For the past 10 years or so, this doctor has been treating and offering medical counseling to Bhutanese refugees living inside the Beldangi-based refugee camp in Jhapa for free.
He has set up a pharmacy-cum-clinic at Beldangi road and one could find him there any day usually with a patient or two and a stethoscope dangling from his neck.
Meet Dr. Bhampa Rai, once a revered medical professional of Bhutan, now a refugee by choice. As the first surgeon of the Druk kingdom, Rai was a gem in his homeland. While the Bhutanese government was persecuting and driving away its Nepali speaking population, he was working as a doctor for a hydro project.
“When the government started driving thousands of people outside the country, I made up my mind to quit the job to serve my countrymen leading refugees’ life out here,” Rai says. “I wasn’t chased; I came here on my own, as I thought it was the right thing to do.”
When Rai first arrived in Nepal along with a few of his doctor friends, he recalls, thousands of exiled Bhutanese were languishing by the banks of the Mai river in abject conditions, without adqequate food or shelter. Viral fever, cold and diarrhoea had taken a toll on the settlers and there was no medical help around, while the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had not arrived.
“For lack of jeevanjal and cetamol, 29 people died in one day,” Rai says.
That incident had a profound impact on Rai and his friends. They formed the Bhutan Health Association and started collecting donation to equip themselves with medicines and other medical supply required to treat the sick population.
“The campaign was challenging, but it was an overall success. We managed to save many lives,” says Dr. Bednidhi Khatiwada, one of the colleagues of Rai and a member of the campaign.
After the UNHCR arrived to oversee and manage the refugees, Rai continued to offer his service to the people of his country. Not only did he provide medical care to the refugees, he also helped them reinforce their wilted spirit, a result of being stateless citizens.
Following a brief foray as a surgeon at the Damak-based Amda Hospital, Rai quit so that he could focus on the health of refugees and campaign for
their repatriation. Rai joined the Bhutan Refugee Representative Repatria-tion Committee that has been lobbying for the return of the refugees to their homeland and opposing the third country resettlement programme. He opened the free clinic for refugees that runs on the money that comes from his non-refugee patients.
Ever since the third country resettlement programme was introduced, many of Rai’s patients have left the refugee camps to settle in countries like the US, Denmark, New Zealand and Australia. But that has not deterred his struggle for repatriation and, most of all, the spirit that first guided him to join his refugee friends.
“I will continue to offer free health services to whatever number of refugees that will remain till the last,” he says.