Nawal Rai more than just a refugee


Fabiana Centeno

The spotlight was bright enough to blind someone, his heart was beating rapidly and pumping out of his chest. It was Nawal Rai’s freshman year, and this was his first ever time performing on stage. He could hear the audience mumbling. Once the lights turned off and the spotlight hit his face, Rai knew that this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.  

Rai was born in a refugee camp in Nepal, there was a total of seven refugee camps throughout the country. Rai’s family is from Bhutan, but with Nepali heritage. In the early 1990’s the new king changed many people’s lives forever by forcing them to let go of Nepali culture and Nepali language; that’s when the genocide began. Men were getting shot, hung, and thrown into jail. Women were being raped. Homes were being burned down. His family was forced to flee to where he was born.  

 “The hardest part was finding myself, adapting to the new in the culture and making friends,” Rai said. Rai believed he lived in a privileged camp. He had a good shelter and there were not many problems with the camp. However, there was no air conditioning or heat. The houses were made of bamboo and there was clean water. He also said that the children used to throw little shows and that’s when he became slowly interested in performing.   

“Theatre gave me a new life,” Rai said. Rai arrived to the United States in 2013. He described it as overwhelming but at the same time it was an exciting experience. When he arrived, he attended middle school and said that he saw no opportunities for him. He didn’t get a chance to meet new kids since he just saw the same students in his ELL class. All that changed when high school came. 

 “I started putting myself out there and getting out of my comfort zone,” Rai said. His life changed once he joined theatre. He found that passion was hidden inside him that he didn’t know about.  That passion wasn’t just about him; he met many important people along the way. 

“He showed me how to love myself and encourage myself to be who I am today,” junior Rachel Nguyen said.  

Rai feels that he has changed as a person. He has gained more confidence and feels he has developed into the person he wants to be. Many of Rai’s friends have said that because of the type of person he has become, he has inspired them to be more confident and change into a better person. 

“He changed my life by giving me an outlook on things and he made me a happy person. He is someone I will forever love for the rest of my life,” junior Damaris Nelson said. 

Rai states that his motivation comes from his mother who knows few English and he has described as a hard working who values the importance of family. Rai’s mom has dealt with family and relationship issues and he values the fact that she shows determination for the purpose of keeping their family close.  

“I get that trait of never giving up and having mindset that things will get better from my mom,” Rai said.  

Rai is a person that is very actively involved at East. From being in Theater, Show Choir, IHSSA, Chamber Choir, Steppers, National Honor Society, Student Government, Link Crew, East High Cares, Rugby and Upward Bound. The reason he is so involved at East is due to the fact that he likes making people feel they belong and to also challenge himself with new experiences to find a new side to him.  

 “No other IHSSA has a ‘Nawal’ meaning he is one of a kind, he has flare about himself that we’re lucky to have him apart of,” English teacher Virginia Johnson said.  

Even though Rai has been through a lot, he has no plans to let obstacles slow him down. He will graduate on May 25th and head to college on the fall. Rai’s plans for his next chapter in life is to go to UNI to study theatre. His goal is to come back to East to become a show choir director.  

 “I want to impact people’s lives in a good way and find a new side of that is still hidden,” Rai said.