A Refugee Child’s Courage to Dream

by Nirmala Dhakal

My parents are from Bhutan, a country not a lot of people know about. It is approximately 8,000 miles from the U.S. and is roughly 1/6th the size of Michigan. It is pretty much all mountains, and 70% of the land is covered with forest. The population is only a little over half a million.

My parents were the citizens of this tiny country. They were born and raised there just like their fore-mothers and fore-fathers.

In the early 1990s, my parents, who had barely set foot in school, who had never seen a newspaper or TV, who had never protested or attended any political rallies, whose ancestors had lived in the hills and had never worked anywhere but on farms, those parents were suddenly seen a threat by their own government.

The government of Bhutan started sending soldiers to my parents’ house. They gave my parents a deadline to leave the country. They threatened they’d kill or jail them if they were seen around after that date.

On July 22nd of 1992, my parents carried my brothers, who were 2 and 5 at the time, and silently left the country. They left every little thing they ever owned behind them. Everything that had been passed to them over generations like their house, their farm, the cattle which they had raised as their own children, their relatives, and their lifelong friends.

After days of struggle, my parents and my brothers arrived in the neighboring country of Nepal. They started sharing a roof with their new neighbors, who also had fled the country for their life. My father said, “It was like camping over there except it was with an empty stomach, a heart filled with sorrows, and hopeless, beaten-down buddies. There was no cheering or smiling, there was only hopelessness, despair, and uncertainty.”

1993 – My parents and siblings

1993 – My parents and siblings

Then, on a chilly February night in 1993, while my father was away and my brothers were asleep, my mother gave birth to a little girl. My mom was lying on the floor groaning with pain when my grandma and other neighbors heard her, came over, and washed the little girl up. That little girl was me, and that was the day I joined a tribe of refugees.

Basically, I was living a life with no hopes and no dreams. I was living my life like the thousands of people around me. I woke up every single day and repeated the same schedule, over and over again.

Over time, my parents gave up their hope of getting repatriated. In 2009, we were offered a third country resettlement option. That offer came to us as an unprecedented opportunity, and in a heartbeat we chose to resettle here in the USA.

My family and I came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in November of 2009. I started attending Kentwood Public Schools. It was unusual for me to be around people who were hopeful and filled with dreams. I faced a challenge of abundance and the air around me was so clean that I nearly got sick.

Our hut in the refugee camp

Our hut in the refugee camp

My life back in the refugee camp and the one here in Michigan are incomparable. Listing every single way how my life has improved in the past six years would take too long. But, I would like to mention one thing. One thing that I have today which I did not have six years ago. And it has made so much difference in my life.

That thing is courage. The courage to dream. Never had I dreamed of anything big before. Never had I dreamed of anything outside the usual. Never had I thought I was important and capable of change. Today I am filled with hope and courage. I know the purpose of my life. I know exactly what I want to do. My path has never been clear like this before.

I want to be a nurse and help other human beings. I want to ease their pain. I want to join Nurses Without Borders and travel to places destroyed by natural disaster or torn by war. I want to educate people, help them, and fill their lives with hope.

Currently, I am attending Northern Michigan University. I completed my second semester in Nursing and will be going back for my third one in a couple of weeks. I am on this new journey, and my motivation is my past.

I am very grateful that I was given a second chance in life. I am very grateful to all those people who dared to trim their daily expenses and donate to people in need even though they live half-way across the world. You all are my inspirations. Let us all realize our capabilities and acknowledge responsibilities so we can work together to make this world a better place.


This text is edited from a speech given in Kentwood, Michigan, at the 2016 World Refugee Day Commemoration by the Bhutanese Association of Michigan.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.