My Journey from Bhutanese Refugee Camp to Brown University

Lila headshot
Lila in a lab
Lila speaking at a podium

I was born and raised in Bhutanese refugee camp in eastern Nepal. My parents, along with 100,000 other Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese were expelled by the Bhutanese regime. They ended up in a makeshift bamboo and plastic huts in Goldhap refugee camp in 1992. When I think about my life in a refugee camp, I consider it “like a parrot living in the cage”. I did not get the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life like any other children born and raised in the western countries.

I had gone through many traumatic experiences in my childhood. For example, I witnessed many episodes of fire break out. The other experience was not being able to have dinner at the table. The food ration provided by the UNHCR was not sufficient for us to last through two weeks. Additionally, the rain, flood and poor childhood continued to engulf us. My parents had always wanted to go back to their motherland-Bhutan. But the Bhutanese government did not take them. After living in the camp for almost 17 years, the US government announced that it would resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. I applied along with my family and we were resettled in Springfield MA in 2011.

Integrating in the U.S culture wasn’t that easy for me as well as with my family members. Both of my parents did not speak English this is because they were subsistence farmers in Bhutan. The Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts helped me to enroll in Central High School in Springfield, MA. I was enrolled for 9th grade.They assessed my English proficiency level and placed me in English as a Second Language (ESOL).

I faced various challenges during my first year in school except for my ESOL class I was surrounded by strangers. The fear of being called by a teacher, the panic of presenting in front of the class, the dismay of the essay all weighed on me. Some of the students would look down on me and ask me the frequent question about my nationality and where did I come from. It was angering and somehow the indignant feeling broadened my throat.

By eleventh grade when I got out of ESOL. I elected to skip taking ESOL and immediately went to honors English. Whenever I had to talk in front of everyone, or my peers, they figured out my mistake and started giving me valuable feedback, and my ease with the language started to increase. I began to talk with others in English; I was able to read books that were much more complex. My vocabulary expanded, and words like happy, big and good were replaced by euphoric, ample and adept. Slowly, when I started involving myself in after school activities and clubs, it suddenly turned around my life. Everyone started hanging around with me and started working and coordinating with one another. I am still learning English language! I never gave up, and I continued my academic careers and also participated in various community events. For example, recently I have worked in a Baystate Medical Center as a research assistant, in both community and hospital settings, with the latter being involved with COPD, asthma, and sleep apnea clinical trials. These roles have greatly advanced my knowledge of patient care, different treatment options and health awareness strategies within communities and national levels. My hard work was recognized with an outstanding GPA; and I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship which fully funded my undergraduate program and currently funding for my graduate program.

As a current first year-MPH student at Brown University school of public health, I am still in the primary phase to learn more about the extreme social issues that are affecting the contemporary society of the United States. These issues have inspired me to want to be in the forefront of combating health problems to the best of my capabilities. I believe it is my responsibility to make sure the members of my community are healthy merely not only in a physical form, but it is also equally essential to be healthy mentally and emotionally.

My mission is to change lives. I am not a superhero; I am but one person who believes that the needs of the less fortunate should not be overlooked. Once I am equipped with the armor of public health, I will be able to help to improve some of the disparities that prevent people from receiving optimum healthcare in the United States of America.

I have learned a lot from this pandemic including how crucial the role of the public health advocate can be to change and save the lives of people. Finally, public health can really affect the life of that little boy in the city of Springfield, as well as many medically disadvantaged across the globe.

I’d like to thank my parents, family members, teachers, community leaders, Gates & Melinda Foundation, and many others who have trusted me and helped me to be a better person. My parents came to the US for my future and I will work hard to fulfill their dream!

This story is part of a Refugee Communities collection.