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From Refugee to Employment Specialist: Robin Koirala's Journey

Robin Koirala's life story is one of resilience, ambition, and dedication. Born in Bhutan, he fled to Nepal with his family at just three years old. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Bhutanese government pursued a policy of cultural assimilation and discrimination against the Lhotshampa, a Nepali-speaking ethnic group in the southern region of the country. Facing persecution, Robin's family, like many others, was forced to flee their homeland for safety.

Life in the Refugee Camp and Journey to the United States

They lived in a refugee camp for over 18 years, facing challenges of survival without proper sanitation, safety, or electricity. His family’s home in the camp, which housed his brothers, sisters and parents, was made of bamboo and plastic tarp. Whenever it rained hard, water would flood the floor of the tent.

To get fresh drinking water, his family would travel to a single water faucet in the camp. They would try to arrive early in the day in order to avoid the long line. For food, humanitarian organizations provided food every 15 days to the camp.

Despite these challenges, Robin's story is one of hope and perseverance.

In the refugee camp, Robin's education began in schools with bamboo floors and limited resources. He recognized the importance of education, saying, "Without education, you cannot do anything. Life is very hard." He and his friends innovated by creating a soccer ball from plastic and slippers.

After graduating from high school in the camp, Robin left his family to pursue higher education in the city. “I have always been ambitious; I wanted to do something through my education,” Robin said. He taught English to local Nepalese students to pay for college, studying humanities.

Despite longing to return to Bhutan, Robin and his family were unable to do so. Nepal did not grant them citizenship, leaving them in a state of uncertainty. “After living in the camp for so long, we felt hopeless and worthless…we’ve always wanted to go back to Bhutan because that’s our country,” Robin said. However, the United States opened its doors to Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, and on May 19, 2009, Robin arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was resettled by World Relief.

The transition from a refugee camp to life in the United States was significant for Robin. Jacksonville's flat landscape and urban environment were a shock. His case manager guided him towards self-sufficiency, and Robin enrolled in ESOL classes. He was soon hired as a case manager by World Relief, helping the Bhutanese community with tasks like completing forms and picking up families from the airport.

World Relief in Jacksonville closed in 2018 due to the Trump administration's refugee policies, leading to Robin's layoff. In January 2022, Robin accepted a job as an employment specialist at Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida.

Making a Difference at Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida

Robin quickly observed that every day on the job is unique. “Every client has different prospects,” he noted. “My responsibility is to treat them with respect and be welcoming.”

In his role, he communicates with clients from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Sudanese, and Burmese. Having walked a similar path as his clients, Robin knows how to address various situations to guide them towards self-sufficiency.

He explained that as a refugee, it is easy to rely on humanitarian organizations for basic needs like food and shelter. Part of his job is to empower clients to become self-sufficient through employment.

“Refugees and immigrants are the backbone of the American job market,” he said.

He recounted a time helped a man from Cuba get into the industry he desired. In Cuba, his client had worked in hospital technology and engineering, so Robin took note and worked on placing the man in a role in the hospital field in Jacksonville.

Robin mentioned that his client was very happy in the role and after a short few months, his client got a better, higher paying job in Miami, doing a similar job to the one he was doing when he was living in Cuba. To this day, Robin stays in touch with his client.

“I enjoy getting to make a difference, and I’m very satisfied,” Robin said.

Now a U.S. citizen, Robin is married with three sons and owns his home. He appreciates his fulfilling life in Jacksonville and has no plans to leave the city.


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