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I happened to meet Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin for the first time at a Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) camp in Tampa, Florida in December 2008. These refugees travelled to the US via Nepal, having left Bhutan and entered Nepal in the 1990s. The refugee crisis was prompted by Government-sponsored discrimination against Nepali speakers in Bhutan (Banki 2008). In the late 1990s the first batch of refugees (called Lhotshampai) began to move out of Bhutan, and entered Nepal. The Bhutan, however, refused to recognize these Lhotshampas as refugees from Bhutan and Nepal refused to acknowledge them as Nepali citizens. By 2008, some 130,000 Bhutanese people of Nepali origin had been forced to live in exile for more than 17 years (Hutt 2006; Banki 2008). In Nepal, around 105,000 of these refugees lived in refugee camps organised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Morang and the Jhapa districts of south-eastern Nepal and the rest lived in different parts of Nepal and India (Hutt 2006; HRW 2007; Banki 2008; and UNHCR 2010).
After years of failed negotiations between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, in 2006, at the request of UNHCR, the United States declared its willingness to accommodate 60,000 of these refugees (UNHCR 2009). Countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands promised to accommodate the rest of 45,000 Lhotshampa refugees from the UNHCR refugee camps (UNHCR 2009). The idea of third country settlement initially met with some stiff resistance; amongst its strongest opponents were those organisations that were supporting the cause of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
In addition, radical elements inside the camps that were sympathetic to or supported the Maoist movement in Nepal threatened physical violence to anyone who favoured resettling in the US. Many refugees themselves also had apprehensions about third country settlement. One refugee explains how his family finally decided to immigrate: Those at the refugee centre said that a good opportunity has come along on the way and now you can go to the US. ‘They said think for yourself… what you all have brought from Bhutan, what have you acquired in Nepal and what all you can achieve in the US.’ At first we only talked about it behind the closed doors and would try to convince our parents that after seventeen years there is no going back to Bhutan and the US seems to be a good place to go.
Life in the US is not without its share of problems. As most refugees are from rural areas, settlement within urban centres of the US is a challenge. Some of the recurring problems experienced by refugees included problems of suitable employment and associated low levels of pay; commuting to work; neighbourhood security; accessing educational opportunities and affordable health care. The bulk of social support to deal with these issues comes from faithbased organisations involved in the resettlement effort. The majority of these organisations are associated with different Christian denominationsii; in response Sangh Parivariii has actively involved itself with settlement efforts of the Bhutanese refugees in the US. Religion at the service of the Refugees Since 2001, the Bush administration supported federal faith-based initiatives, as part of refugee resettlement programs in the US. Even before 2001, eight of the ten major resettlement agencies in the United States were run by faith-based organisations (Gozdziak 2002).
One of my interlocutors, Mr. K, who is a non Hindu, non South-Asian individual, social worker associated with refugee resettlement efforts in the Atlanta area, informed me: The refugees are provided support for anywhere from 60 to 90 days, and the whole idea of the (refugee resettlement) program is to make people self-sufficient in 90 days. The refuges agencies get $450 per person in the family to settle somebody, with which they provide an apartment, take care of the house rents and health insurance for the initial period of 180 days. During this six-month period, special English language classes are also organized (in the Church) and efforts are made so that at least one member from each family is gainfully employed. Given the economic crisis in the US, not every family has a working member.
Some of the families that I have worked with have lost their home because they were unable to manage the rent after the initial assistance ended. The refugees are most vulnerable after the initial three months of their migration. In their hour of need, these refugees turn to the congregations of these faith-based voluntary organizations for help. As lack of resources keeps these refugees on a very short leash, they feel obligated to attend religious service because of the help these volunteers provided during their distress. Mr. K had had sustained contact with some of the church groups and was critical of their conversion activities in relation to refugees.
To him, resettlement organizations should ‘change their attitudes’ when dealing with the religious beliefs and practices of the refugees. To Mr. K, multiculturalism is an entitlement for different groups to maintain their distinct identity, without being homogenized. Therefore, Mr. K was surprised to learn that even though most of these Bhutanese refugees were Hindus, they did not seem to have contact with other Hindu groups in Atlanta: There was an undercurrent in the community, and some misinformation was given to them in the camps. The perception was that if they came to America, they would have to become Christian; they were convinced that there were no Hindus in America.
Mr. K started emailing all the listed Hindu organizations in the Atlanta area to ask for their help in resettling the Bhutanese. Amongst the first responders to Mr. K’s message was a (Hindu) temple in the Atlanta metropolitan area, whose president happened to be an active member of HSS. By the fall 2008, with Mr. K’s active encouragement, HSS and other Sangh organizations, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and Sewa International, became involved and started the Bhutanese Refugee Empowerment Project (BEP), followed by the Ashraya Project. When the Sangh Parivar initially intervened in the Bhutanese refugee resettlement program, their involvement was relatively ad-hoc, as they had no prior experience of working with refugees. Initially some of their initiatives, such as providing employment within the Indian community, backfired. Challenges that Sangh volunteers initially faced, helped them to understand the temperament of the Bhutanese refugees. Sangh volunteers also understood the limitations of their capability and modified their approach accordingly.
To begin with, Sangh volunteers started reaching out to other Indian/ Hindu organisations for coordinating their support for the Bhutanese refugeesiv. Thus, with the help of different organisations, Sangh volunteers concentrated on providing meaningful intervention in the areas of economic, physical, social, and spiritual needs of the Bhutanese refugees. The initial experience with the Bhutanese refugees antagonised everyone involved. The Indian business owners were unhappy because of the unprofessional nature of the refugee workers; the refugees were unhappy because of excessive work and low wages and the uncomfortable daily transport of the refugees’ from their residences to their workplaces and back took its toll on the volunteers’ morale. In their modified approach, Sangh volunteers, instead of directly finding employment for the Bhutanese refugees, focused on making the refugees employable.
The volunteers of Sangh and other organisations Language training for American English, resume training, conducted training for low-skilled jobs and creating a job data bank. In terms of physical needs, Sangh, with the help of individual physicians and organisations including those of SAI Health Fair, Eye Physicians and Surgeons, P.C. and Georgia Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, regularly organized health camps (Sewa 2009). Given that most of the refugees after their first six months (in the US) have no health insurance (for the first six months health insurance is provided by the refugee resettlement organisations), these preventive health care interventions are quite popular among the refugee families. The Bhutanese refugees have a variety of social needs as well. Because they are in a new country and speaking an alien language, most of the Bhutanese refugees are unable to make new friends and are confined to their houses.
In order to help the refugees negotiate their lives in the US, Sangh volunteers visits these refugees, especially the elderly, to ease their widespread stress, caused by physical and emotional trauma and feelings of displacement. During the summer, internship programs (to tutor the refugee children who are attending local schools) were run by the Sangh volunteers and led by second generation Indian immigrants who are enrolled in high schools or colleges. The Bhutanese refugees face spiritual and religious challenges. A lack of transportation and the inability of the refugees to drive automobiles make it difficult for the Bhutanese refugees to visit any Hindu temple. Once Sangh volunteers started interacting with the Bhutanese refugees, (Hindu) temple visits became part of their regular weekend activities.
One of the Bhutanese priests was appointed in one of the Hindu temple in Atlanta to accommodate the distinct practices of Nepalese Hinduism, and talks of having a Nepalese Hindu temple is already being discussed. Besides Sangh, a host of organizations including different Hindu temples around metro Atlanta and Atlanta chapters of various transnational Hindu organizations, such as the Art of Living Foundation, the Chinmaya Mission, BAPS Swaminaryan Sanstha, and the Radha Madhav Society have all started their own outreach programs for the Bhutanese refugees. When Sangh first intervened, its major concern was to check the apparent trend towards conversion to Christianity amongst the incoming Bhutanese refugees. On the VHPA website, it lists those refugee resettlement organisations that have no intension to proselytise.
Over time, however, the Sangh Parivar has been able to identify and interact with the social, spiritual and to some extent the economic needs of the Bhutanese refugees in the cities where it has large presence. In the American context, the use of religion instrumentally by the refugees and immigrants to advance their economic cause is nothing new (see Gozdziak 2002; Men 2002; Haines 2007). Similarly, conversion to Christianity amongst refugee populations had been observed amongst the Buddhist Cambodian refugees who resettled in the US during 1979. Mortland (1994) worked on Cambodian refugees and identified three main reasons for their initial conversion.
In the US, Christianity as a belief system offers more protection from social prejudice than Buddhism. Christianity helps incoming refugees in assimilating and thus opens up more avenues to survival and advancement in America. Men (2002) further added that the Cambodians’ choice of Christianity was a social networking necessity; in the absence of Khmer Buddhist temples churches proved to be a convenient place to meet. However, once the refugees resettled and started migrating within and away from their initial settlement point, they no longer felt obliged to attend Christian services (Men, 2002: 228). Whether the Bhutanese refugees will follow a trajectory similar to the Cambodian cohorts or chart out a new course, is something only time can reveal.
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