Published September 27, 2021
The photograph still moves UB nursing doctoral student Bikash Regmi to tears. It’s September 1992, and 7-year-old Bikash stands surrounded by his family in the small town in Bhutan, where he grew up. It was taken just before he and his family left the country in fear.
“There was a likelihood we might be killed,” Regmi says. “So we decided to give this picture to our dear and near ones — in case the worst happens, they will remember us by looking at this picture.”
It’s that picture, as much as anything, that rekindles the sorrow of his early life: the day the principal at his school came into the classroom and told his sister and him to go home and never return; the night his family heard neighbors crying and screaming while being tortured by government police; the afternoon his father never returned from his teaching job. His family knew he had been either kidnapped or arrested.
For 22 years, Regmi was a man without a country, one of millions of refugees whose lack of citizenship with any country takes both physical and psychological tolls. After leaving his small Asian town at dawn on Sept. 7, 1992 — “a desperate attempt to save our lives” — Regmi and his family spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal with 100,000 other Bhutanese Nepalese.
His story is one of redemption and determination to make a better life. He came from the refugee camp to Syracuse in September 2009, became a U.S. citizen in 2014, earned bachelor’s (nursing) and master’s (family nurse practitioner) degrees from SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, and married a fellow Nepali Bhutanese refugee he met while volunteering at Catholic Charities in 2012.
Regmi (his first name is pronounced “Bee KASH”) has compiled a litany of activism, leadership, charitable work, tireless devotion to education and media attention to become an admired figure in the School of Nursing, where he is now taking classes remotely. He expects to earn a PhD within three or four years; his research area is advance care planning/end of life care focusing on refugee populations, especially Bhutanese Americans.
“One of my proudest moments is achieving the college degree, despite the challenges I faced as child, teenager and adult due to being stateless for two decades,” he says. “Nobody wants to be stateless. My father always tells me, ‘Government of Bhutan snatched everything from him,’ when we were forcefully evicted from our homeland. But (the) only thing he was able to bring was his education.
“UB has allowed me to continue my education, and provides me the invaluable tool for building crucial knowledge on research. It gave me an opportunity to enhance my critical thinking skills and expand my knowledge in the interest of my research.”
Regmi and his wife, Kumari, survived the same horror. A new Bhutan regime in 1985 imposed a “One Nation, One People” policy, which meant the ruling elites demanded everyone in Bhutan follow their culture, language and tradition. A civil war ensued, and the government sent armies to communities like the ones in which both lived.
“We could hear people crying while they were being beaten by the police and army forces at night, so we could hear,” says Kumari, whose family landed in a different refugee camp in Nepal with similarly harsh and unsafe conditions, also for about 17 years.
“That’s when my parents and grandparents decided we should leave the country, or else we would be taken like other Nepalese people,” Kumari says. “And as a 6-year-old, you don’t know where you’re going, but your parents are saying ‘It’s night, but we have to pack up whatever we can carry and we have to walk and get out of here.’ You walk for many miles to get to a truck because there are no buses or cars near your home.”
Kumari’s memories of the refugee camp echo those of her husband.
“There were diseases we could have prevented by washing our hands, but we didn’t have enough resources, like enough water and soap,” she says. “I feel heartbroken about that because as a kid in that camp, I always thought I could do something to prevent those deaths.”
Kumari and Bikash have two daughters, and welcomed a baby boy May 10. The list of the couple’s charitable work includes promoting breast cancer awareness, health fairs, the importance of COVID vaccines and blood drives. Bikash is on several boards, including St. Elizabeth College of Nursing in Utica. Their monthly podcasts promote health awareness. They have created a scholarship program for students entering the medical field, funding the scholarship by recycling water bottles, the same kind they would refill for their 15-day ration of vegetable oil in the refugee camps. Besides funding the scholarship, the campaign helps save the planet. They have been featured on a national “On Point for College” video promoting scholarship and determination.
“She does all the behind-the-scenes work,” her husband says. “I just go out and speak.”
It’s difficult to process their lives, compared with what they have endured. “I have a place to live,” Bikash says. “I have a passport. I can go to any country without fear. If I would think about this 10 or 20 years ago, I never would have imagined this.
“To my undergraduate friends, I want to tell, life is not easy. It is full of challenge. Work hard every day to promote change, peace and prosperity. As we heard many times before, changes begin from you. Don’t put it off for (the) next day.”