When Om Dhungel was six years old and was weeding his parents’ rice fields, he looked out at the fields and saw about 20 children playing, cooking and playing with a ball. He walked over and asked what they were doing. A boy replied in Nepali, using an English word: “We’re having a picnic.” That night, Om told his parents he wanted to go to the school where the kids had picnics.
His village, Lamidara, is an unlikely place to start his education. Om is the sixth of 14 siblings and lives in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The village has no electricity, running water, doctors, cars, or even roads. The kids work on their parents’ farms, as they have always done. But not long ago a primary school was built in La Midala; the world was tilting in Om’s direction.
He moved from school to school, then won a scholarship to study engineering at a university in Bangladesh. After graduation, he found a senior job in the civil service in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Soon he was a patriotic and ambitious bureaucrat, giving orders, traveling abroad, and returning home at night in government cars.
In 1991, at the age of 29, he became the head of a department in Bhutan’s Ministry of Telecommunications, one of the youngest people to hold such a senior position. He dreams that one day he will wear the ceremonial red scarf of a senior civil servant, and there will be a respectful title of Dasheng before his name—superior.
Less than a year later, Om and his wife Saroja lie under a blanket in the dark, whispering in horror, while their two-year-old daughter, Smriti, sleeps beside them. They cannot speak loudly for fear that their house will be bugged. Government agents followed him in the street.
Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom that proclaims itself the Land of Gross National Happiness, has embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing against its citizens of Nepalese descent, most of whom are Hindus. The government began to see these southerners as a threat to the political and social hegemony of ruling northern Bhutan. As these citizens demanded democratic rights, the Bhutanese army began occupying and burning houses, torturing men and raping women. Om’s father, a farmer and shopkeeper apolitical, was twice arrested and tortured. Bhutan deported more than 100,000 people, about one-seventh of its population.
A friend with ties to senior police told Om that he was about to be arrested. The next morning, he got into his car and left his family and his beloved Bhutan. It was a painful decision: it made sense for him to run away first, but he asked himself, who would abandon his wife and children? He’s been through danger, in a state of confusion and deep guilt. He lost his property, salary, status, career and country. He believed he had it all that fall.
Om is telling his story In a cafe on the lakeside in Blacktown, in Sydney’s west, a short walk from the home he shares with Saroja. His daughter, Smriti, lives nearby with her husband, Sudeep. It’s late 2020, and I’m interviewing him for a narrative essay on Blacktown for the Scanlon Foundation, which funds research and writing on the state of multiculturalism in Australia.
Om came to Australia from Nepal as a student in 1998, and he and his family were granted refugee status a few years later, and he played a leading role in Australia’s successful resettlement of more than 5000 Bhutanese refugees. He had a lot to say about how immigrants, including those who have lived through years of war, ethnic cleansing and refugee camps, can get off to a good start in their new country. Our conversation led to a co-authored memoir, Bhutan to Blacktown: Losing it all but finding Australia.
Every immigrant has at least one skill that enables newcomers to help each other.
Om lives in Blacktown, a local government area of around 400,000 people, over 40% of whom were born overseas, in 188 countries. On the fringes of the city, where many other Sydneysiders might associate with footballers, fibrous homes and felons, thousands of newcomers have built homes, places of worship, community centers and sports clubs to live their lives. Thriving life. When we first met, Om smiled proudly and said, “I’m a Blacktown boy.”
Small in stature and thin-boned, Om, in his early 60s, enters any conversation with open curiosity and excitement. An engineer by training, he came to Australia in 1998 to study an MBA and worked for 10 years in Telstra before working on community building for Bhutanese and the greater Blacktown population.
Om is worldly, a wise operator. When we were looking for a public figure to write the foreword to the book, he recommended Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was a local MP when he lived in Marrickville 20 years ago He is very familiar. I doubt it will happen, but Om doesn’t. Even in his 30s, the prime minister wrote in his foreword, “Om gives the impression of someone who has accumulated the experience of several lifetimes.”
In agreeing to co-write Om’s book, I wanted to understand those lifetimes better. Does what he achieved with the Bhutanese in Sydney hold lessons for other immigrant and refugee communities and multiculturalism? Can Australia, a country Om loves, do a better job of housing refugees as he insists? How does our society balance modernity and tradition, including some of the darker aspects of diversity, which Om is very vocal about? How does a set of ideas and passions—a passionate worldview—emerge from the difficult circumstances in which one lives?
2007 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees A plan to find homes for more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal was announced. Eight Western countries, including Australia, agreed to share the total.
Om spent nine years in Sydney and was appointed the first President of the Australian Bhutanese Association (ABA). When the refugees started arriving, he threw himself into his new role.
He recalled his ordeal of starting a business in Australia, and after graduating, he applied for 52 jobs and was rejected 52 times before landing a job as a business analyst at Telstra. He remembers the refugee camps in Nepal, where refugees built schools and health centers and ran management committees. Some will be hurt by their experiences, but Om believes most people are more likely to arrive in Australia strong than vulnerable.
He meets a lot of new people at the airport. Working with a government-funded organization that helps refugees settle, he and his ABA colleagues showed people how to use lights and flush toilets, and how not to get burned by hot water taps, which the camps don’t have. Many were initially anxious about using a stove, especially after an orientation at camp warned against setting off smoke alarms in Australian homes, so Om and Saroja bought more than 50 rice cookers as gifts.
He would quit his job in the CBD, take the train to Blacktown, brainstorm, make phone calls, then hop in the car to visit new families, attend community meetings or drop the kids off at the local football club. He works all weekend and rarely goes to bed before midnight, but he’s also happy if he’s exhausted. He is looking for a home for his people.
ABA’s strategy may be referred to as volunteer-based engagement. Every immigrant has at least one skill: one can drive a van, another can fix computers, care for the elderly or cut hair. These events allow newcomers to help each other while individuals develop skills that they can later use to apply for jobs. Om made sure each volunteer got a letter of recommendation.
The ABA also kicked off an annual Bhutan Sports and Celebration Day to mark their arrival in Australia. It established a Saturday language school for people struggling to learn basic English. At a community meeting in Blacktown, people are invited to take the stage to share successes in their new country. A girl would hold up her high school diploma, and a guy would wave his L, to rapturous applause. These meetings give people a sense of being part of a common project to build homes in Australia.
As ABA president, Om repeated the same message: study, volunteer, gain work experience. Succeeding in a new country takes time, but it takes patience, persistence, and above all engagement. If you keep your faith in Australia like he did, it will pay off. A 2019 survey revealed that almost everyone in the Sydney Bhutanese community who is eligible to work or study is doing so. Many – more men than women – found work as nurses, while others worked in aged care or cleaners. More than 60% of households own their own homes.
Om now runs his own consulting firm, working with other communities to draw lessons from Bhutanese migrants. He also made the case to politicians and public figures that Australia’s resettlement services to refugees, though generous through its humanitarian programme, were increasingly run as a form of social welfare rather than helping migrants to their advantage.
He believes the current funding model tends to treat refugees as vulnerable victims. If something goes wrong in a community, NGOs will step in and apply for government grants to “fix” it. These providers act with integrity, but they run the risk of fostering a culture of dependency, Om said. They can do better by helping the community develop a pool of skilled talent, and then sharing resources and power to enable the community to act on its own.
How can a society built on immigration preserve the best of the old and new worlds and get rid of the worst? Bhutan’s community culture is dedicated to keeping families together, including older people, and reducing the loneliness that plagues many other Australians. Om, on the other hand, is appalled by the resurgence of the Hindu caste system in Australia after the camps were largely equalized, causing “social torture” in Bhutan and other South Asian communities.
In Adelaide, a Bhutanese woman wanted to bless the death of a loved one, but the priest would not come to her house because some lower caste families had visited her. A Brahmin announces a visit to Om’s home and casually adds that he doesn’t need to be fed, implying that Saroja is from a so-called “lower caste” and therefore cannot provide most food for strict Brahmins. Om suppressed an unnatural anger and told the man he wasn’t welcome.
In the past 25 years, about 4 million people – nearly one in six people – have migrated to Australia. Unlike previous generations of immigrants, few of these newcomers moved to inner cities, which have gentrified and been trapped by high housing prices.
Instead, they had to look to the fringes of the big cities. Out of sight of the political, economic and cultural elites, Om Dhungel and many like him are building the country. Their stories, while still not widely known, tell us what Australia is and will become.
Bhutan to Blacktown: Losing everything, Finding Australia (NewSouth Books, $33) by Om Dhungel and James Button are out on Monday.
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