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Refugee’s story offers hope


A Bhutanese woman who spent 18 years in refugee camps in Nepal before being resettled in Australia has shared her experience to provide hope to other survivors of trauma.

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Ambika Kharel last month released a short booklet called Butterfly which recounts her life growing up with 14 siblings in Bhutan and then being forced to flee the country with her husband and young family due to political unrest. It describes the trauma and hardship of living in two refugee camps in Nepal and the toll it took on her family.

Launched at Sophia – a centre located adjacent Cabra Dominican College which was established by the Holy Cross Congregation of Dominican Sisters SA in 1991 – the book’s title reflects the many transformations Ambika has undertaken in her life.

“In the beginning my family were altogether; we were united and strong. Now we are scattered all over the world like butterflies that have flown in different directions,” she writes in the foreword.

“This story is dedicated to my late husband Ganga Kharel with whom I spent 14 years of married life. As he passed away at an early age he was unable to pursue his dream of singing and chanting religious hymns. I uphold the belief that through the readers of this story his dreams and his memory will be preserved.

“I also write this story for my children and grandchildren. May they know the obstacles that I have overcome in the hope of giving them a better future. I just want them to be happy and not to suffer as I have done.”

Through Butterfly, Ambika tells of the heartbreak at losing Ganga, murdered for the wages he’d saved while working in a mine in India, and the tragic death of her two-year-old son due to the terrible conditions in the refugee camp. As a widow and single mother she laments there was little support from her family and it was only through the generosity of the camp secretary’s wife that she was able to set up a small vegetable stall and make some money on which to live.

In 2008 when her application to resettle in Australia was approved, Ambika said her joy was tinged with great sadness as her oldest daughter chose to remain in Nepal.

“The farewell was very difficult,” Ambika writes.

“My oldest daughter decided to remain at the camp as her husband did not want to resettle in any country overseas.

“Saying goodbye to her was a traumatic experience. As we were waiting outside the camp for the bus my oldest daughter was crying hysterically. She ran towards me, held onto me, and would not let me go. Five police officers intervened and dragged us apart.

“I still feel sick to my stomach when I remember my departure from my daughter.”

Now aged 54 and living happily in Adelaide with her adult children and grandchildren, Ambika thanked the volunteers at Sophia who taught her English and the staff at STTARS (Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service), especially Melanie McGuigan, who assisted her with writing Butterfly.

Melanie said it had been an “honour” to work alongside Ambika on the project.

“Thank you to Ambika for sharing her story and having the courage and strength to do that,” Melanie said at the launch.

“I have been really inspired by you and what an amazing woman you are having overcome such unimaginable heartache and hardship and still having such spirit and compassion for others.”

Dominican Sister Maureen O’Connell, who has supported Ambika and her family for many years, said Sophia had been providing English classes for refugee women for the past 20 years.

“With new arrivals now coming from Afghanistan, Sophia has also reached out to them through STTARS, inviting them to join the ESL classes if in need of learning English.

“Sophia also provides them with a safe place where they can gather and make new friends and socialise with other refugee women and numerous volunteers,” she said.

A copy of Butterfly can be obtained by contacting



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