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‘Given the opportunity we can really do great things’

Prabhat Adhikari during a trip to Washington, D.C. (courtesy of Prabhat Adhikari)
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
(Washington, D.C.) June 22, 2016 – Prabhat Adhikari was born and raised in a tight-knit Bhutanese settlement in the shadow of the Himalayas. Yet he’s never stepped foot inside his ancestral homeland of Bhutan. Instead, a cramped refugee camp in nearby Nepal was the only home he knew for the first 19 years of his life.

His parents were among the tens of thousands of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens who because of their ethnicity were expelled from Bhutan – a tiny, mountainous country wedged between China and India – in the early 1990s. Stateless, Prabhat grew up in a bamboo and mud hut with no electricity or running water in the Beldangi refugee camps, a cluster several settlements in eastern Nepal for Bhutanese exiles.  

As a result of the crowded and often unsanitary conditions at the camps, Prabhat routinely suffered from jaundice, cholera or typhoid during the wet, hot summer months. 

Yet he made the best of his miserable living conditions, attending schools run by Jesuit Refugee Service in cooperation with Caritas, an international Catholic charity.

While holding on to hope that he and his family eventually would leave the camp, he never dreamed of coming to North America, as most Bhutanese refugees longed to return home. But when years of negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal failed to reach a repatriation deal, the United States and several other countries stepped in and agreed to take in the refugees.

Two years ago Prabhat’s family – including his mother, father and younger sister – were granted permission for resettlement in Pittsburgh, where the family had relatives. And while western Pennsylvania was cold, dark and snowy when the family arrived in December 2014, the reception they received from the community was anything but chilly.  

“The locals are friendly and nice to us and welcoming,” he said. “I love it here. It’s a medium size city, people are friendly. It’s really great."

He said living in grim conditions against his will as a refugee has given him a valuable perspective on life.

“A lot of things that people take for granted are things that we have to fight really hard for,” he said. “And obviously I’m thankful to all the organizations (that helped us) and for Americans for accepting us.”

Prabhat, now 20, attends a Pittsburgh community college, with the hope of eventually studying computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

His dad is a data processor at a bank, while his mom works at a casino. “There jobs are still entry-level, lower skilled positions, but they’re looking to move up now,” he said.

In February Prabhat traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the 2016 U.S. Refugee Youth Consultation. The three-day conference, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and co-sponsored by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and other refugee resettlement groups and non-government organizations, gave 25 hand-picked students a chance to discuss their refugee past while also helping them set course for a bright future. 

“Everyone had their own story,” he said. “We had a really great time. We discussed a lot of problems and possible solutions to the problems facing refugees and migrants in America.”

Prabhat said he would welcome an opportunity to return to Nepal – or even a chance to go to Bhutan if the political situation ever would allow for such a move – to help develop advocacy programs for Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese.

But in the meantime, he is active with AJAPO, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit group dedicated to helping new immigrants, and is working hard to dispel misconceptions about refugees.

“Refugees are hardworking and disadvantaged, and given the opportunity we can really do great things,” he said. “But when you don’t know a group of people stereotypes crop up, like we’re not hard working or unwilling to integrate, and the truth is the opposite.

“We have been denied an opportunity for so many years, and given the opportunity to finally live in a country that recognizes you as a citizen and welcomes you, that really empowers you and makes you want to follow your dreams and do great things. So refugees are all just thankful and excited about starting a new life and following they’re ambitions.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories highlighting the accounts of young refugees who have resettled in the United States. The series is running in conjunction with World Refugee Day, which was Monday, June 20. To read part one click here.