Growing up in refugee camps in Nepal, Bikash and Kumari Regmi didn’t know what primary care was.
Now Bikash, 33, is a primary care provider, a family nurse practitioner working in the Barneveld office of the Mohawk Valley Health System. And Kumari, 32, will become one after she passes her board examination this summer.
The couple, who came separately to Syracuse with their families in 2009, now live in Utica with their 17-month-old daughter Arohi.
“We are really proud of what we are doing and what we have accomplished in this period of time,” Kumari said.
Bikash’s family fled their native Bhutan when he was 7; Kumari’s family left when she was 6. During the first few of their 17 years in different refugee camps, there were no bathrooms. Kumari remembers the horrible smell coming from the forest that people used instead. There was no running water or electricity. People got water from the river and many children died of diarrhea and dehydration. Health care meant a small clinic in each camp that mostly handed out Tylenol, the couple said.
“I have seen the deaths of so many small children,” Kumari said. “That is why I am in health care today.”
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Kumari graduated from SUNY Polytechnic Institute Friday afternoon with a master of science degree, having already, like her husband, graduated from St. Elizabeth College of Nursing and earned a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Poly. She is one of hundreds of local men and women who are graduating from local colleges this month with associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
Some will continue their education, something Bikash and Kumari both hope to do some day, some will go to work and some will start second careers.
For now, Kumari will take a break; her second child, a daughter, is due in August, and she wants to stay home for a few months before getting a part-time job and easing into full-time work.
They might not be the last medical graduates in the family. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Arohi answered, “Doctor.”
“We didn’t teach her,” Bikash said.
Bhutan, an Asian nation nestled in the Himalayas, was once a nation at peace. But it launched a “one nation, one people” campaign in the mid-1980s that marginalized the ethnic Nepalese population who spoke a different language than the nation’s majority and follow Hinduism, not Buddhism.
Bikash’s father, an English teacher and member of this minority, disappeared.
“One day he went to job and he did not return home. … Either he was killed, kidnapped or arrested,” Bikash said.
A few months later, his family found out his father was imprisoned in the capital and had been badly tortured. After nine months in prison, his father was released, but the government wouldn’t give him his job back. His family’s citizenship had been revoked, Bikash said.
In the middle of a night in September 1992, Bikash’s mother woke him and his family fled Bhutan.
Kumari, too, left around the same time with her parents, who were farmers, and her three younger siblings. She remembers walking four or five miles and then getting in a truck, probably the first she had ever seen, she recalled.
Their entry to the United States 17 years later brought some culture shock, at first over the normal things refugees experience when coming to America. Kumari said she had thought money grew on trees; then she started working in housekeeping and realized how hard it is to earn money here, she said.
But the culture shock sometimes extended into school. Kumari said she never heard of diabetes before coming here, let alone Type 1 and Type 2. The only sicknesses she knew about were diarrhea, dysentery, malaria and headache, she said. It was in school that she thinks she finally figured out why her cousin was sick for two years and died at age 12; Duchenne muscular dystrophy is her diagnosis.
Bikash said he once took a multiple choice quiz that asked about proper clothing for someone with a hernia. He knew the clothing needed to be tight, but he wasn’t sure what all the garments listed were so he chose “bikini” as his answer, having no idea that a bikini is a bathing suit.
“Still there is a learning curve and I do learn every day,” Bikash said.
It was their desire for education that first brought Bikash and Kumari together. They met in Syracuse because they were both looking for advice on how to fill out federal financial aid forms. Bikash was about to fill his nursing prerequisites at Le Moyne Colege and Kumari at Syracuse University.
“Since the day we met, we have never stopped studying,” she said.
In 2014, they reached another milestone, becoming U.S. citizens.
“That is the day we feel proud,” Bikash said. “We can vote and we can serve on a jury. We can serve in the military and we have a right that was once denied to us.”
The couple remain in touch with the greater Bhutanese refugee community in the United States and say they are the first Bhutanese in the country to become nurse practitioners.
They take that responsibility seriously, giving advice to other Bhutanese refugees who want to work in health care and running health care programs tailored to the refugee community. They’ve organized two blood drives geared toward the refugee community — one in Syracuse in 2016 and one in Utica in 2017.
But their drive planned for Utica on May 19 was canceled because the American Red Cross told Bikash they couldn’t provide enough staff, he said.
They work on breast cancer awareness every October, and they called organ donation awareness “the next thing” they’ll tackle. Bikash said he’s already talked his parents into registering as donors.
They also want to convince the refugee population to give primary care a try.
“Many people assume that when they are sick, they can go to the ER,” Bikash said.
“They lack the knowledge,” Kumari agreed. “Back there, we did not have a primary care provider. When you get sick, you run to the clinic and get some Tylenol.”
The couple definitely plan to continue their outreach, but where isn’t completely certain. They want to buy a house, but aren’t sure whether to look in Utica or Syracuse.
“We love this place very much,” Bikash said. “We have more family support in Syracuse.”
Contact reporter Amy Neff Roth at 315-792-5166 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Roth).