Welcoming the contribution of refugees on Refugee Day

If there’s one thing that we celebrate at Access, it’s the diversity of our staff, who share one common trait, compassion and a desire to support other people. However, few have travelled quite the same journey to get here as former Christchurch Advanced Support Worker Sabitra Sharma, whom Access helped along her journey in her new life and healthcare career in New Zealand. Here we discover Sabitra’s remarkable journey in honour of Refugee Day on the 20th June.

‘I was born in Bhutan which is a small Himalayan country between China and India. As per the country’s policy, I didn’t enrol in school until the age of seven, so I had only completed three years when in 1990 Bhutan experienced a big political issue forcing my parents to flee the country. We came to Nepal in 1991 in a refugee camp which had a population of 19,000 people. Conditions were poor with poor food, shelter. hospital services and education and around 500-600 people were dying every day. Whilst I settled I wasn’t able to do any studying, as my parents had no income to afford for me to be privately educated. Eventually, though I was able to resume my primary education in the camp in 1992, completing my education in ’94 when conditions improved a little when the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency) took over the camp.

As is the norm with my culture I got married at the age of 14 and it was expected that I leave my parents and go live in my husband’s home in a completely different camp. Only two years later at the age of 16, I had my first child. I wanted to play my part in my community, so started working with a Centre for Torture Victims of Nepal (many Bhutanese were tortured prior to leaving Bhutan) as a mental health worker in 1997. Following the birth of my second child in 1999, I was straight onto do a Midwife course in 2000. After two years I ended up working for UNHCR in a varied role including giving health education, community nursing and delivering vaccines for children.

Unfortunately, I separated from my husband in 2006 but was extremely lucky in 2008 when the UNHCR and IOM (International Organisation for Migration) helped me resettle to New Zealand. I struggled a lot in a new country, learning the culture and language, which was especially hard after living in refugee camps for 18 years. But I went to Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology for six months to learn English, which helped me secure three jobs including working full time at a Holiday Inn and as a language interpreter at Hagley College and with Refugee Settlement Services in Christchurch.

One thing that has always been a dream for me is to buy my own house. Unfortunately following the Canterbury quake of 2011 I lost my job and went to Auckland for a month to be able to provide for my children, before returning to Christchurch working for Ryman Health Care. I was with them for five years just prior to when I joined Access in 2015.

For me it’s been a long journey to get here but I’m extremely proud of what I’ve achieved. I now live here with my two children, one of which is working full time and the other in high school and my mother who I was able to bring over through a reunification programme. My family are spread all over the world with one brother in the US, a sister in Canada and two brothers in other areas of NZ. I recently got married to Manish, who is a Nepalese Policeman. We were good friends before I left Nepal and I returned in August for our wedding. I’ve achieved my Level 3 qualifications and am working towards my Level 4 and best of all, I bought my own home in 2014! Importantly I love what I do, working with different age groups and feeling like part of a team in the community. I guess having grown up in a camp for most of my life I’ve always understood the impact a strong community can have on your wellbeing and the value in achieving your personal goals, no matter how small they may be.’ We wish Sabitra the very best as she adds new chapters to her remarkable life story.

About the author : Grant Difford

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