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.
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.”
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 email@example.com Comments