By Brett Williamson in ABC
After 18 years of living in Nepalese refugee camps and 10 years as a temporary citizen in Bhutan and Australia, Amber Poudel will soon have a place he can call home.
Mr Poudel was born in southern Bhutan and was part of a Nepali-speaking regional group known as Lhotshampas.
As part of government-driven political changes in the 1980s, Lhotshampas were targeted under a One Nation One People policy to conform to Bhutanese traditions, language, religion and culture or be treated as illegal settlers.
Protests grew against the government’s rulings and Mr Poudel can remember his father recounting stories of how Lhotshampas were being kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered.
When he was six-years-old Mr Poudel recalls his father, after witnessing their neighbour being arrested, telling his family they had been warned they would be imprisoned the following week.
In a bid to save their lives, the family fled their home in the middle of the night and walked for two days to an uncle’s house near the Indian border.
They rested for one week then continued on the Lhotshampas exodus to Nepal.
After another seven days of walking, the family were picked up by a truck and taken to an unofficial refugee camp at Maidhar near Surunga in Nepal.
Life in refugee camps in Nepal
The camp was bordered by the Kankai River and with no established infrastructure the sudden influx of thousands of Bhutanese refugees resulted in widespread dysentery and disease.
“I wore the same clothes for a month,” Mr Poudel said.
Death at the camp was common and Mr Poudel recalls accidents and disease claiming the lives of up to 40 people per day.
Mr Poudel’s younger brother died from disease on his first birthday, and his mother and sister became gravely ill during their stay at the camp.
After six months, due to overcrowding and the establishment of several official refugee camps, the family was moved by the UNHCR to Beldagi II at Damak Jhapa in Nepal.
Their new home would house close to 15,000 refugees.
“We stayed here for 17 years,” Mr Poudel said.
Their family home was a thatched roof and wall dwelling that would shelter Mr Poudel, his parents and four sisters.
Mr Poudel remembers sticking pieces of paper to the thatched walls during winter as an attempt to keep the cold breezes out.
The family was issued with a five kilogram bag of rice each fortnight and, with no gas or electricity available, would cook their meals using either a charcoal briquette stove or solar cooker.
“We had to eat that for lunch, dinner, breakfast – everything was rice as we didn’t have access to anything else,” he said.
Mr Poudel was enrolled in the Caritas Nepal school programs and completed his schooling up til year 10.
He finished his senior years at Siddhartha Higher Secondary School, funded by the savings of his father’s groundskeeper wages, and continued to study information technology, mathematics and graphic design while working as a cleaner and tutor to help support his family.
Coming to Australia
In 2007 the International Organisation of Migration and UNHCR began resettlement programs for Bhutanese refugees.
Mr Poudel’s family originally applied for residency in the United States of America but, after resubmitting their application for acceptance in Australia, saw their application delayed by two years.
On August 8, 2011, at the age of 24, Mr Poudel arrived in the country he believes he will soon finally be able call home – Australia.
The first year was a challenge as he acclimatised to the new environment and struggled to comprehend the fast pace of locals’ speech.
“It was very fast and I didn’t understand anything for about a month,” he said.
Eager to give back to his new country, Mr Poudel began to enrol in courses that would help him become an asset to society.
At TAFE, Mr Poudel studied English proficiency, aged care, home care, disability care, community service and has recently completed a diploma in mental health.
On the road to citizenship
“I felt like I was home,” Mr Poudel said of his introduction to Australia.
“I realise that I am in the right place now and I think I can survive.”
August 8 will mark Mr Poudel’s fourth anniversary in Australia, and will also mark the date that he can apply to become an Australian citizen.
It is a date that he awaits with much anticipation.
It will be the day when Mr Poudel, for the first time in his 10,000 days on earth, will belong to a country.
“I never had citizenship in my life, so I am a bit excited by this,” he said.
“I am very thankful of Australia and the Australian people for giving us an opportunity to make our life better.”
Mr Poudel’s story will be part of the Australian Refugee Association’s To Tell Another’s Story portrait exhibition at the University of South Australia’s City West Campus from July 3.
Also read another story of Bhutanese in South Australia here.