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From refugee camp in Nepal to Spokane, senior Nilam Karki of Rogers High knows challenges newcomers face

UPDATED: Thu., June 6, 2019

Nilam Karki of Rogers High School looks forward to the future and plans to make the refugee experience better for others. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Nilam Karki of Rogers High School looks forward to the future and plans to make the refugee experience better for others. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

She’s walked in the shoes of refugees, and someday Nilam Karki hopes to make their path a bit easier – even if it means going halfway around the world.

Seventeen years ago, Karki was born in a refugee camp in the Himalayas. Now she’s about to graduate from Rogers High School and go on to college.

But she hasn’t forgotten her roots – how her parents fled oppression in their native Bhutan to an uncertain future in neighboring Nepal.

Nine years later, she found a different kind of hardship in northeast Spokane: social awkwardness. It didn’t help that she spoke no English when she arrived nine years ago.

“Making friends was not easy for me,” Karki said. “They thought I ate bugs so they didn’t want to be my friends.”

Accustomed to dining on rice and beans in a sprawling refugee camp, she “didn’t know what a hamburger was, so I didn’t eat school lunch for a long time,” Karki said.

“I felt sad and scared and felt like I would never fit in,” Karki said.

Finding solace in books, Karki focused on those with pictures, “so I would know what it would be saying.”

She and her younger brother and sister also found help from the PBS children’s channel. “It helped us with grammar, punctuation and more,” Karki said.

Comprehensive help came at all levels of school, thanks to the English Learners program at Spokane Public Schools, especially the English Language Development tutors.

“In the beginning it is really hard for the incoming immigrants,” Karki said. “But I feel like if they only have one good friend that is supporting them it would be the greatest blessing to them and also you.”

Karki took it from there. She has excelled in school and ran sprints for the Rogers track team.

She also enrolled in the Advancement via Individual Determination program, an elective class for underrepresented students in the academic middle who desire to go to college and have the willingness to work hard.

Like Karki, most aspire to be the first in their family to reach college.

As she matured, Karki began to see a bigger picture, including the plight of refugees in America. She joined the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America program at Rogers, focusing on helping refugees in Spokane.

Through that program, Karki connected with World Relief and Global Neighborhood to hold a clothing drive for refugees. Karki put together boxes for the donations and volunteered to pick them up in an effort that yielded hundreds of donations.

Someday she hopes to take that work even further – to the other side of the world, if necessary.

In Nepal, the refugees number in the tens of thousands. Most are from the Lhotshampa ethnic group, who are of mixed Bhutanese-Nepali descent.

Accused by the Bhutanese government of being illegal aliens, they were expelled in the early 1990s. Ultimately, many resettled in the United States, Canada, Australia and other nations, but many others still live in three large United Nations-sponsored camps in Nepal.

Conditions are still difficult, said Karki, who recalls crowded houses and toilets shared by 30 people.

“Now I feel like I take a lot of things for granted,” said Karki, who recalls being able to eat meat just once a year in the camps.

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