Unquiet Women: Shreejana Chhetri

Inspired by Max Adam’s original work, Unquiet Women, through this series Dr Hafsa Ahmed aims to share narratives of remarkable women who immigrated to New Zealand. These stories are rarely told, but each one is unique. Hafsa hopes these stories will bring Asia closer to New Zealand by enabling us to see through the eyes of others and nurturing connections.

In the third piece of the Unquiet Women series, she shares community leader Shreejana Chhetri's story.

Bare foot you march on the cold, your clothes are dirty and torn.

Hunger and thirst are your company, you climb mountains and walk through the deepest valley.

Innocence is your nature, you do what you’re told.

Beauty glows in your eyes, while your body aches with pain.

Who can you blame? When you’re born in poverty in a impoverished place.

No help is coming, you keep on going.

Carrying heavy burden to bring light at home.

Blaming the misfortune, your dolls have been replaced by survival tools.

Even in your hopelessness you shine bright, But you’re ignored by the world everyday.

Away you march bare foot on the cold...

- by Shreejana Chhettri

A poem that portrays Shreejana’s journey – struggle and finding hope. Driven from their motherland, Shreejana’s parents sought refuge in Nepal where she was born and raised as a refugee due to the crisis which unfolded in Bhutan in 1990s but she believes her experiences have added value to her journey.

Shreejana Chhetri came to New Zealand when she was 11 years old. Image from Krama and Co

In 2008, her family had a chance to leave Nepal and come to Aotearoa in search of a better life. She was only 11 when she arrived in this land of “mystery” – what was it going to be like?

Aotearoa amazed her but Shreejana kept looking for a familiar comfort, a thread of connection that would run between her old home and her new one.

She found it - “I saw this lemon tree with lemon, so back home I had a lemon tree. I automatically connected; it was a beautiful feeling.”

The warmth of the people welcomed her too and she found common ground with Māori culture – particularly its focus on whānau. She appreciates the connectedness amongst family members that exists in Māori culture, which is like her own culture.

As a young kid, Shreejana faced difficulties posed by racism and trying to fit in at school. Her language barrier was a major one and she struggled to keep up with everything.

However, what really pushed her was patience, perseverance and purpose. I was curious and asked her what drove her to persevere – she answers thoughtfully: “You know I've lived in third world countries and I'm here now (in Aotearoa). What really pushed me is I need to study, I need to be able to go to university. I need to make myself able, so one day I can go back and help the other people in the world that are not able to.”

Shreejana has been driven by a need to study and attend university, so she can help others. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash  

In all her life, Shreejana believes her biggest strength comes from her faith – she believes God gives her hope, especially for people “in a position when you know you’re an orphan - when you have no one or nothing to hold on to, just remember that there is God that you can hold on to and you'll make it through.”

Shreejana is driven by her passion to make an impact and is always looking for ways to make a difference, so she is driven to give women opportunities. Coming from a society dominated by patriarchy, Shreejana upholds women empowerment in all aspects of her life.

She holds different roles in the community but her proudest achievement is becoming the Vice President of the Bhutanese Society of Christchurch “I’m the only female leader in my community and the youngest.”

She credits her mother as inspiring her to be a leader - “she (my mother) was like a leader in the refugee camp. I grew up following her example and she always empowered me.”

She also shares with me that striving for equal opportunity, or even just opportunity, is a common struggle for Asian women. She does her own part to help with this struggle by leading as an example in her community to break the cycle because she believes either you wait for a change or be the change you wish to see.

Shreejana has professionally worked in the areas of domestic violence and women empowerment. She has previously organised events and set up workshops to lead power discussions and bring awareness. She has also visited different schools empowering ethnic youth, both young guys and girls to break the generational mindset that women are less than men and cannot succeed in life. Shreejana believes that it is only when we change our mindset that we are able to change ourselves and also influence others. Shreejana empowers youth to become the positive change maker in their circles.

Shreejana is also studying politics and international relations at the University of Canterbury and creating a path as she hopes to pursue her PhD one day with a focus on health and well-being.

I asked her to share times where she has challenged the status quo, she tells me about striking at the heart of taboo topics – particularly mental health - in her role as Vice-President of the Bhutanese Community in Christchurch. Shreejana says that mental health is heavily stigmatised and many would not reach out for help because no one has ever educated the community about it.

Shreejana lives and studies in Christchurch. Photo by Brendan Pfahlert on Unsplash  

But getting an expert into the community to talk about mental health was a milestone - “it is something that has never happened before and there is a lot of courage and bravery from all the youth.”

She tells me these are all steps we are taking to normalise the mental health conversation.

Shreejana also shared a challenge many immigrants face in Aotearoa – being made aware of our differences.

Shreejana has got comments such as “do you really belong here?” but she has chosen to approach it with a solutions mindset.

She was part of the team leading event focusing on the issues of racism and social cohesion. Her biggest event was “Racism in our own backyard” where approximately 200 people turned up and shared their stories and stood in solidarity. Shreejana expressed her views through her poetry.

In order to support diversity and inclusion, she is also a member of the Multicultural Advisory group in the Christchurch City Council which is the only group of its kind in the country.

Her advice to the youth of ethnic communities is to embrace their identities by being “proud of who you are. Be proud of where you come from, your culture is not less, your skin colour does not mean you are less.”

Shreejana believes by encouraging youth to know their roots and by empowering them to embrace their identities, it will strengthen them “because if the root of the tree is strong, then when the wind comes, you know it will remain strong.”

- Asia Media Centre