Elaine Ellman

Illustrative Documentary Photographer
Jungle Hut to Bronx Refuge
Location: New York City
Nationality: American
Biography: Â Â Elaine makes no disticinction between projects and commissioned work which includes portraits, fashion (which she loves) and "cover it" assignments such as Ladies Rooms (for Metropolis). Her book, SPARKS Portraits 1985-1995 , includes... read on
The loss of home often leads to a psychic dizziness not easily stabilized, especially for a refugee in an alien culture.

The family here know the violence of genocide, committed in their case by the feudal king of Bhutan; and suffered further loss when, in a UN supported DP camp in the Nepali jungle they lived for 25 years with barbed wire, armed guards and no future.

Bhutanese people in the United States have the highest rate of recorded suicide among refugees. According to several studies* factors are: many rural farmers who cannot read their own language; loss of reinforcers of identiy, e.g. possessions, citizenship; helplessness in a society based on individualism after years of dependence on charity; loss of neighbors along with their caste based social structure.

Less than two days after leaving their jungle camp, they encountered a visual cacophony of endless merchandise and food kiosks at New York's JFK airport terminal. They could not figure out how to buy the strange food. When taken to their new home, people who a few days ago had left stick huts often invaded by elephants, did not absorb as home a prewar 12 story brick Bronx apartment building - invaded by strange (Latin) loud music.

The adult Tamang children, having learned to read and write English either in the Nepali camp or in classes over the border in India, were determined to overcome  fear of  an overwhelmingly modern universe. I was assigned by the INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE to teach English to Phul Tamang, the family matriarch who had been too deeply distressed to leave the 4 room apartment she shared with nine family members. Having enjoyed a comfortable home with her large family on a farm where she cultivated a garden, like many Bhutanese she had had no education. Speaking a new language was impossible but, importantly, Mrs.Tamang relaxed as we got to know each other via coloring the letters of the alphabet, playing number games and chatting with the help of her adult children. There were 6 more family members living in the apartment when the seventh, their first native American grandson, was born and Phul's heart succumbed to contentment. 

The Tamangs and of course were windows into our very different cultures. I was able to clarify a lot about their new culture, albeit New York style. They demonstrated for me the profound importance of close, non-critical family acceptance. After a few years spent in their rooms, I'm grateful to be considered a family member.

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