Climb Every Mountain
Dorje Rmetchuk's first steps toward a Baruch College degree began more than 20 years ago with a daring and dangerous 15-day trek across the Himalayas.
"It's definitely painful when you leave," he says. But he knew he couldn't stay in Chinese-ruled Tibet, which was losing a long, bloody struggle to resist assimilation into the People's Republic. Having spent time in prison for trying to escape in 1988, he also feared for his safety; "Once you are caught, you are always in their eye." So the next year, with a smuggler's help, he and a friend slipped from their village with backpacks of food, into the mountains that separated them from relatively safer Nepal. He spent several months in a refugee camp there until an uncle who is a monk settled him into a Tibetan community and got him a job in a tofu factory – a job that changed his life.
At the factory, Rmetchuk met his future wife, Dikyi Chozom, whose mother owned the company. For nearly eight years, Rmetchuk and his wife lived with her mother, Sukmai Tamangni. The couple had two children. But without refugee status there, Rmetchuk knew he had to move forward for a brighter future.
Because of the factory's success, Rmetchuk was able to buy a fake passport and come to New York in 1998, temporarily leaving his wife and kids in Nepal. Staying with another Tibetan when he arrived here, his first priority was obtaining his GED, which he did in 2001. He did restaurant work and received money from his mother-in-law every few months, who strongly wanted him to have an education. That same year, his wife came here. He later enrolled as a part-time student at LaGuardia Community College, and in 2004 transferred to Baruch.
Rmetchuk was granted political asylum, has a green card and can apply for citizenship in two years. His wife and children, who have also emigrated from Nepal, are approved for green cards. "My kids, when they came here, they were happy to see their parents," he said.
Throughout his educational pursuits, his mother-in-law's voice has echoed in his mind, says Rmetchuk. "She never had an education in her life. She'd always tell me, 'It's never late, even if it's 25 years. If you don't start, then it's late.' ... When I have a challenging study assignment, I think of her. I picture her and I finish it." She and his uncle, the monk, were denied visas in Nepal to come to his graduation, which was on his 46th birthday.
There is sadness. Rmetchuk hasn't seen his father and siblings since he left Tibet (his mother died in 1994), and likely can never go back.
But he has met many of his goals. "Being able to finish college, I think it's a big accomplishment," he says. Now, as a finance major with a BBA degree and insurance industry experience, he also hopes to buy a business. His perseverance has set a good example for his college-bound daughter and high-school honors son. "They are so proud of me," he says. "My son always tells me, 'My dad is my role model.'
"My hope for the future is that I want to be a good citizen," he says. "I will be happy if I contribute something to mankind and this country."