By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Reaching the summit of the world’s tallest mountain in Nepal is certainly not easy. Since 1922, only 800 people have successfully scaled Mount Everest’s summit at 29,035 feet.
Bikram Subba’s 8,000-mile journey from Bhutan to the United States via Nepal was also difficult. However, the newest Sun Life Rising Star Award winner has reached personal highs in a short amount of time.
Subba, 19, is from the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, a country in Asia — population of about 700,000 — located east of Nepal and north of Bangladesh.
Due to what the Bhutanese call ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the early 1990s, Subba and his family — his parents and two siblings — joined thousands of expelled Bhutanese of Nepali origin.
“From Bhutan, we moved to Nepal and were refugees there,” Subba said. “There were no good facilities for us. We just had to sit on the floor on the carpet.” Today, almost 108,000 Bhutanese live in seven refugee camps in Nepal.
He says some of his fellow refugees died because of the lack of food.
His tent also failed to provide protection from adverse weather. “Sometimes, when the rain poured, we got the rain on us, and our clothes got wet. [Or] we just had to sit in the hot sun,” he said about daily life.
Subba remembers attending school in a poorly constructed shack made of bamboo.
“Sometimes, it would fall down, and we would have to run away from the school,” said Subba.
Most of the parents living at the refugee camp had little formal education and could not afford to pay for their children to go to college.
As a result, he says many adolescent refugees joined gangs and started taking drugs.
Robbery became a common activity at the refugee camp. Subba pointed out, “There was no way to earn money. … That makes small children think about how to make money, whether to take it in a bad way.”
“I lived as a Bhutanese refugee for 16 years amid daily violence and extreme poverty, but I came to America with hope,” he said.
The U.S. government offered to resettle 60,000 of these refugees in 2006. With the help of the International Organization for Migration, Subba and his family immigrated to the United States two years later and shared a two-bedroom apartment in Burien.
In 2009, he became involved with New Futures, an organization that partners with families in their communities. He visited The Heights at Burien, one of New Futures’ four community learning centers, and got help with his homework from tutors.
After seeing other refugees have difficulty in communicating with healthcare professionals, he quickly learned to speak English. He now interprets for other refugees during their visits to the doctor.
Subba eventually returned the help offered by New Futures by serving as a mentor to other students and helping them with their homework.
With his first exposure to Nepali folk dancing at the refugee camp in Nepal, he decided to start his own dance group in 2009. The Burien-based group is made up of 20 students between the ages of 13 and 21 who he instructs. “We use a flute or a candle during our performances,” said Subba.
For his many accomplishments, New Futures awarded him with a $1,500 scholarship. Sun Life Financial awarded him $5,000 in 2010. Last February, he received a second honor by being selected as one of 22 students attending the company’s first national summit in Miami to discuss education issues affecting disadvantaged youths.
One of Subba’s friends, Krishna Wagley, shares many of the same memories of growing up in a refugee camp.
Wagley, 18, is grateful for the life-saving aid he received from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He said he used to live with no hope, shared his tent with 19 people, and experienced life at the camp as “a really horrible situation.” He immigrated to the United States two years ago with his parents, older brother, and two older sisters. They all shared a two-bedroom apartment in Burien. His third older sister stayed in Nepal.
Soon after he arrived, he met Subba.
While not a Nepali folk dancer, he serves in Subba’s dance group as its leader.
Wagley said, “Here, in the Nepali community, we organize a lot of cultural programs like Nepali [folk] dancing. … Being in a different country, far from our motherland, still, we can show where we are from and who we are.”
A student at Highline High School in Burien, who will graduate this year, Subba is studying to become a certified nursing assistant and hopes to someday work as a registered nurse.
Subba also wants to pursue a career in the healthcare field. He said, “Because of all of these experiences, my goal is to become a medical administrator, helping Nepali people in the hospital. Because of my hard work, I have made a mark in my community.” ♦
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.