We have this big land, we have this universe, and everybody's a citizen of one of these countries. I'm a refugee. I'm not a citizen of any nation. And then when you feel that you are (becoming) a citizen of the greatest nation in the world, you definitely feel that you are great. —Hari Koirala
SALT LAKE CITY — Hari Koirala could endure the frustration no longer. He and his family had scratched out their lives in a refugee camp alongside thousands of Bhutanese exiles for too long — 17 years too long.
"Honestly speaking, we were in a desperate situation. Our living standard was very deplorable," he recalled. "Being in a camp under a tent, under a plastic roof for 17 years is very hard."
When Koirala, 28, was about 3 years old, his family was forced out of Bhutan, a country at the eastern end of the Himalayas, during a political movement that expelled thousands of Hindus from their homeland, forcing them to flee to refugee camps in Nepal.
Through his eyes as a child, the situation was hard to understand, Koirala said.
"Our parents were victimized by the government of Bhutan, but, as kids, we didn't know what had happened," he said.
Life was unsteady and unpromising, but Koirala was able to attend school and earn a physics degree at a government university through the help of wealthy families in the area.
Learning, he said, brought hope.
"Education is everything for me," he said. "We felt like we could do something if we could be educated."
In 2008, the family pursued an opportunity to leave the camp through an international immigrant placement organization. Koirala laughs as he recalls the joy of coming to the U.S.
"The excitement is still with us," he said.
During transit to the U.S., Koirala met another refugee from Nepal named Tika, and the two fell in love during the five-day journey. Tika would be placed in New Hampshire and the Koirala family would be placed in Salt Lake City. Koirala later traveled to New Hampshire and brought Tika to Utah, where the two were married in 2011.
Koirala now lives with his parents, his wife and his 2-year-old daughter in Salt Lake City.
The family no longer sleeps beneath a roof that sways with the wind, but the change was not without obstacles. Language and cultural barriers coupled with an economic recession made settling in even more difficult for the family, which was already "seventeen years economically back behind the world," Koirala said.
That didn't keep them from trying.
"We did not lose hope of learning new things. We try to be proactive learners," Koirala said. "The Mormons here in Utah, they helped us a lot when we came here to integrate. They helped us understand the place, navigate the transportation system, and mentoring. They took care of us."
Koirala says he also appreciates a government that "takes care of its people."
The Utah Department of Workforce Services provided training and counseling for Koirala, who started as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Despite the frustration of having an under-utilized degree in physics, Koirala was grateful for any employment, he said.
He later became an employment counselor at DWS, where he now works to help others.
But Koirala's identity as a refugee lingered — something he wanted to change. He began the process of becoming a U.S. citizen 5 years ago, and that process was completed on a stage in Liberty Park Saturday.Comment on this story
It's an accomplishment he hopes to see someday with his parents, who are working toward literacy in English.
"For two people who are not even literate in their own language, it's really difficult," he said.
More than anything, Koirala says the family longs for permanence and a sense of belonging.
"We have this big land, we have this universe, and everybody's a citizen of one of these countries," he said. "I'm a refugee. I'm not a citizen of any nation.
"And then when you feel that you are (becoming) a citizen of the greatest nation in the world, you definitely feel that you are great."