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APSU student escapes Bhutanese ethnic war, later wins THEC’s top service award

Deepesh Subedi

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – They were coming to arrest his father.

Deepesh Subedi, only 5 at the time, helped his family quickly pack a few essentials before the soldiers arrived. It didn’t matter that his father was a quiet farmer, with no interest in politics. It didn’t matter that the Subedi family had lived in Bhutan – a small country on the edge of the Himalayas – as legal citizens for several generations. All that mattered to the soldiers, marching up the slopes with their guns, was that the family had immigrated from Nepal several generations earlier.

Men were coming to arrest his father – possibly his entire family.

“We left everything in the middle of the night,” Deepesh said. “We fled our home, we crossed the jungle, and we came to India for safety.”

The family eventually made its way to Nepal, but it was a foreign land to them; they were not citizens of this country. After escaping an ethnic war in Bhutan, the Subedis spent the next 17 years – Deepesh’s pivotal childhood years – living in an unsanitary refugee camp where, in those first few years, people regularly died of cholera and dehydration.

“A lot of people died – I have witnessed them in front of my eyes,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of the solution, and now I’m chasing my dream.”

Chasing that dream brought Deepesh to Austin Peay State University, where he is now a graduate student in the school’s online Master of Science in Nursing program. But he has already become part of the solution, using his healthcare background to help ease suffering among Nashville’s Bhutanese refugee community.

Last month, Deepesh was recognized for his work when he received the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s Harold Love Outstanding Community Service Award. The honor is given to only five college students across the state each year.

‘When I see a problem, I want to be part of the solution’

As a child growing up in a refugee camp, Deepesh made a promise to himself to never let the title of “refugee” define him or prevent him from doing what he wanted with his life. It was a difficult promise to keep sometimes.

 “After my high school, I was interested in the medical field so I applied to medical school,” he said. “But in Nepal, to go to medical school, you have to be a citizen of the country or you have to pay your tuition up front.”

In 2008, an international organization started resettling Bhutanese refugees all over the world. The Subedis decided to head to the United States. They spent the next year going through the screening process before they were finally accepted by a resettling agency in Idaho.

That’s where Deepesh, enrolling at Boise State University, became the first member of his family to go to college.

“I was thinking of going to medical school, but I got married, had kids, life happened,” he said. “My parents don’t speak English, I have to support them. My parents are totally dependent on me.”

Some of his relatives from the Nepali refugee camp made their way to Nashville, and in 2012, Deepesh and his family moved south to Music City – a more diverse city than Boise. A year later, Deepesh and his brother opened the Central Market, a South Asian grocery store on Nolensville Pike.

“When I see a problem, I want to be part of the solution,” he said. “A lot of people want ethnic food, ethnic items – our ethnicity is attached to our life. In American markets, we don’t find those things we need them for festivals and celebrations, and there’s so much food in our country that we don’t find.”

‘There are no words that translate’

After a few years of running the all South Asian ethnic grocery, Deepesh decided to step back from the family business to focus on his healthcare career.

 “When I first came to the United States, in Idaho, I was one of the best English speakers, so I started translating and interpreting at hospitals, schools, banks, offices,” he said. “The hardest, when I was translating for the doctors or nurses, even though I’m understanding what the doctor says, there are no words that translate to the Nepali that the patient will understand. Words like ‘occupational therapy,’ these didn’t exist.”

Now living in Nashville, he enrolled at Tennessee State University and earned his Bachelor of Science in Nursing. After graduating, he started working at Southern Hills Hospital, which serves the Bhutanese community.

“For the people of my parents’ generation, when I go in with my nursing uniform and stethoscope around my neck, and I greet them in Nepali, they’re 10 percent better,” he said. “And they will start opening up for more conversation.”

‘I feel so blessed’

Deepesh enrolled at Austin Peay because his goal, once he earns his nurse practitioner degree, is to open a clinic in Tennessee that serves residents with limited English language skills. But early into studies, the COVID-19 pandemic created a global emergency. In April 2020, more than 100 employees at a Tyson Foods plant became infected with the new coronavirus, and many were Nepali immigrants.

“So now I started to get calls because I’m the first one in the medical profession in the whole community,” Deepesh said. “Since they’ve seen me in the store and we have a relationship from a business point, they will ask, ‘what should I do?’”

To help his community, he shot videos and hosted Zoom sessions about preventive measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing. He talked to individuals about their symptoms and whether they should go to the hospital or quarantine at home. One of those conference calls was with his former state, helping Idaho’s Central District of Health.

Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, said he “provided information to COVID-19 contact tracers to help better communicate when reaching out to people from the Bhutanese community. Even halfway across the country, Deepesh was able to share his knowledge and expertise with us in Idaho.”

His work led him to receive the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s top volunteer recognition. For Deepesh, his efforts don’t feel like work. It’s his calling.

“I feel so blessed,” he said.

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