When the political landscape of Nepal was embroiled in controversy over fake Bhutanese refugee issues and rampant institutionalized corruption, eight thousand kilometres away in Australia, former Bhutanese refugee Om Dhungel was busy launching and promoting his first book, Bhutan to Blacktown. The book was launched on May 1, 2023 at the Max Webber Library in Blacktown.
The book is thoughtfully structured with 12 chapters, beginning with the childhood memories of Om Dhungel. The chapter titled ‘Om Prakash had passed!’ successfully captures significant childhood and family incidents, such as his first encounter with an English word, ‘picnic,’ his desire to enrol in school and his experience as one of 14 children. Additionally, the chapter provides insights into the socio-economic context of Bhutanese people of Nepali heritage living in the southern part of Bhutan.
The second chapter, ‘At His Majesty’s Pleasure,’ intriguingly recounts Om’s meetings with the Bhutanese king, Jigme Singye Wanchuck, and the profound influence the king had on Om’s upbringing and dedication to nation-building. As a high school student, Om aspired to serve the country as an engineer, following the advice of his head teacher and the wishes of the king. Eventually, he achieved his goal and became an engineer.
The third chapter, ‘Love and Work in Thimphu,’ delves into Om’s love story and inter-caste marriage with Saroja. It also explores his work as the head of Planning and Development in the Telecommunications Department, shedding light on social-economic discrimination, civil service hierarchy, and authoritarian politics in Bhutan. Om shares the joy of his daughter’s birth while foreshadowing the looming darkness that would soon impact his life and the lives of many other Southern Bhutanese.
In the fourth chapter, ‘Darkness Falls on Bhutan,’ Om recounts the conspiracy and atrocities orchestrated by the state against Nepali heritage Bhutanese living in Southern Bhutan. He exposes the cover-up of ethnic cleansing in front of the international community and vividly describes the indiscriminate torture, looting, rape, and forced expulsion endured by innocent individuals. He also shares his father’s experience of torture, which deeply affected him, and his family, leading him to flee from the country he loved and where he had hoped to raise his family and children.
The fifth chapter, ‘A Broken House, New Foundation,’ presents heart-wrenching stories of Bhutanese refugees in camps in Jhapa, as well as Om’s personal struggles in Kathmandu. He reflects on his involvement in advocacy and media work, his role in the Bhutan Review and the Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB), and the international attention they drew to the plight of life in the camps. This chapter also explores Om’s difficult decision to choose between his attachment to the Bhutanese refugee movement for repatriation and his personal opportunity for development and growth. Ultimately, he chose to pursue an MBA and left his family to study in Australia.
Chapter six, titled ‘There is Smriti,’ delves into Om’s struggles in Australia. He shares his experiences of finding accommodation, securing a job, and earning money to pay for university tuition. The chapter touches upon navigating local services, establishing connections with local leaders and community organizations, and resonates with the struggles and hardships faced by newly arrived students and migrants. Om finally reunited with his wife and daughter.
‘The Three of Us’–Chapter seven–showcases the expansion of Om’s personal story, as he is no longer alone in Australia but now has his wife Saroja and daughter Smriti by his side. The chapter provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by a family balancing work and personal aspirations. It offers insights into the changing circumstances in the refugee camps and international support in Nepal. Om recalls the establishment of the Association of Bhutanese in Australia (ABA) in 2007, coinciding with the US announcement to accept 50,000 Bhutanese refugees for reintegration and settlement in Western countries. Australia followed suit.
The eighth chapter, ‘Thank You, Australia,’ focuses on the successful settlement journey of Om and the newly arrived Bhutanese community in Blacktown and its surrounding areas. The chapter highlights the initiatives undertaken by ABA to support newly arrived Bhutanese under the Australian Humanitarian Programs. Om explains on the ABA model for refugee settlement, emphasizing sustainability, leadership development, and the importance of fostering independence within the community.
In chapter nine, ‘From Corporation to Community,’ Om shares the highlights of his career, including working as a manager at Telstra, joining the boards of SydWest Multicultural Services, MTC and Settlement Services International, and receiving an offer to become the CEO of SEVA International. Over time, Om found himself overwhelmed with responsibilities, prompting him to reflect and reconsider his priorities. He explains why he made the decision to leave his well-paid job at Telstra and dedicate himself full-time to community work.
Chapter ten, ‘Beyond Charity: Rethinking Refugee Settlement,’ analyses prevalent models for refugee settlement services in Australia and other parts of the world. Drawing on his experience with ABA, service providers, and refugees from various countries, Om proposes a refugee settlement model that emphasizes community contribution in settlement process of newly arrived community, volunteer work, and government funding model to enable the community leaders, community groups and newly arrived community members to collaborate together for the common settlement outcome. On this, settlement services providers could play a key role in facilitation.
‘A Blacktown Boy’ is chapter eleven, where Om cites successful examples of multicultural communities in Blacktown coming together to fight against COVID-19 and promote vaccination programs. He proposes that focusing on common ground should take precedence over differences, with individual cultural identities enriching the common Australian culture and values.
The reader may sense that the book serves as not only a memoir but also a tribute to the people and experiences that have shaped Om’s life. He expresses deep gratitude to everyone he has encountered in his journey.
In the final chapter, Om reflects on his life journey from Lamidara, Bhutan, to Blacktown, Australia, and the challenges faced by the Bhutanese community that arrived through the Humanitarian Settlement Program. Although he shares the sad moment of his father’s passing during the COVID-19 restrictions in Blacktown, he expresses satisfaction, stating that his father had a good life and a good death. Om also expresses a sense of fulfillment in being able to reunite with his family and relatives and create a happy and settled life in Australia.
Throughout the memoir, the reader may sense that the book serves as not only a memoir but also a tribute to the people and experiences that have shaped Om’s life. He expresses deep gratitude to everyone he has encountered in his journey. The memoir is written in standard English, making it easy and engaging to read. Co-author James Button’s contribution to the book is commendable, and the foreword by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese adds an extra touch of distinction. In the foreword, the Prime Minister states ‘…Om had to leave his homeland, the one positive is that he chose us. Thanks to that choice, what you hold in your hands is a great Australian story.’
Indeed, Om’s story is an Australian story–born and raised in Bhutan, connected to India and Nepal, and now living in Australia. He proudly declares, “I am a Bhutanese Australian of Nepali heritage, a son, husband, brother, and father, a community advocate in Western Sydney, and a resident of Blacktown. That’s my identity, my story, my blended life in Blacktown.”
This captures the essence of Om’s memoir, which leaves readers with a sense of relief, positivity, and gratitude.
Book Title: Bhutan to Blacktown
Author: Om Dhungel with James Button
Publisher: A New South Book, New South Publishing, University of New South Wales Press LTD. AUSTRALIA
Published Year: 2023
Saurav Kiran Shrestha lives in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at [email protected]