June 1, 2022

Class of 2022: Against all odds, from refugee camp to social work

Faculty of Social Work grad Kamal Khatiwada learns to ‘never give up hope’
Kamal Khatiwada
Kamal Khatiwada, who grew up in a U.N. refugee camp, persevered to graduate with a Master of Social Work in international and community development. Courtesy Kamal Khatiwada

Kamal Khatiwada will be about 13,750 km away  in Nairobi, Kenya when his name is called during the Faculty of Social Work’s convocation ceremony in the Jack Simpson Gym on June 1. But he has a good excuse.

“I made the tough decision to prioritize disseminating knowledge in Kenya instead of attending the convocation ceremony, but I’ll definitely be thinking about it!” he says with a smile.

Khatiwada will be in Nairobi to co-present research he co-conducted on the state of social work field education in Africa, alongside his supervisor Dr. Julie Drolet, PhD, Faculty of Social Work researcher and leader of the Transforming the Field Education Landscape project. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

To say it’s been a long and difficult road for the Master of Social Work (MSW) graduand feels like an understatement. Few people with his history have been able to achieve what he has, a testimony to his amazing resilience.

If I had one piece of advice to give to my former self? It would be to never give up hope. To remember there’s always hope.

A childhood picture of Kamal Khatiwada

Kamal as a child in the refugee camp.

Courtesy Kamal Khatiwada

Growing up in a refugee camp

In many ways, the trajectory of Khatiwadas life journey was set in the Kingdom of Bhutan in the late 1980s, when Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father as king of the mountainous country that sits between China and India.

The new ruler introduced a nationalist plan with the ominous central plank of “one nation, one people." It was the start of an ethnic purge that accelerated when the Nepali language was banned in school as the medium of teaching. Then, in 1988, it was decreed that citizens needed to demonstrate a tax receipt produced before 1958 to claim citizenship. Predictably, there were demonstrations and unrest, particularly in the south with its population of Lhotshampas, who shared ethnic heritage including language, with people in neighbouring Nepal.

It’s estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Lhotshampas were forcibly displaced from Bhutan to refugee camps in southern Nepal. This was where Khatiwada would spend his formative years, in huts made of bamboo and plastic.

You would think that life in a refugee camp would be a recipe for misery and, for many, it likely was but not, surprisingly, for Khatiwad, who looks back on those days as some of the happiest of his life.

"Well, it was a lot of fun,” he says. “Oftentimes, people perceive refugee camps as a place of misery, but, for me, it was a place where I created many happy memories.”

The refugee camp where Khatiwada's family lived for many years

The refugee camp where Khatiwada's family lived for many years. “Oftentimes, people perceive refugee camps as a place of misery, but, for me, it was a place where I created many happy memories.”

Courtesy Kamal Khatiwada

Moving to Lethbridge

Beginning in 2007, several developed countries, including Canada, began admitting the majority of the Lhotshampa refugees, including Khatiwada’s family. They ended up coming to Lethbridge, where there is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the largest Lhotshampa communities in Canada. Regardless of the new opportunities and the fact Kamal would no longer suffer daily beatings from teachers at school  the transition was still very hard.

“Despite the opportunities and resources, it was challenging for me to integrate into Canadian society,” he reflects. “During my initial years, I felt like my sense of belonging and sense of identity were jeopardized. I experienced difficulties with regards to social, cultural and academic integration. I went through a culture shock.”

This was perhaps his darkest time when Khatiwada's future self would have urged him to just keep going, which he did. Things got better when he graduated and achieved entrance to the University of Lethbridge, earning his Bachelor of Health Science. At that point, he says, the racism he endured in high school lessened in the more progressive post-secondary environment. He also became more integrated in the life of the community, volunteering and working with the Boys and Girls Club of Lethbridge.

A degree that captured his passions

However, Khatiwada knew that he wanted more education he just wasn’t sure what that might look like, until he stumbled upon the Faculty of Social Work’s International and Community Development MSW. His lived experience with international agencies in the refugee camp and the importance and involvement of social workers in his life made him aware of the profession. The degree (the only one of its kind in Canada) felt like a perfect fit.

Since he didn’t have a social work undergraduate degree, he moved to Calgary for a year to complete the first year of his degree the “foundation year” (a formative year of graduate-level social work study) before returning to Lethbridge to complete his International and Community Development degree specialization, which is delivered mostly online.

Along the way, Khatiwada was hired as a research assistant with the Transforming the Field Education Landscape project, where he supported various research activities. This experience really taught him hands-on research skills and whetted his appetite to do more research.

“Well, my plan is to work for a couple of years and gain some field experience as a social worker,” he says. “Then I would like to return to academia and eventually do a PhD.”

After a life of travel and a most impermanent childhood, Khatiwada says that now he feels like he has finally put down roots both in Lethbridge and in the social work profession. He’s also justifiably proud of his story so far, reflecting that his life experiences have made him stronger as a person.

“Regardless of any situation I’m thrown into,” he says, confidently, “I know from experience that with enough hard work I will be able to prevail.”

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About the International and Community Development Master of Social Work 

Delivered online, with in-person residencies, this unique MSW will move you to examine and engage with policies, practices and ethical approaches to working with diverse populations in global and local contexts. You'll analyze the social forces, structures, systems and international institutions that give rise to different models of social development. You'll explore and build skills to apply alternative intervention strategies and methods. Graduates have gone on to work in international and Canadian settings with international organizations, NGOs, Canadian development agencies and working with immigrant populations.