Early this December, a large group of 140 guests injected new life into the Sunday Feast at ISKCON Dallas, dancing and chanting with the fervent enthusiasm of lifelong devotees.
Their worship was a kind of celebration of freedom, for these were no ordinary guests. Refugees from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, they had been through many trials to get here, to the feet of Radha-Kalachandji.
Many people tend to think of Bhutan as a place led by enlightened monarchs, often praised for ushering in democracy and championing a state-sponsored philosophy dubbed Gross National Happiness.
But it has a darker side. In the 1980s, democratic rallies and the prosperous Hindu Nepalese minority began to worry King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who saw a threat to his dominant Buddhist culture. Edicts designed to suppress Hindu practices culminated in 1990 in ethnic cleansing. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, about one-sixth of Bhutan's population, were driven from the country or fled.
One of these, and one of the 140 visitors to the Dallas temple, is thirty-five year-old Kamal Subedi of the Chirang district. “I was a young boy, only in grade nine, when my family left Bhutan in 1991,” he says. “For seventeen years we were confined to a UN refugee camp in Nepal. We didn’t know when we would ever have a home again. ”
Finally, a group of seven Western countries agreed to accept 70,000 of the refugees. The majority – about 60,000 – were taken in by the United States and placed in 48 different states. Kamal says he is lucky to have made it over when he did – it will take the US government the next five years or so to place all 60,000.
When Indian business owner Sashi Kejriwal heard about the refugees arriving in Dallas last month, he mobilized groups proficient in social work such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and the Chinmaya Mission group to help. An appreciator of Srila Prabhupada’s accomplishments and spiritual teachings, he also approached the Dallas ISKCON temple.
“Although a few are Christians, most of the refugees are Hindus whose ancestral deity, or Kula Devata, is Krishna,” says Dallas temple president Nityananda Dasa. “The history is that if you go back far enough, Bhutan was part of Bharat, or India. But later, along with other countries such as Burma, it became a separate state and took on other influences.”
The culture differences in America had these Bhutanese Vaishnavas feeling dejected. But when they stepped into the temple and saw the devotees, including youth, taking to the spiritual culture they were familiar with, they were elated. Finally, they had found a new home. Now they had both the freedom and the facilities to practice their religion. “We will never be able to repay the kindness you showed, the opportunity you gave us to worship the Lord,” they told Nityananda Dasa.
After the energetic Sunday Feast kirtan, Dallas ISKCON devotees were treated to a unique spiritual experience, as the Bhutanese Vaishnavas sang bhajans in their native Nepali language. With a sound and flavor similar to the village songs of Krishna’s own sacred birthplace Vrindavana Dhama, they sang of Krishna’s pastimes, his kind and loving nature, and how nothing is more valuable in life than his holy name. Everyone took turns singing - sometimes one of the women would lead, sometimes one of the elders, and sometimes one of the youth. And all this they did with a wonderful expressiveness and animation.
“They are simple-hearted people, very enthusiastic about spiritual life, and not very accepting of modern materialistic lifestyles,” Nityananda says. “Their main concern is whether their children will remain in their culture and continue to respect their elders.”
Kamal agrees, saying he lived in a small town in Bhutan – there are no cities in his district. “It’s very simple and innocent there, very different from America,” he explains. “It’s important to me that my son grows up in the same cultural background that I was brought up in.”
Although things have been difficult for the group of refugees, things have changed recently with the help of Kejriwal, HSS, and ISKCON. “I told them that once they did kirtan at the temple, Krishna would help them, which they agreed with,” Nityananda says. “And it was true. After the big kirtan they did at the temple, their lives began to come together.”
New families are arriving in Dallas every week, with 9,000 people expected over the next five years. Nityananda is intent on helping this first group get organized so that they can help the new arrivals. This includes driving lessons, help with operating computers and getting online, and job and accommodation searching. Devotees are also helping with health issues. “The local hospital is very large, but it can take months to get an appointment,” Nityananda says. “We know doctors there, so we can help with that.”
Every Thursday, Nityananda visits the refugees at one of their government-sponsored apartments near downtown Dallas, where he gives them stress management classes and helps them get organized. “After six months, they will have to leave those apartments and stand on their own two feet,” he says, “So I’m assisting with that. But the biggest help I’m offering them, I feel, is spiritual training.”
Although some of the refugees are from villages, most are from towns and some are very well educated. They speak English quite well and will pick more up quickly. Nityananda says he thinks they’ll have no problems getting assimilated into American society, but he is concerned that they will be drawn too far into material life. “If the devotees, particularly the ISKCON youth, make an effort to build relationships with them, we can encourage them in their spiritual life,” he says. “And they can encourage us in ours.”
Kamal agrees, delivering a heartfelt message to the ISKCON community. “We came a long, long way from Asia,” he says. “ But we have the same faith, the same belief as you. We would like to feel that we can still openly practice the cultural activities that we used to do at home in a larger community. So it will be nice if you can adopt us in that respect.”
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