As I just finished transcribing my interviews from Maryland, one of the biggest themes I have noticed is the vast difference for the young and old Bhutanese who are resettling in the United States.
“I cannot live without God, because I have faith in God and if I forget God then I cannot live. It is my culture and from the beginning I am following this culture. It is my life actually.” —- 74 year old Bhutanese refugee woman
I was surprised by the religious conviction of the elder refugees, who often cite religion as their happiness in life or even their reason for living. The first woman I interviewed in DC surprised me with her immense faith in God and how she just repeatedly said that the only thing she cares about in life is God. She was also very eager to show me the mandir or small temple in her home, which is typically found in most practicing Hindu homes. One of the questions I have asked during my interviews is for the interviewee to identify a religious object that is important to them. This 76 year old woman immediately showed me a necklace she was given to by her guru (spiritual master) 30 years ago. She has worn it everyday since to keep God close to her, and inside the necklace is the photo of her guru. In the photograph below, she eagerly shows me a picture of her guru:
“The U.S. is a country of Christians,” said the 64-year-old refugee, speaking at her apartment a few days before Christmas. “We have to move toward the side of the majority.”
This week, I browsed the Internet to find articles discussing religious pressure from resettlement agencies or documented conversion of Bhutanese refugees in America. It is important to note that the majority of refugee resettlement agencies do not proselytize those that they serve, but I am focusing on those that may be doing so.
In general, I was very surprised by a lot of the material that I found. One article, “As refugees adapt to American life, competing faiths tug for their attention” (O’Brien, Matt) particularly caught my attention because it does a good job of showing how individuals within a family often have different experiences when it comes to religion and to resettlement. In the situation from the article, the grandmother, Binshu Minali, is the one who finds comfort and a sense of community in the Christian church (her quote is above). She feels that Christianity will ensure her family’s survival in the United States. From my informal meetings with the refugees in the Boston suburbs, however, it was often younger people attracted to church, while the elders were clinging on to their Hindu or Buddhist roots. Continue reading
Last weekend, I had my first interaction with two communities of Bhutani refugees that I plan on interviewing later this summer. These families live in suburbs about two hours away from my house and I had never met them before. Luckily, I went with an Indian social worker who has dedicated his free time to helping them deal with their everyday problems. He introduced me into the community and allowed me to establish a sense of trust with the families.
After the long and early morning commute, I arrived at one of their homes. Instantly, they welcomed me in even though they did not know me. They were having their weekly kirtan (a group gathering to enjoy religious song and prayer) and were delighted that I wanted to join. It was humbling to see their kindness towards me, a total stranger, and their eagerness to share the traditions of where they come from. Although for many refugees, it isn’t always clear which country they “belong” to, it was obvious that they still have the same desire to expose others to their heritage and their personal beliefs.
Following the two hour kirtan, I was treated to home-cooked Nepali food and then was able to talk with the families informally about their experiences in the United States with the help of a translator. My translator is a refugee himself and comes from the community. Almost the same age as me, he is working tirelessly to advocate for the rights of his Bhutani community and spends time outside of community college to help whoever in the community is struggling to adapt to life in the United States. Continue reading