A refugee’s journey to becoming his own boss
Gunaraj Sampang Rai, a 24-year-old second-generation Bhutanese refugee in Nepal's Beldangi Refugee Settlement, is not your average young man. Once forced to drop out of university due to financial difficulties, Gunaraj is now a budding entrepreneur and is supporting his family of five through his thriving restaurant business. And by his own admission, he is far from done; Gunaraj has bigger dreams.
Gunaraj's journey began in a refugee camp in Jhapa, eastern Nepal. He was born to parents who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s. Times were tough for Gunaraj's family, especially after his elder brother separated from them. With his father as the sole breadwinner, the family came under enormous pressure when UNHCR was forced to scale down support, and when food assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) ceased in 2019 following the large group resettlement of more than 113,500 Bhutanese refugees between 2007 and 2016. Currently, there are around 6,500 Bhutanese refugees living in two settlements in eastern Nepal.
The events forced Gunaraj to drop out of university. He briefly taught at a nearby school, but faced further setbacks when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, leading to the closure of schools and salary cuts.
Amid these challenges, Gunaraj realized he needed to chart his path to self-reliance. Drawing upon his culinary skills gained through a UNHCR-supported training, he decided to open a restaurant. Although he had no prior business experience, he worked in a restaurant in a nearby town to learn the ropes. With determination and support from friends abroad and self-help groups facilitated by UNHCR Nepal, Gunaraj raised the necessary funds.
In June 2022, Gunaraj opened "GS Fresh Food", a vegetarian restaurant, on a rent-free plot provided by the Refugee Settlement Management Committee.
The restaurant quickly gained popularity for its delicious, affordable food, serving favourites like dumplings, noodles, fries, and chatpate (a much-loved savoury street food in Nepal).
Beyond the restaurant, Gunaraj also caters small events within the settlement, extending his services to gatherings of up to 100 guests. His earnings not only help support his family but also his two younger siblings' education.
"It is always better to be your own boss."
Gunaraj harbours ambitious plans, aiming to start repaying his debts in 2024. He aspires to pass on the restaurant to his two younger siblings and open a larger non-vegetarian establishment outside the settlement for better profits.
This endeavour requires a PAN (Permanent Account Number) card, and thanks to UNHCR Nepal's advocacy, the Government in March 2023 decided to facilitate this for the Bhutanese refugees who wish to register businesses. The PAN card decision is a result of the Government’s Cabinet decision of 2021 on Bhutanese refugee solution measures. So far, 51 Bhutanese refugees have obtained individual PAN cards, while around 100 refugees have applied for business PAN cards.
Gunaraj’s father, Kulman, is grateful for the support they've received from UNHCR Nepal and takes pride in his son's success, hoping it will inspire other young refugees to lead dignified lives.
Reflecting on his journey, Gunaraj encourages fellow young refugees to embrace entrepreneurship for a dignified life.
“I think my decision to start my own business was right and timely. It is always better to be your own boss. I appeal to all my fellow young refugees to join my movement and lead a dignified life,” says Gunaraj on a victorious note.
Gunaraj's story, a testament to the relentless power of hard work, determination, and the enduring spirit of humanity, stands as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, stars can be born.