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Women of the Year: Pingala Dhital helps refugees like her find belonging in Spokane – ‘It takes a whole community’

After 18 years as a refugee, Pingala Dhital and her family became the first Bhutanese refugees to arrive in the United States in 2008.

They were met at the Spokane airport just after midnight by staff from World Relief staff, which helps resettle refugees, and a Nepali student from Gonzaga University. The staff tried to find someone who could cook familiar food and ended up with a Vietnamese red lentil soup.

“It was just a heart-melting moment,” Dhital said. “I just felt like we were kicked out by the place we were born, the place I was familiar with… we could not fit in anywhere, and this country where we never dreamed about, we never knew, total strangers were welcoming us.”

During the last 15 years, Dhital has devoted herself to helping other refugees find not just a safe place to live, but truly a new home and community in Spokane.

She recently launched the Mahima Project at refugee-centered nonprofit Thrive International, where she provides a safe space for refugee women to connect.

Losing home, finding hope

Dhital, 51, was born in Bhutan but is ethnically Nepali. She lived in the southern part of the kingdom and was attending high school in the late 1980s when the government introduced the “one nation, one people” policy that effectively made people like Dhital citizens one day, illegal immigrants the next.

They were forced to change their appearance to fit government standards, Dhital said. She vividly remembers having to go to a barber to get her hair cut short.

“When you don’t do it by choice, something is imposed. It’s a torture psychically, you’re humiliated, not allowing you to do what you want to do,” Dhital said. “Even to your body, you don’t have control.”

Both she and her father were involved in demonstrations in 1991 opposing the policy.

Not long after, the family, along with thousands of other people, had to flee Bhutan. They spent nine months in India before they were moved to Nepal and put in refugee camps.

Dhital lived in the camp Beldangi-2 along a river that had previously been used as a cremation site.

Despite the difficult living situation, life went on. Dhital met her husband, Kamal, in the camp. He had been active in the resistance movement as the general secretary of the student union of Bhutan and had fled, leaving his entire family behind.

Dhital’s family was from the same village and took him in. Dhital gave birth to her two children in the camp as well.

She quickly realized that at least 90% of the women in the camps were illiterate.

“Most of us were politically unaware, we were totally like political scapegoat,” Dhital said. “If we do this education while we were in the camp, at least we could go literate.”

Dhital helped create an education program for women, supported by some non-governmental organizations. She worked with United Nations staff as well, advocating for a solution to the indefinite limbo in which the Bhutanese found themselves.

Eventually in the early 2000s, a path to resettlement began to open, but many in the camp opposed the idea, she recalled. They spread rumors that the people who left to be resettled would actually be killed and accused Dhital of selling off Bhutanese people.

Her hut was vandalized and her family threatened, Dhital said.

“Living for 18 years in a limbo, like not knowing what happens to your life, it came as a relief, but lots of unknowns,” Dhital said of finally being resettled in 2008.

The first weeks and months in Spokane were difficult, but one connection with Dave Beine and his wife, Kimberly, proved to be a key connection for the Dhitals.

The Beines had done extensive refugee work, specifically in Nepal, and spoke Nepali.

He went to meet the Dhitals on their second day in Spokane and helped them get settled.

About a year later, a house next door to the Beines’ came up for rent, and the couple worked with the landlord to get the Dhitals into the home.

“We just did life together,” Dave Beine said.

Dhital began working as an employment specialist for World Relief. Then during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Finney, founder of Thrive and former World Relief executive director, asked her to create a program for women after receiving a large donation.

“I could touch the different aspect of life,” Dhital said of the program.

Mahima, which means “grace,” is a place for women to connect with each other and rebuild the community they lost when being ripped from their homelands.

Calling it a women’s empowerment program doesn’t capture all that Dhital does to support refugee women, Finney said.

“She has literally, directly, helped thousands of people. Whether that’s helping them find their first job or her more recently going out and finding women who are really isolated and alone, and finding ways to help them rebuild their community,” Finney said.

In many patriarchal cultures, women’s support systems are limited to their extended family. But when refugees arrive in Spokane, often their family doesn’t come with them.

They’re placed in a new culture with limited support learning basic tasks, like shopping, alone. There’s no one to support them after they have a baby, or when throwing a birthday party or moving, Dhital said.

Her goal is to both create community among refugees but also between Americans and their new neighbors, giving refugee women someone to ask for help when they encounter a new problem they may not understand.

Dhital’s goal is for “every refugee woman to have an American-born friend, so when they are in need they can call them,” she said.

The program also helps women find part-time or work-from-home jobs. Dhital partners with Millianna jewelry, which hires refugees to make and design jewelry.

Dhital hosts a weekly tea at Feast World Kitchen on Friday mornings. At one of those teas, she connected a young Afghan woman with a new volunteer.

The Afghan woman was working at McDonald’s, struggling to pay rent on her own. She just clicked with the volunteer, who was living alone, and they became roommates.

Whether it’s a big help, such as somewhere to live, or taking a new friend to the laundromat for the first time, creating community for refugee women is a vital part of supporting their mental health, Dhital said.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Dhital said. “It takes a whole community to resettle a refugee.”