Refugee past inspires a nurse’s art and career

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Registered Nurse Nawal Khatiwada, a child refugee from Bhutan, tells his story of hope and resilience.

June 2016: I’m a registered nurse at Nepean Hospital in Sydney’s west. I’m also an artist and former refugee from Bhutan to Nepal. [Photo right is Nawal with an art exhibit in June 2016.] I was nine when I left Bhutan and went into a refugee camp in Nepal with my family. I spent 20 years in a camp. In 2010 I arrived in Australia under a special program to resettle more than 5500 people who had become stateless in Nepal. I’d studied and tutored art in Nepal so when I came to Australia I completed a Diploma in Fine Arts at TAFE and a Bachelor of Nursing at Western Sydney University. Currently I work on a respiratory ward, with most people having heart or lung problems. The ward is very busy and a great place to learn. I love this ward and nursing care. My next rotation is in Mental Health, which will be good as I want to be an art therapist in future.

My ambition has always been to be an artist. There were no resources for us in the refugee camp. It was a very despondent situation. [Right: ‘Siblings’ by Nawal Khatiwadi.] When I was 14 and still in the camp in Nepal, I took part in an art competition where I won prizes – that encouraged me to continue. In Nepal and Australia I’ve tutored art projects aiming to preserve our cultural and historical background. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my life in Bhutan and in the refugee camps in Nepal through my art.

Art is a powerful tool to communicate ideas and emotion and to promote health. [Right: ‘Departure’ by Nawal Khatiwada.] Nursing has allowed me to understand Australian health so that I can better apply my skills in art therapy. I’d like to work with different communities. I have experience in trauma as most of the people in the refugee camp had a background of trauma. Art is a universal language and I follow this approach. In Australia, I’ve been running an art class in my own community. I aim to introduce our community to other communities.

February 2017: I started a rotation at the Nepean Mental Health Centre in August last year. I was allocated to the Older Persons Mental Health Unit and assigned to contribute to the diversional and OT program under the supervision of the senior occupational therapist and Nurse Unit Manager. I’ve been assisting group art sessions for patients. I also lead the group sometimes and give art lessons on an individual basis. [Photo on right is Nawal in the Mental Health Centre February 2017.]

The group program extends to the other mental health wards at the centre, the acute ward and the high dependency unit. High dependency can be challenging because the patients are unwell, but I use strategies such as quick painting, which is effective for them.

I spent 20 years in a refugee camp and this experience has helped me work in mental health in a non-judgemental way and given me a practical understanding of trauma.

In my spare time I’ve been running art groups with the Bhutanese community in Sydney, with people who experienced trauma while in refugee camps, but working at the Nepean Mental Health Centre has been a really good learning experience for me as the patients are all from different backgrounds, different cultures, with different health conditions. [Right: ‘Motherhood’ by Nawal.]

I’ll finish my Allied Health rotation in mental health soon and have another nursing rotation to come, also in mental health. My long-term plan is to complete a Master of Art Therapy. I have spoken to my managers and have a lot of support to complete my studies.

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