Nanda and Pabitra bantered with each other as they cooked pork, mushrooms, cauliflower and rice. On a nearby bookshelf were photographs of their children, ages 12, 14 and 16. The grandmother and two daughters were away visiting relatives. Arjun, the eldest child, sat around like an average teen who didn’t know what to do with himself.

Though the Sunuwars were excited to be a part of the Fourth of July festivities, they said they don’t need the holiday to celebrate their freedom and independence. They are living it.

“Every time we sit for dinner, it is like being free,” Sunuwar said. “Every day is a free day for us here.”