When you become a refugee – a person who has escaped from their own country for political, religious, or economic reasons or because of a war – you lose not only a home. You feel a part of your identity falling off, while the strong bonds built with friends and families back home are also lost along the way. You are suddenly placed in a new environment with no one to rely on. Just imagine how much courage it takes to rebuild your life from scratch.

To commemorate the World Refugee Day on 20 June, the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) has produced a series of podcasts and articles, bringing together stories of refugees from Afghanistan, Thailand/Myanmar, Nepal/Bhutan, Haiti and Rwanda.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them 26 million are refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18.  Almost 50 per cent of all school age refugee children are out of school and just 3 percent of refugee students are currently enrolled in higher education. The reasons for this scenario are closely related to the lack of emotional and financial support and often poorly designed government policies in host countries.

Higher education provides the refugees with opportunities to change their lives dramatically, which can be beneficial to both the refugees and their host communities in the long term. In this series, UNAI introduces the stories of Neh Meh, Dawood, Aliny, Lok Darjee and Donaldo, who have sought higher education as means to make their lives better.

Lok Darjee, 26 years old, is getting ready to start a new chapter in his life. He got accepted into a Master of Public Administration program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. He is also waitlisted to study for a master’s degree in Economic Policy and Development at Columbia University in New York City, and for the Master of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

He has come a long way. Lok Darjee spent his childhood as a refugee living in Nepal, where his family lived in a hut without electricity, running water, or enough food. “We’d receive between 10 and 15 pounds of rice for an entire month. We had to share that among the six of us,” he recalls.

In 1992, Lok Darjee’s parents left their home in Bhutan and fled to Nepal, following the steps of many others who had been “forcibly evicted from their land in the early 1990s.” Three years later, Lok Darjee was born in a refugee camp there.

He was 10 years old when his father suffered from a stroke. Suddenly Lok Darjee was left with the responsibility of providing for the family. But when Lok Darjee was 16, the NGOs responsible for supporting their refugee camp offered them a chance to move to the United States under a refugee status. Thinking that this could be a good opportunity for Lok Darjee and his siblings, the family decided to leave Nepal. His family was welcomed by the CSI Refugee Center in Idaho.

After graduating from a local high school in Idaho, Lok Darjee went on to study physics and economics at Brigham Young University. To finance his education and pay the bills for his whole family, he had to take three or four part-time jobs while studying. “It was one of the most challenging moments in my life.” Still, Lok Darjee managed to find time to establish Project R, which aims to help integrate refugee youth into society through mentorship.

“In establishing this project, I was inspired by my own journey. When I was in high school people told me that as a refugee, I could not attend a university. In the university, I had trouble making decisions regarding my majors and what to do after graduation. Usually, your parents are the ones who help you figure those things out. But parents of refugees, unfortunately, tend to not know much about higher education and the educational system in general.”

Back in the refugee camp, Lok Darjee had a mentor of his own who would teach him English and about educational systems. The mentor was a Ph.D. student from Oxford University conducting her research on the role of children in refugee camps. Lok Darjee, working as her assistant, learned that “thousands of refugee children were getting abused, forced into arranged marriages, raped, or had no access to even elementary schools.” His first-hand experience of this mentorship, in turn led him to be a mentor himself for refugee children like him.

Through Project R, refugee children are given opportunities to ask questions about how to apply to a university, get advice on which courses to take, get accustomed to writing essays, learn more about scholarships, etc. “So far we have helped 90 refugees. Most of them have been able to attend a community college by virtue of our support. They look up at me as an inspiration. But this all fell apart when the pandemic began. Our volunteers are struggling with their own lives, and the refugees have to focus on surviving and financially supporting their families. They do not have time to think about future.”

Despite those challenges, Lok Darjee is not planning to give up on helping other people.  “All my life I have believed in the value of education. It is extremely important, especially for those who share a similar background as refugees. Education helps people shape their identity. I want to pursue a master’s degree so I can use the new knowledge in developing programs for refugees who want to be economically independent.”

To listen to his full story in English, click here.