February 8, 2019 — Even though he has never lived anywhere near the U.S.-Mexico border, Indra Acharya hears the national debate about border security and it hits so close to home. As the child of Bhutanese refugees growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal, he has spent more than half his life surrounded by fences.
In the early 1990s, Acharya’s parents were among the close to 100,000 ethnic Nepalis who were expelled from southern Bhutan as part of the “One Nation, One People” policy enacted by the government. After losing their land, his parents fled to a refugee camp in Nepal where they had Acharya and spent approximately the next two decades of their lives. “My earliest memories are waiting for the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to bring us food,” Acharya says.
He and his family endured harsh living conditions in the refugee camp. “There was never enough food. I never got new clothes. Our beds were made of mud. The camp was overcrowded,” Acharya says. Tragically, Acharya’s father died while in the refugee camp due to a lack of medical supplies. “If there is a hell, I’ve already seen it,” he says.
The one saving grace of Acharya’s time in the refugee camp was the years he spent studying at a school run by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). Acharya doesn’t know where he would be without the education provided by JRS. “Not only did I get a rigorous education, but the Jesuits were my [mentors]. They helped me find lots of new opportunities.” Acharya continued to put education first when he was resettled with his mother to Vermont in 2012. “The resettlement agency suggested I immediately start working but pursuing an education and graduating from college were always part of my plan,” Acharya says.
A Jesuit Refugee Service school in Nepal.
After settling into his new home, Acharya enrolled in a dual program that allowed him to complete high school while also taking classes at a state college. Perhaps most gratifying of all, he was accepted and earned a full scholarship to Georgetown University in 2014. All these years later, Acharya has not forgotten the important life lessons the Jesuits taught him at the school with JRS. “You could really feel the spirit of [men and women] for others in the refugee camp. It wasn’t just about you,” Acharya says. “That’s why I always try to give back to JRS. Whenever they ask me to speak or give an interview, I always say yes.”
As someone who was Jesuit-educated and is a former refugee, it comes as no surprise that Acharya is troubled by the rhetoric used by some politicians around refugees and migrants today. However, it isn’t anything he hasn’t seen before. “My father used to get beaten up when he would leave the refugee camp to try and earn a little money working in construction,” Acharya says. “Locals generally didn’t see us as victims of violence, but rather competition for jobs and resources.”
By stoking similar fears, the Trump Administration has been able to dramatically slash the refugee resettlement program in the United States. Around 54,000 refugees were admitted in FY 2017, down from nearly 85,000 the previous fiscal year. In FY 2018, the president further reduced the refugee admission cap to 45,000, although it admitted only around half that number. The cap was again reduced in FY 2019 to 30,000.
Before policy can change, though, Acharya believes it is necessary to change people’s hearts, something that can only be done through dialogue. “I’ve seen it happen before. It’s much harder to dehumanize someone once you’ve heard their personal story,” Acharya says. We live in a fallen world where conflict continues to produce an increasing number of refugees. However, it is Acharya’s firm belief that if we can get out of our comfort zones to see the faces of refugees and hear their stories, we can destroy harmful misconceptions and create practical solutions that alleviate human suffering.