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 <<CityNews Main Send Flowers to India!

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Help Thy Neighbor – The Bhutanese Refugees’ Story

Time To Help In Their Hour Of Need


The story is as ancient as history, people forced to move from their lands and homes for reasons beyond their control. The Romani people (Gypsies, coming from the word Egyptian) have been wandering for the past thousand years, still foreigners in their own countries. They migrated out of India, traveled through the middle east and entered Europe in the early centuries of the second millenium of the common era. The brutality of Idi Amin and his expulsion of Indians of Uganda in the early 1970s is still fresh in our memories. The Pandits of Kashmir are a dispersed lot and can not go back to their own homes in Kashmir, without threat of loss of life or limb. To this continuing list of displaced people we will add refugees from Bhutan. They are just arriving in the US in large numbers due to a resettlement program being undertaken by the United States.

These Bhutanese are ethnic Nepalese from the Southern part of Bhutan, and are predominantly Hindu. Some are Buddhists and Christian, nonetheless, Nepalese. They have lived in the United Nations’ Refugees camps for nearly twenty years and were not accepted by Bhutan or Nepal, thus becoming people without a country. First it was just a few families in Atlanta, may be about 10 or so. This year the number has suddenly increased to about 200 families, with more to come. They are young families, some with elderly relatives, and many with babies and school age children. All are in need of a lot of help, beyond what refugee and relief agencies can provide. They need money, jobs, help with acculturation, counseling and people generous with their time, who can be there for them as needs arise.

The help we are asked to give is not for one time and not just a few dollars. Not only that, given the complexity of their lives until now, some times it can be exasperating for those who are trying to help, since they may or may not follow our advice about what is good for them. Still, there are people who have been trying to help them in every way. Some have been doing this for the past two years, while others have just joined in this effort. Sewa International, under the leadership of Gautam Patel and Srikanth Konda, has taken this as one of their programs. Swadesha Katoch and Narayan Katel, himself a refugee, are the point men for this task. 

It is heartening that various individuals and organizations that are concerned with helping people on humanitarian grounds arecoming together to provide help and assistance to these families, as they try to settle down and start their journey in this land of ours. Let us help them realize the American Dream of becoming good citizens and add their names to the long list of immigrant communities which made this country great. 


‘The forgotten people’ are coming to Atlanta. After spending nearly two decades in nomadic refuge, an estimated 60,000 Bhutanese refugees will be relocated within the United States of America over a period of five years. 
Beginning in the 1980’s, nearly 100,000 people fled from the ‘happiest country in Asia’. Cultural persecution forced almost the entire Nepali population of Bhutan, a country located on the shoulder of India, to seek asylum in a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ camp in Nepal. Today, over 5000 of these refugees call America home – 600 of whom have settled in the melting pot of Atlanta. 

“It is a king’s democracy”, says Narayan Katel, a political asylee and former Bhutanese junior diplomat, who arrived in America in 2002, speaking of the Bhutanese shift to the democratic system of government. 

Bhutan, a monarchy separated from Nepal by the Indian state of Sikkim, has both a population of Tibetan Buddhists in the north and ethnic Hindu Nepalese in the south. In the 1980’s, in an effort to establish a uniform state, the then king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, required all citizens to follow a culture based entirely on the Buddhist way of life. This included “speech, clothing and even food” according to Katel. This imposition of a lifestyle completely alien to the people of the Hindu south created political dissent among the Nepali Bhutanese. 

In response to the demonstrations and protests, the monarchy had the dissidents arrested and often beaten, says Katel. Horror stories abound when asked about the period of the exodus from Bhutan to Nepal. He says that while in prison, these protestors were coerced into signing ‘voluntary’ migration forms, which were later used as an excuse to send them into exile. These forms were also openly distributed in villages. Not only the dissidents, but their families as well, were labeled anti – nationals and systematically persecuted, forcing them to escape from the country. 

Starting with 5000 people at the end of 1991, the number of refugees escaping to UN refugee camps and surrounding regions has now escalated to almost 140,000 – almost 1/6th of the 700,000 population of Bhutan. In 2006, after the failure of sixteen bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan to resettle the refugees, America, in a humanitarian effort, agreed to relocate 60,000 refugees. 

However, federal aid from the U.S. government can only support a limited number of refugees. This program has ended for the year and will only restart in February 2009. According to Dr. Ravi Sarma, the President of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta and a campaigner for the Bhutanese cause, “As winter grows, as the economy shrinks and as the funds run out, these people will be in worse shape a few months from now, than what they are today.” Sarma was recruited into the volunteer fold by Ralph Parker, a volunteer himself, who has been working with refugees in Atlanta for over 10 years. 

Parker says, “A family of five gets refugee cash assistance of $378, of which, the relief agency which resettles them, gets $300 for taking care of rent. They are left with $78 a month for utilities in addition to being given food stamps.”
After enlisting the help of some other Atlanta communities, Parker believed it was essential to get the Indian community involved. Despite being India’s neighbors, Parker says, “There is very little knowledge in the Indian American community about what was going on in Bhutan.” A meeting with Sarma got the ball rolling in the Indian community. Sarma says that while the Hindu Temple of Atlanta worked with a few families when the community was small, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and SEWA International took the lead in mobilizing support and in creating national awareness of this situation as the number of families has increased. 

In the past nine months a number of organizations and individual volunteers have come forward to help in a variety of ways, including provision of blankets from hoteliers, to Big Brother/ Big Sister programs through the Satya Sai group and planned extra tutoring from teachers. Other groups which are providing assistance in various forms include Georgia Association of Physicians from India (GAPI), Telugu Association of Metro Atlanta (TAMA), the Greater Atlanta Tamil Sangam, Vibha Youth, the Hindu Temple of Atlanta and Alpharetta Chinamaya Bala Vihar programs, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) of America, the Swami Narayan Mandir, the Gujarati Samaj, the Shakti Mandir and the Sanathan Mandir in Smyrna. In addition, a health screening fair was conducted by Dr. Sujata Reddy in September and a vision clinic by Dr. Indira Menon is scheduled for the 6th of December . Two Atlantans, Srikanth Konda of SEWA International and Sneha Mehta of VHP of America, coordinate the national efforts of these organizations.

In all, according to Parker, $10,000 has been raised in the community as emergency funds. In Parker’s opinion, another $10,000 should make the safety net more secure. Parker and Sarma both emphasize that they are not trying to establish a private welfare system, or displace any other groups offering help to the refugees. They are merely adding to the support system. 
There have also been efforts to make the Nepali Bhutanese as culturally comfortable as possible. Interfaith thanksgiving services, a welcoming reception by the Hindu Temple of Atlanta and helping the families learn the ropes of the American way of life have all been part of the volunteering effort. Parker quoting a refugee says, “We feel like we are in Nepal”. 

However, the effort has only just begun. Sarma emphasizes that there is more of a need for sustained effort rather than an initial burst of enthusiasm. He says, “We are trying to give traction to the story so it doesn’t disappear from the public eye.” 

Overall, the most pressing issues are helping the refugees find jobs, transportation, emergency backup funds, medical aid and, last but not the least, friendship. Winter supplies and training in employment related skills are also highly desired. 

In a recent conversation with some Bhutanese teenagers, Parker’s only advice to them was to live the best life they possibly could and to “Just remember, there are no limits.” 

The collective hope for this group of people is that they will feel as comfortable and as integrated in the American fabric of life as the numerous groups before them. Parker quietly observes, “You don’t do this for a reward. You do it because it is important to reach out to other people in need. The reality is you get more back out than you give.”

For any volunteer or donation inquiries please contact any of the aforementioned organizations or 
Mr. Narayan Katel – 404- 319- 9961
Mr. Swadesh Katoch—404 935 8893
Mr. Ralph Parker – 770 916 667 (Office), 404-983-2004 (Cell) 
Dr. P. Ravi Sarma – 770-979-2828 (Office), 678 313 0646 (Cell) 
Kim Kimbell, Volunteer Coordinator at World Relief – 404 -294-4352  


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