Bhutanese seek to let their children, others learn the beauty of their culture
Bhutanese refugees in the U.S. have been committing suicide at a higher rate than any other refugee group.
This highlights the difficulty this population faces in acclimating to a new world -- and the importance of publicly celebrating their culture among themselves, and their American neighbors, as they will do at a performing arts event in Carrick Oct. 18.
"We wish (to) let our children see and learn the beauty of our culture and seniors (to) feel pride for being able to enjoy their culture in their new home country," says Rup Pokharel, who lives in Carrick and is vice president of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, a new nonprofit. "Also, we like to invite people from (the) neighboring community to join us to make it more meaningful."
Since the early 1990s, approximately 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin (Lhotshampas) have been living in refugee camps in Nepal because of cultural and religious persecution in Bhutan. While the refugees were still living in encampments, rumors swirled that resettling in America and other Western countries meant being forbidden from practicing Eastern cultural customs.
Bhutan is located in the Himalayan Mountains between India and China. The ethnically-Nepali, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, or Lhotsampas ("People of the south"), are a largely Hindu people who moved from Nepal to Bhutan a few centuries ago. They lived peacefully in Bhutan until the mid-1980s when Bhutan's king and the ruling Druk majority feared their population could overrun the majority group and dilute the traditional Buddhist culture of the Druk Bhutanese.
A cultural campaign known as "One country, one people," or "Bhutanization" was initiated in order to forge a Bhutanese national identity. The policies forced the Druk dress code, religious practices, and language on all Bhutanese regardless of heritage. More than 75,000 Bhutanese refugees have come to the U.S. since 2008. About 5,000 live in Pennsylvania.
So each autumn, at the height of their fall religious festivals, the Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin who now live in Pittsburgh, have hosted this cultural event. Several artists will sing and dancers from Pittsburgh and other cities will perform, including one traveling from Kathmandu.
Two major festivals, Dasain and Deepawali, fall in the month of October. These festivals are celebrated by Hindus, and Hindi-speaking people throughout the world, as well as Buddhists.
This year, Deepawali is on Thursday, Oct. 23.
"People sing songs and visits neighbor's houses," Pokharel says. "They usually carry lighted lamps or candles while visiting others' houses. This festival ends with sisters feeding their brothers. Sisters prepare garlands and offer to their brothers along with symbolic seven colored Teeka (paste) on their forehead. The seven colors VIBGYOR (Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red) represent the colors contained in the rays of the sunlight. In return, brothers present gifts to their sisters."
Dasain is a 15-day-long festival of blessing.
"Dasain is celebrated for victory over evil," Pokharel says. "It is believed that during Dasain if we receive blessings from the seniors in the family or relatives all sorts of evil feelings and deeds go away and feelings of love, help and togetherness take the space."
The community could use some love and togetherness. In Carrick, they've faced xenophobia, as existing residents worried for their own ability to compete for jobs. The refugees have also dealt with challenges in finding affordable housing.
Just this year, many were evicted from the Berg Place apartments that housed some of these vulnerable immigrants. The buildings were shuttered after the county Health Department found dozens of code violations. The sudden eviction left the close-knit families of refugees to be forced again from their homes.
Pokharel frequently reports at Carrick-Overbrook Block Watch meetings the refugees are targeted by criminals by phone or in person, and fear reaching out to the police because of their history of state oppression and a language barrier. And, in recent years, the suicide crisis that health officials have noted across the U.S., has hit the Pittsburgh community.
Since 2009, there have been at least 16 suicides among the 49,010 Bhutanese refugees resettled to the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. Community leaders believe that isolation, substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, and resettlement issues may influence suicide attempts. Some refugees may have been tortured prior to fleeing Bhutan.
Men are more likely to report having been tortured than women, but tortured women are more likely to report mental health conditions than tortured men.
Yet, many of the Bhutanese refugees still believe that there is much to celebrate. Pokharel's poetry blog Live and Let Live reminds readers, "Storm and problem do not last long, but, may cause damage."
This year's fall cultural celebration will be held from 5:30 until 9:30 p.m. at Carrick High School. The ticket price of $20 supports the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh (BCAP), which has recently received IRS nonprofit status, as well as paying for auditorium rental and hiring performers. The event does not include food nor drink.
To get tickets in advance, contact Bala Gurung at 412-874-9352 or visit the Gorkhali Store, 2116 Brownsville Road.