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Conference seeks to empower Bhutanese refugees

June 2010
Conference seeks to empower Bhutanese refugees

The first Bhutanese Refugee Empowerment Conference was held at the Hindu Heritage Center, Global Mall, in Atlanta on April 17 and 18. Thirty-two Bhutanese delegates from across the United States and an equal number of SEWA International USA coordinators participated in the conference. The conference, organized by SEWA USA, was intended to provide a platform to nurture national and local leadership among the Bhutanese through mentoring, and sharing successes and challenges.

After a warm welcome speech by Arun Kankani, President, Starpipe Products, Houston, Texas, the conference was inaugurated with a symbolic lighting of the lamp by Anju Bhargava, Member of the White House Commission for Interfaith and Neighborhood Partnerships. Pandit Madhav (a Bhutanese refugee himself) of Shiv Mandir in Global Mall recited vedic shanti mantras in the backdrop.

Along with Bhargava, Professor Dwivedi and Narayan Swami, a prominent spiritual figure amongst the Bhutanese, addressed the gathering and shared their perspective on the challenges faced by refugee Bhutanese. Also, Shiv Agarwal, owner of Global Mall, and Dr. Ravi Sarma, former president of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, talked about their experience of living in America. Dr. Sarma lauded the deep connection that the Bhutanese community had for their Vedic roots.

G.V Raghu of the Chinmaya Mission, Surinder Dhar of Shiv Mandir, Dr. Indira Menon, who has conducted several eye camps for the Bhutanese, Dr. Sreeni Gangasani, President-Elect of the Georgia Association of Physicians of Indian heritage (GAPI) were some of the prominent dignitaries from the Indian community.

Prof. Sreenath, President, SEWA USA, gave the audience an overview of the Bhutanese conflict and a summary of the resettlement efforts. Santi Ram Poudel, a prominent Bhutanese community leader from Cleveland, shared his experiences. This was followed by a women’s self-help group presentation. Dr. Lopita Nath, an accomplished academician, enlightened the delegates about the economic, cultural, and political history of the Lhotshampas. Surya Jilludimudi, a key conference organizer, and Swadesh Katoch gave a presentation on health care projects in Atlanta.

Amol Vichare, a civil engineer and SEWA USA volunteer, gave an innovative and interesting presentation on low-cost housing. The Bhutanese delegates showed a lot of interest in affordable housing options through Habitat for Humanity. Another volunteer, Gaurav Verma, highlighted the benefits of leveraging environment-friendly resources in America like recycles.org and freecycles.org to procure computers for school children.

The presentations were followed by workgroup sessions. Here the delegates were divided into regional groups and asked to state the three top resettlement problems in their zone. The following issues were determined and recognized as most important: youth development, cultural preservation/adaptation, employment /income generation, women’s issues, housing, education, health insurance, and safety. The delegates then discussed potential solutions to these issues.

Ralph Parker, a resettlement volunteer, stressed the need for generating more emergency funds to deal with growing resettlement challenges. Ganesh Ghimere, a Bhutanese expatriate and lawyer, provided Nepali translations for all announcements.

The Bhutanese refugees have a great urge to be independent and self-sufficient. This was proved by their interest in topics such as cultural preservation, learning English, housing assistance, and self-employment options through small businesses and mentorship with entrepreneurs.

After a busy day, a fun-filled cultural program in the evening that included kids’ performances, a veena recital, ethnic Bhutanese dances, and bhajans, rekindled a sense of nostalgia in the Bhutanese attendees.

The second day of the conference started with a yoga and Pranayam session conducted by Swami Narayanji.

Prof. Sreenath gave a presentation on “Project Krishi,” various experimental agricultural and marketing initiatives, and lessons learned in Cleveland, Ohio. Naveen, a young volunteer and agricultural engineer from Auburn University, Alabama, pledged his support to the Bhutanese to help them connect with academicians, and provide consultancy to interested Bhutanese farmers in the Southeast.

The conference then passed resolutions appreciating the efforts of the U.S. government, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and other organizations in resettling Bhutanese families; reiterating support to Bhutanese refugee families irrespective of religion, ethnicity or political affiliation; and supporting the efforts of the refugees in preserving their culture, language, arts and religion.

Prof. Dwivedi, an emeritus professor from Howard University, Washington, D.C., shared his experiences in America that reiterated his belief that the country was a land of opportunities. He said Project Krishi had the potential to transform the refugees’ quality of life. He encouraged the Bhutanese by saying, “You need to have your American dream and work towards it.”

Khem Adhikari from Texas, while speaking about his experience of attending the conference, stressed the need for the Bhutanese community to preserve their Hindu roots in America by deriving inspiration from the Vedic shastras .

All participants expressed their willingness to attend a sequel conference next year. The delegates were gifted a copy of the Hindu Panchang and the Bhagvad Gita in Nepali.

The conference was supported by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, the Telugu Association of Metro Atlanta, the Chinmaya Mission, Shiv Mandir, Global Mall, the Art of Living Foundation, GAPI, Toastmasters, and the Hindu Temple of Atlanta. Many delegates attended the conference because of the personal inspiration and networking efforts of Pradeep Limaye, a retired control systems engineer from India, who donated four months of his time to organize this conference.

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