Learning to Paint in a Refugee Camp – Through Courageous Eyes | LIRS
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Learning to Paint in a Refugee Camp – Through Courageous Eyes

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Through Courageous Eyes bannerToday’s post features an artist who began his creative work in a refugee camp in Nepal. Hari Koirala fled Bhutan as a child and grew up in a refugee camp, but discovered his creative talents as a photographer, painter, and writer and found hope. Today he advocates for refugees and is active in his community in Utah.

The Through Courageous Eyes blog series features migrant and refugee artists and is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Digital Communications Assistant.

Growing Up a Refugee

After fleeing as a toddler, Hari lived with his family in a camp in Nepal. In this camp he spent 17 years – most of his childhood and youth – before receiving the option to resettle in the United States. Years ago, in a refugee camp in Nepal, this is how Hari described his situation.

Life in the camps is bad and it’s getting worse.

Fifteen years ago we were enjoying a happy life in Bhutan. The Bhutanese government evicted us, labeling us Nepalese. This was because we spoke Nepali and we wore traditional Nepali dress.

In 1990 the government began to persecute us. They burnt and destroyed our house and chased us into the night.

Becoming an Artist

After living in the camp for a decade, Hari joined the Rose Class, a new project of PhotoVoice, a non-profit that teaches participatory, or collaborative, photography in marginalized communities. Two graduate students created the project to teach photography, writing, and painting to Bhutanese refugee youth.

Painting by Hari Koirala of a building with trees and a plane flying overhead.
A painting done for a retiring co-worker in honor of her 35 years of service to the State of Utah. “The plane in the picture indicates the coworker’s next move in her retired life like vacation, travel and adventures.”

This opportunity provided materials and instruction, exposing Hari’s interest in arts and architecture. One collaborative project that Hari worked on was the painting of a rose, the group’s namesake.

Many Rose Class photographs were shared in exhibitions around the world in the United Kingdom (London), the United States (New York), France (Paris), and Nepal (Kathmandu). Some can still be seen illustrating The Story of a Forgotten People about the Bhutanese refugees.

The youth also wrote about their experiences of fleeing Bhutan, living in exile, and hoping for the future. As a teenager, Hari shared his experiences and perspective:

My family had to leave our mother country and was forced to spend a sad life in the camps. We have now spent fifteen years living in exile. My aim in life is to became a doctor and look after my community.

All the young people are eager to return to the motherland. Every year the Bhutanese government has talks but does not appear interested in taking the refugees back. I am worried these will be no repatriation and we’ll die in the camps.

More than 50% of the population of Bhutanese refugees who can remember Bhutan will end up dying in Nepal. The small children do not know anything about Bhutan because they have been born in the refugee camps.

In the United States

Hari was resettled in the United States in August of 2008 and currently lives in Utah. Since then he has become an advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants like himself. His involvement with refugees helps him “better understand their issues, problems and possible remedy for those issues and concerns.”

While Hari no longer plans to become a medical doctor, he hopes to continue studying and still wants to serve his community. His plan is to earn a PhD in social work and establish a community cultural museum for future generations.


Find all the previous posts in the Through Courageous Eyes series.

Through Courageous Eyes features the artistic work of refugees and migrants. If you would like to showcase your artwork as part of the Through Courageous Eyes series, please contact Cecilia Pessoa at CPessoa@lirs.org.

Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser

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