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From a Refugee Camp to BU

School of Public Health student’s long journey to Boston


Some public health practitioners cite other people’s suffering as motivation for pursuing a career in the public health field. A visit to sub-Saharan Africa may have been the tug. Or a stint volunteering at a homeless shelter. Or a heightened awareness of world hunger or disease.

For Tej Mishra, it was eight days of waiting for someone to look in his ear.

Mishra (SPH’13) remembers the excruciating pain of an ear infection he suffered at age 11, while living in a refugee camp in Nepal with his family, who had fled their native Bhutan. One day went by—then five, then eight—as he waited to be seen by a medical clinician tending to the 21,000 refugees huddled in bamboo and plastic huts in a Bhutanese camp in the country’s Jhapa region.

“I just remember I cried, day and night, from the pain,” Mishra recalls more than a decade later. “I was a kid. There was nothing to do but wait.”

Today Mishra cites those eight days as the beginning of his desire to help others.

“My passion to pursue public health was rooted in that experience,” he explains. “I learned from childhood that public health is the main social issue that needs to be addressed, before anything else can be tackled. There can be no education, no future, without adequate health care.”

Mishra, who is majoring in international health, with an interest in biostatistics and research design, is a study in resilience. Because of his father’s Nepalese heritage, when he was five his family was forced out of Bhutan, a remote and impoverished country in southern Asia, in what Mishra describes as widespread ethnic cleansing. He spent the next 18 years in a refugee camp with his parents and siblings before finding his way to a private college in Nepal—and then, in 2010, to the United States.

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Mishra (fourth from left) shortly after arriving at a refugee camp in Nepal in the early 1990s. Photo courtesy of Tej Mishra

His memories of the family’s early days in the refugee camp are dark: his brothers and parents holding up the plastic roof in driving rains, infectious diseases spreading from one family to the next, the dead being burned and thrown into a nearby river. Even after assistance arrived from the United Nations, living conditions remained grim, with rationed food and little opportunity for employment or integration into Nepalese society. Mishra was schooled at the camp until high school, when he received aid from a charitable group to attend a private school in Nepal.

“One of the saddest issues of being a refugee is the hatred you face from the local community,” he says. “I was a Nepali by race, but you are not supposed to go outside and work or make something of yourself, even if you have talent. A complete generation of my community has been lost. Most of them were not allowed to do anything for 20 years.”

After high school, Mishra enrolled in Pokhara University in Nepal, working his way through school with support from his older brothers and by tutoring other students. He had known from an early age that he wanted to pursue a career in public health, and after his family immigrated to Virginia, he applied and was accepted to the School of Public Health.

Rather than resent the experiences of his youth, Mishra says, in some ways he cherishes them. “My school days are what I remember the most—sitting on a dusty floor, on a sack I brought from home, listening to teachers from Bhutan who had been schooled in the Indian education system. It’s funny—in some ways, I miss those moments,” he says. “Not the conditions—I would never have had the opportunities to do what I can do here. It’s mainly the human or emotional aspect that I miss. There were some aspects of life there that will never be here. It was a community for me, in a way that’s difficult to explain.”

That community continues today in Nepal, where an estimated 60,000 refugees from Bhutan remain in camps. Tens of thousands of others have resettled in the United States, Australia, Canada, and other countries. The Bhutanese refugees first entered Nepal, where temporary camps were established on the banks on the Mai River, at the end of 1990. Disease and squalor were rife.

A few years later, within months after Mishra and his family arrived, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations World Food Program began providing assistance to the Bhutanese refugees, including food, water, shelter, health care, and education. The Bhutanese situation is now one of the most protracted refugee crises in the world.

While violence is minimal within the refugee population, the structural layout of the camps is very dense, with shelters built close together, the UN reports. Fires occur frequently and cause widespread damage, and flooding from rain is common.

Mishra stays in touch with friends at the camps, as well as with one of his sisters, who chose to stay behind. He has no interest in returning to Bhutan, a country whose policies on human rights and social justice are largely misunderstood by the West, he says.

“Bhutan is not the way the world sees it,” Mishra says. “Not all ethnic groups are allowed to go to school or obtain jobs. Yes, foreigners are warmly welcomed, but they see only the cultural attractions the government wants them to see. And the people in the local villages—they are afraid for their lives to speak the truth against the government.” He remains discouraged that so little attention has been paid to the plight of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal: “There is a chance that the sufferings of my parents will remain as forgotten history.”

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Mishra addresses the class Managing Disasters and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, taught by Monica Onyango, an SPH clinical assistant professor of international health. Photo by Michael Saunders

While he doesn’t broadcast his own history, Mishra says he welcomes opportunities to educate others about the refugee experience. He spoke this year to an SPH international health class and to a class of first-year medical students at the School of Medicine about refugee life from a public health perspective.

Joe Anzalone (SPH’92), senior manager of SPH’s department of international health, says he’s impressed by Mishra’s energy and focus. “Tej is incredibly determined and genuine. Because of his unusual path to SPH, I had concerns about his readiness to excel in his course work. However, I’ve seen the great capacity Tej has for hard work. He has incredible drive and discipline.”

Mishra says he hopes to find a way to work with refugees after completing a master’s degree this spring, but that he wants to do more than help them merely to endure.

“We think in one perspective: that if we provide food and water and basic necessities, that is what people need to survive,” he says. “But if we look deeper, survival is not enough. People need opportunities to live healthy, productive lives. I have the opportunity now. I want to use it to help other people.”

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.


7 Comments on From a Refugee Camp to BU

  • Ana Carolina Lima on 10.10.2012 at 9:12 am

    Very inspiring history!
    Congratulations Lisa Chedekel for the article, and Tej Mishra for the wonderful overcome.

  • Touched Indian on 10.10.2012 at 10:14 am

    Tej, your story is inspiring. I am an Indian student here at BU — I wish I could do more for the Nepali people.

  • Krishna on 10.10.2012 at 5:16 pm

    I don’t think the statement made by Mishra is true. You have just look from one side of the story but have you really gone deeper into the issues to come up with such false allegations against Bhutan. In fact, you should also think from the point of view of Bhutan’s sovereignty, where 700,000 people are peacefully residing in Bhutan rather than getting one-sided views from thousands, self claimed Bhutan refugees.

    If you have gone into depth, an immigrant from Nepal, which have settled in Bhutan prior to 1980’s were all given the Bhutanese citizenship and they are serving at a various positions right from Minister, Secretaries to the subordinate level. In each and every organization, ministries, private and corporate sectors, the key officials are all those Lhosthampas (Nepali speaking community in Bhutan).
    But the one who were claiming as Bhutan refugee are all illegal immigrants, who have forcefully come to Bhutan due to demographic explosion in the region. Not only Bhutan, every country could have intervened, if such situation arouses and if such immigrants have potential threat to the sovereignty of the country. In fact, Bhutan has given the highest citizenship status to its immigrants, refugee in the world, in terms of its size and population to the people of Nepal and Tibet. This shows that Bhutan is also one of the supporters in the humanitarian society but it should be kept in mind that none of the country in the world could have given 100% citizenship to its refugees or illegal immigrants.

    Therefore, please look from both side of the story before coming up with such story. 100% of the 700,000 Bhutanese are happy without those illegal immigrants who have carried out series of bomb attack, destroyed government properties, killed innocent people, securities personnel and made the southern Bhutan unsafe to travel alone.

    Long live king of Bhutan and may peace prevail in Bhutan.

    • Gopi on 10.10.2012 at 10:42 pm

      On a scorching summer day when a “butcher” throws a piece of a dry bone to a loitering street dog, you should know the degree of gratitude the dog expresses to the butcher. Reason- In attempt to bite and crush down the bone, the sharp edge of the bone cuts/stabs the dog’s gums to bleed. The dog enjoys its own blood from the gums and says in a false understanding, “Ah, the bone is full of blood and so juicy!”
      Your liners clearly reveal that you are enjoying enjoying the bone thrown at you by the butcher. Sorry, perhaps as a child you were taught the wrong culture, false figures and you are made used to wood-wink and fool the world with lies to conceal the truth or overturn a story.
      Either you do not have any idea or you are pretending to not having it that the butcher you are praising had slaughtered thousands of innocent lives during late 80s and early 90s. And now you are bragging out of the bones and blood from those of the dead.
      You know this honestly that Bhutan is yet the most isolated nation in the world despite of its rich mineral and hydro power resources. Reason- No radio broadcasts are/were allowed to the public except its mouth piece, the first television was introduced in 2005, No cameras were allowed for general public during 90s, Kyunsel, the government mouth piece print media was the only news paper until 2007 and the first ever democracy was self announced by the monarch in an extremely nominal nature by its implementation in 2008. So a situation like this in a country means a “black hole” in today’s world. Such steps are taken in so design manner to keep the slaughterhouse afloat, conceal the truth coding them with lies and made up ideas that are fed forcibly to the general public like yourself and myself.
      Do you know how many times Bhutan admitted that the Bhutanese refugees were its people and then later denied. Can you deny the fact that the Royal armies confiscated the citizenships of the southern Bhutanese and forced to sign a migration form, forcing to pose happy photographs under gunpionts? Those who denied were shot and plunged into the black hole. The fact is that those who managed to flee the persecution can still produce their citizenship cards even in the countries of their resettlement. Do you remember that during a verification process toward repatriation in one of the camps the Bhutanese team verified some as innocent citizens of Bhutan while categorized even a child as old as three years as criminal? Did you enjoy the young monk’s incarceration for using tobacco last year?
      To conclude: Bhutan is doing its best to conceal the brutal violation of human rights and democracy and trying to cover it up by the ad of GNH. Well, refugees by all means are the most vulnerable people that have undergone the worst torture and trauma. The world has clearly understood that those registered Bhutanese under the UN refugee act are the victims of ethnic cleansing policy, human rights violation and torture of death by the then tyrannic Bhutanese regime.

      • lee on 02.04.2013 at 5:36 pm

        You have certainly provided a glimpse of bitter truth of the Bhutanese refugees. Although words cannot express the pains suffered by our ancestor back in Bhutan, it does reveal the ultimate truth. Your response helps to visualize the cruel authority of the Bhutanese government implemented during late 80s and 90s.
        No offense, but i cannot remember single thing or a thing that matters to me is in Bhutan. Since i grew up in Nepal, there is neither a thing that belongs to me is in Bhutan nor i expect a thing from Bhutan. I feel like it is useless to debate on the issues that cannot be resolved. It is time to think about a new life being escaped from such a cruel regime. I believe the place where you stay is your home and your country. One which abandons you is not your country.

  • Mo on 06.04.2013 at 9:52 am

    What a truly inspiring story. Best wishes and prayers for this determined young man.

  • A Bhutanese on 06.04.2013 at 4:12 pm

    Dear Mishra,

    Your story is a compelling story and I’m very sorry that you had to endure the hardships you faced. But I don’t see the Bhutanese refugee story as you do. What happened in the late 80’s and early 90’s is a lot more complex and complicated than you have painted it out to be. I think mistakes were made by all parties concerned, including the Losthampa leaders of that time. It is unfair to heap all the blame on the Bhutanese government.

    You will find now that with democracy in place, people in Bhutan are exercising their voices and the right to choose their leaders. You will find that there are more than 4 or 5 independent newspapers, each vociferous in their criticism about the current government. You will find that there are serious attempts to cultivate and find practical ways to achieving Gross National Happiness.

    You will find that people respect their kings and they do this not out of fear but because they genuinely love and feel gratitude to them for keeping our little tiny country that is sandwiched between the exploding populations (and the resulting problems of poverty and political insecurity) of China, India and Nepal, still intact.

    Bhutan has its problems, which nation doesn’t, but it is not a tyrannical country as you portray it to be.

    I wish you all the best.

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