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Gautam’s aim: Improving mental health of former refugees

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Since arriving in western Massachusetts a decade ago, Bhuwan Gautam has never forgotten what he’d seen written on a wall at a school in Birtamod, Jhapa, Nepal:

‘Bidhya Dhanam Sarba Dhanam Pradanam’

The maxim that “education is a wealth that can be shared” has guided him since he was nine and first became a refugee from Bhutan. In the camp where his family stayed, he juggled his own studies while helping other kids. He loved, in particular, to teach them how to get online, so they could explore and learn in a wider world—and be able, once they were resettled, to stay in touch.

At Tribhuwan University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business studies, thanks to support from Dr. DNS Dhakal. His hope was always to return to Bhutan, but as so many in the community know, he said, “things didn’t go the way we wanted.”

After resettlement in the United States in 2008, he went on to receive a Bachelor of Liberal Arts at Western New England University, and then a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Westfield State. Working at a mall at a fast-food establishment after he first arrived here taught him how to treat customers, he said, while at the same time reminding him of the importance of education for upward mobility.

As one of the first families resettled in the Springfield area, Gataum found himself filling a similar role that he had back in the camp as a de facto community leader. In particular saw how hard it was for resettled community members to understand how to bury their loved ones; he spent time teaching people how to navigate the American way of death.

This volunteer work gave way to the work that’s now his profession, assisting in the plight of other resettled refugees, and in particular the impact of resettlement on their mental health. After learning in a published report that the suicide rate among the Bhutanese was twice the national average, he felt it important to help tackle issues of cause and prevention.

Today, he is the co-leader of a unique and exciting partnership of universities, including Harvard, Boston College, and the University of Massachusetts, and funded by the National Institute of Health. He and his colleagues are working to strengthen mental health awareness and service to refugee families in New England, including among the resettled Somali population as well as Bhutanese.

Along the way, he has helped to train community members and other health professionals in suicide prevention techniques, and contributed book chapters to scholarly publications about mental health and the refugee community.

Even as he becomes more deeply involved in the United States, Gautam’s work back in Nepal hasn’t ended. He’s a co-founder of a Sanitation, Health and Nutrition study center in eastern Nepal, with a focus on the health issues faced by marginalized people there.

A father of a new baby, Gautam has also served in executive capacities with the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts. In what spare time he has, he enjoys photography and raquet sports: Tennis in the spring and summer, and ping-pong in the fall.

Have a diaspora story you’d like to see us tell? Know of someone in the community who is doing formidable work? We’d love to hear about them. We are in particular seeking stories about women and elders and how they’re integrating into their new communities.

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