Published Date Written by Adam DrapchoLACONIA — From a young age, Menuka Dhakal knew that she wanted to be a nurse, often pretending to give her friends vaccines during their imaginative play. It was a bold dream for such a girl to have. After all, she was one of three children born to a family that was two years into an 18-year stay in a refugee camp. For her first 16 years, she and her family lived in a bamboo and thatch home without electricity, running water or any visible means for her to achieve a career as a medical professional.
Yet, now a freshman at Plymouth State University, Dhakal is a few years away from the life that was recently just a dream. To get from where she was to where she is, Dhakal has coupled a few lucky breaks with lots of hard work.
Dhakal and her family — father Bhim, mother Indra, younger brother Devi and older sister Tulasha Adhakari — are members of an ethnic minority community that lived in Bhutan for centuries until the government of Bhutan began to persecute them for their religious beliefs, forcing about a hundred thousand of them to flee to refugee camps in Nepal.
Life in the camp was spare, Menuka recalled. "We didn't have anything, but we were happy with what we had." Access to education was one of the few things they had, something which turned out to be invaluable to Menuka's future.
School was an hour's walk from their home, a path that turned to mud during the rainy season. Without umbrellas, monsoons were endured thanks to rain protection improvised from sheets of plastic. Still, Bhim and Indra insisted their children make the long walk to school. Her parents were raised as farmers without formal education. They wanted more for their children, telling them, as Menuka recalled, "You have to go to school and learn to do something else, to be better than us."
At the school in Nepal, Menuka studied core subjects as well as English, her parents' language of Djonkha and Nepali. That learning paid dividends when, in November, 2009, her family was granted refugee status by the United States and was placed in Laconia. Very soon thereafter, she was attending her first day of school as an LHS freshman.
While the social aspect of her new life was daunting — "First day was hard, I didn't know who I'm going to talk to" — she found quick success academically. It turned out that maintaining an A grade average was the easiest part of her first few years in high school.
Menuka found that her life in the United States, though replete with opportunities she had never had before, was also full of new responsibilities and obligations. "In our country, I didn't have to do anything, my parents could do everything. Here, it's totally reversed." Though her parents are taking English language classes, they haven't been as quick to fluency as their children. Due to the language barrier, they require the help of their children to interact with the world outside their South End apartment. Menuka had no choice but to quickly become an expert in the trappings of modern American life, from phone bills to medical appointments.
Not only was Menuka required to discern her family's bills, she also had to figure out a way to pay them. Her older sister was married and had her own young family to worry about, and her brother was still too young to work. So, after school but before tackling her homework, Menuka worked as much as 32 hours a week at a local sandwich shop.
"I want to thank my boss because he gave me a job," she said. "I will be able to help my family."
There were times when the pressure reduced teenage Menuka to tears. However, her moments of weakness were overcome by years of strength. Within three years, Menuka had earned enough credits to graduate from LHS, with a record impressive enough for her to win enough scholarship money to fund a four-year program, housing included, at PSU. She's enrolled in the nursing program and is considering adding psychology as a second major.
It was not many years ago that becoming a nurse was little more than a fantasy for Menuka. "It was my dream from a young age." Now that she has begun to study the field, her thoughts are pulled back to the refugee camp and the conditions she survived. "Sometimes I want to go back to my country and take care of them. We didn't have good nurses and doctors, many people died," she said. "I want to help them."
CAPTION for MENUKA in AA:
Four years ago, Menuka Dhakal (at left) was living in a refugee camp in Nepal. Since coming to Laconia in November, 2009, she has labored to secure a life for both herself and her family. Shown with Menuka are her mother Indra, father Bhim and sister Tulasha Adhakari. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)