The Bhutanese American Project: Helping Rebuild Lives
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) announces the creation of The Bhutanese American Project, a grant program in support of Bhutanese Hindus struggling to maintain their religion, culture, and traditions through their resettlement in America. The Bhutanese American Project is a two pronged effort that seeks to earmark $5,000 for grants that directly benefit Bhutanese communities resettling throughout the U.S. and $3,000 for HAF’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the Bhutanese community.
During the early 1990s in Bhutan, more than 100,000 mostly Hindu Bhutanese of Nepali descent were stripped of their citizenship and forced to leave the country under the “One Nation, One People” policy aimed at homogenizing a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. The policy required Nepali Hindus to seek permission prior to visiting temples, to remove their bindis from their foreheads, and to dress in traditional North Bhutanese clothing. Their language was banned, and soon, so were they. They endured repressive tactics and violence, including harassment, arrests, and the burning of ethnic Nepali homes, until finally they fled to Nepal, where they languished in camps managed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the past few years, several nations, in partnership with the UNHCR, have agreed to take in these displaced people as refugees. The United States is one of those nations and has already resettled more than 69,000 Bhutanese refugees under a program coordinated by the U.S. State Department and UNHCR.
Bearing the scars of the not so distant past, today Bhutanese Hindus face a new chapter in the daunting saga of American arrival and integration. Resettlement agencies provide basic living assistance including housing, essential furnishings, food, clothing, community orientation, and referral to other social, medical, and employment services for their first few months. Other faith-based organizations have stepped up to the plate to supplement services where and when government funding cuts off. In a few regions in which resettlement is occurring, the Hindu American community has opened its arms, providing English and SAT classes, transportation to the temple and other places, and medical clinics, amongst other services.
The Dire Reality
Yet, feeling settled in the resettlement process is amiss. Bhutanese have the highest suicide rate of any refugee community. Their families have seen a sudden diminishing of the role and respect for elders as their youth, who have quickly become English-speaking, are better able to navigate the outside world and no longer turn to them for advice or guidance. Elderly are facing social isolation because of language barriers and the resulting lack of mobility. Youth are rapidly becoming “Americanized,” and turning their backs on their native religion, language, and culture, the very things for which their parents and grandparents made the greatest sacrifices of land and livelihood, to maintain. Many are succumbing to pressures, both subtle and overt, placed upon them by aggressive, evangelizing churches taking advantage of their vulnerability -- converting them not only from their religion, but their families, communities, and heritage. In some regions, such as Philadelphia, those preying on Bhutanese Hindus and Buddhist are Nepali evangelical missionaries, using to their advantage a shared language to pressure newly arrived refugees to convert.
The dire reality is that in most regions Bhutanese Hindus remain isolated from other Hindus and Hindu institutions. Without community space of their own, they are unable to collectively endeavor to keep their traditions alive and help their own.
The Bhutanese American Project: Details
The $8,000 Bhutanese American Project will provide both direct aid to the refugees as well as support HAF's advocacy efforts on behalf of the refugees. $5,000 of direct grants would support Bhutanese community-led efforts to procure space for religious gatherings and social services, transportation to Hindu temples and other cultural institutions, or youth mentorship programs and field trips. The remaining $3,000 would fund advocacy efforts aimed at generating awareness of the plight of the Bhutanese such as a Capitol Hill briefing and a national tour of the documentary, The Refugees of Shangri-La, produced and directed by Doria Bramante and Markus Weinfurter (click here to learn more about the film).
Direct grants will be awarded to eligible, organized Bhutanese community led efforts. Direct grants will be provided with recipients’ commitment to continue seeking other grant opportunities and become self-sustainable within a period of one to two years.