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The first Bhutanese Refugee empowerment conference was held at the Hindu Heritage Center, Global Mall in Atlanta, Georgia on April 17th-18th, 2010. 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 in a symbolic and traditional way with Deep Prajwalan (lighting of the lamp) by Anju Bhargava, Member of 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.
Anju Bhargava, Prof. 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, ex president of 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 Chinmay Mission, Surinder Dhar of Shiv Mandir, Dr. Indira Menon (who had conducted several eye camps for the Bhutanese), Dr. Sreeni Gangasani, President Elect of Georgia’s association of Physicians of Indian heritage (GAPI) were some of the prominent dignitaries from the Indian community.
Prof. Sreenath, President, SEWAUSA, gave a roundup of the Bhutanese conflict and summary of 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 by Mrs. Rastogi from Cleveland. 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 presented healthcare projects in Atlanta.
Amol Vichare, a civil engineer and SEWAUSA volunteer, made a very innovative and interesting presentation on low cost hosing. 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 (as a pilot project in Atlanta, it has produced encouraging results).
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 – permanent living, Education, Health Insurance, and Safety. The delegates then discussed potential solutions to these issues. A summary of problems/solutions can be found in in the photo below. Ralph Parker, an American 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 (so as to own houses eventually), and self-employment options through small businesses and mentorship with Entrepreneurs.
After a busy day, fun-filled cultural programs in the evening – kids’ performances, veena recital, ethnic Bhutanese dances, and Bhajans - reignited a cultural nostalgia.
At the end of the first day of the conference, SewaUSA volunteers had an internal strategy and intellectual session conducted by Professor Sreenath (President, SewaUSA) of CASE western University, Cleveland.
The second day of the conference started with a Yoga and Pranayam session conducted by Swami Narayanji.
Prof. Sree Sreenath gave an exclusive presentation on “Project Krishi”, various experimental agricultural and marketing initiatives, and lessons learned in Cleveland, OH. Naveen, a young volunteer and agricultural engineer from Auburn University, GA, pledged his support to the Bhutanese to connect with academicians, and provide consultancy to interested Bhutanese farmers in the Southeast.
Major resolutions were then passed by the conference delegates.
Prof. Dwivedi, an emeritus Professor from Howard University,Washington DC, shared his experience about America being a land of opportunities and the latent potential of Project Krishi to transform the refugees’ quality of life; he encouraged the Bhutanese by saying, “You need to have your American dream and work towards it”.
The Regional Director of Toastmasters Club, encouraged young delegates to nurture their public speaking skills and explore scholarship opportunities through the Toastmasters club in America. Five Bhutanese high school students also participated in the conference.
Khem Adhikari, from Texas, while speaking about his experience of attending the conference stressed the need of the Bhutanese community to preserve their Hindu roots in America by deriving inspiration from the Vedic Shastras .
Professor Sreenath concluded the conference with a spirited valedictory speech thanking all the delegates and SewaUSA volunteers. All participants expressed their willingness to attend a sequel conference the next year. The positive aura of the attendees was inspiring. Beyond doubt, the conference generated a lot of much-needed conversations amongst Bhutanese community leaders to collaborate and learn from each other. The delegates were gifted a copy of Hindu Panchang and Bhagvad Gita in Nepali.
The conference was supported by VHPA, TAMA, Chinmay Mission, Shiv Mandir, Global Mall, Art of Living, GAPI, Toastmasters, and Hindu Temple of Atlanta. Many of the delegates attended the conference due to 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.