Setishma Sharma

My name is Sita Dulal and this is my story.

I was born in a small, landlocked Himalayan kingdom located between China and India. Bhutan is known as the ‘happiest country in the world’ and because of this, the country has its own definition of GDP – Gross Domestic Happiness, measuring the country’s wellbeing and how people are living. However, despite highest the GDP I am a refugee from the ‘happiest country in the world’. Nepalese started living in Bhutanese territory centuries ago as migrants for work. Generations before, the first Bhutanese king brought Nepali families to Bhutan to help grow the country, and the descendants of these families practised their own culture, language and religion. Though we might be descended from Nepali families, many of us consider ourselves as Bhutanese.

Bhutan implemented such a policy that would exclude Nepali-speaking people from the constitution, under the ‘one nation one people policy’, which was implemented in 1988 by the Bhutanese Kingdom. This took away the Nepalese fundamental right to practise culture, language and heritage. Therefore, my parents, along with other tens of thousands of people had to flee from Bhutan seeking asylum. As a family we were exiled at a Bhutanese refugee camp in the eastern part of Nepal for almost 16 years with inadequate resources such as food, shelter and healthcare needs.

Nepali speaking people quietly escaped from Bhutan at odd times of the day being discreet in leaving the country. Through that process, hundreds of people died due to sickness and starvation. This finally came to the attention of different non-profit organisations after a few weeks. The non-profit organisations like UNHCER, UNICEF, Red Cross and countless other associations were extremely generous and kindly provided us shelter to live, the hospital for healthcare needs, food for survival and education for us. As you can tell, if there weren’t those organisations, I wouldn’t be here addressing my story to you.

Maybe that is one of the reasons I have always been interested and motivated to learn volunteering work for non-profit organisation, and why I joined as a youth member of the Bhutanese Australian Association of South Australia.

I was born and raised in a simple, middle class family; Bhutanese with Nepalese ethnicity. I was born in a practising Hindu family but I’m more of spiritual kind of person. Generally, people living in the southern part of Bhutan are Hindu and very conservative. However, they are extremely culturally enriched, which means that they take a lot of time to participate in festivals that are religiously based, but incorporate traditional costume, music, dance, story, and song. In Bhutan, my father was a fruit grower and seller with his own business. My mother stayed at home to take care of the family, although she finished school. In Bhutan, once they get married, women stay home- it’s all finished with regards to work or career.

Due to the political situation, my parents had no option but to escape in the middle of night. My dad had been put in jail, so he couldn’t leave the country. He never saw my mum when she was pregnant, or my birth. My mother left Bhutan when I was only 21 days old and brother 15-months-old. He was released from jail and immediately left on the journey to Nepal and met up with us on the way. It took many days to get to Nepal, staying in small towns, hiding from the authorities, travelling through the jungle, and at one stage, in a town cut from the trees by the travelling refugees. In that town, people stayed in tents and thatched huts donated by aid organisations. We managed to get to Nepal safely and lived there in a refugee camp for more than 15 years; we had non-profit organisations to provide shelters and food supply for our survival. We went to school and all the teachers were our own brothers and sisters.

Finally, the UNHCR collaborated with IOM (International Organisation of Migration) for a third country settlement. These countries included the US, Norway, Canada, the UK, Denmark, New Zealand and Australia. South Australia has the largest community of Bhutanese refugees, but many family friends and relatives are in other countries. Refugees continue to arrive here, but they have to contribute more financially, and come under different visas and circumstances. We were among the lucky ones.

I went back to Nepal in 2014, and secretly took a bus across the border because I wanted to see what my homeland looked like. I stayed in a border suburb for a few days with extended family. My auntie was supposed to pick me up at the border, but she was too scared, so I had to sneak in by myself. The border people thought I was Indian, which is how I got in. I brought in an iPhone for someone else and another woman came to collect it. When she saw I was alone, she took me to her friend’s house, next to the border and my aunties came to pick me up from that house the next morning. Without the iPhone, I would never have been able to get in. I still use an iPhone today.

When I thought of my motherland, I imagined it would be neat and tidy with people walking around with Bhutan customs. Gho is the traditional and national attire for men and the Kira for women in Bhutan. I envisioned people talking to each other in low voices and gathering in open spaces of an evening for tea and chats. Yes, I found the reality the same. It gave me infinite happiness; brought tears to my eyes. But I had to make excuses to my friends that I had something in my eyes to hide it, or I would look a fool to the local people, and I was also afraid of recognition. Those were the best days of my life so far that I can barely describe or put into words.

Living almost all of my teenage life in a refugee camp made me resilient and ambitious and gave me the aspiration to look deeper for opportunities to serve humanity with great enthusiasm.

The desire to serve humanity has always been in me. It drove me to work closely in the Bhutanese Australian Associations of South Australia and led me to hold the position of Public Relations Officer. I was elected as PRO in 2015 and continued for two terms until 2019. It had been a great opportunity to learn leadership, event management, fundraising, and organising cultural and conference events. I strongly believe that love and kindness go hand in hand while serving fellow communities. Being interested and motivated to do volunteering work for a non-profit organisation at one point, I was intent on making a career out of it. But after settling in Australia, a foreign land, with no language, on a humanitarian visa, my life took a U-turn in a different career path towards the health sector. However, working as a registered nurse has opened up various chances to invest my free time in the community and volunteer to provide education related to health, which has been giving me enormous satisfaction.

Living in Australia is like living a dream. To be able to live in Australia with a degree and a decent job is like a dream come true. Australia is phenomenally fair to everyone, regardless of different cultural backgrounds. Living here with basic human rights and opportunities is exceptionally fair.

As a member of the Bhutanese community in Australia, I am called upon to translate, to help in medical emergencies, educate on health matters, welcome new arrivals, and help with the huge amounts of paperwork that comes with arriving in a new place. I have to help with language, the new culture; understanding how to navigate life in SA. I consider myself Australian, but I don’t want to say I am completely Aussie, as I don’t want to forget my culture, my parents’ story and where I came from.

I am proudly Bhutanese Australian.