Sangh Parivar and the Bhutanese Refugees: Constructing a Hindu Diaspora in the US By
I happened to meet Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin for the first time at a Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) camp in Tampa, Florida in December 2008. These refugees travelled to the US via Nepal, having left Bhutan and entered Nepal in the 1990s. The refugee crisis was prompted by Government-sponsored discrimination against Nepali speakers in Bhutan (Banki 2008). In the late 1990s the first batch of refugees (called Lhotshampai) began to move out of Bhutan, and entered Nepal. The Bhutan, however, refused to recognize these Lhotshampas as refugees from Bhutan and Nepal refused to acknowledge them as Nepali citizens. By 2008, some 130,000 Bhutanese people of Nepali origin had been forced to live in exile for more than 17 years (Hutt 2006; Banki 2008). In Nepal, around 105,000 of these refugees lived in refugee camps organised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Morang and the Jhapa districts of south-eastern Nepal and the rest lived in different parts of Nepal and India (Hutt 2006; HRW 2007; Banki 2008; and UNHCR 2010). After years of failed negotiations between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, in 2006, at the request of UNHCR, the United States declared its willingness to accommodate 60,000 of these refugees (UNHCR 2009). Countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands promised to accommodate the rest of 45,000 Lhotshampa refugees from the UNHCR refugee camps (UNHCR 2009). The idea of third country settlement initially met with some stiff resistance; amongst its strongest opponents were those organisations that were supporting the cause of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. In addition, radical elements inside the camps that were sympathetic to or supported the Maoist movement in Nepal threatened physical violence to anyone who favoured resettling in the US. Many refugees themselves also had apprehensions about third country settlement. One refugee explains how his family finally decided to immigrate: Those at the refugee centre said that a good opportunity has come along on the way and now you can go to the US. ‘They said think for yourself… what you all have brought from Bhutan, what have you acquired in Nepal and what all you can achieve in the US.’ At first we only talked about it behind the closed doors and would try to convince our parents that after seventeen years there is no going back to Bhutan and the US seems to be a good place to go.
Life in the US is not without its share of problems. As most refugees are from rural areas, settlement within urban centres of the US is a challenge. Some of the recurring problems experienced by refugees included problems of suitable employment and associated low levels of pay; commuting to work; neighbourhood security; accessing educational opportunities and 1
affordable health care. The bulk of social support to deal with these issues comes from faithbased organisations involved in the resettlement effort. The majority of these organisations are associated with different Christian denominationsii; in response Sangh Parivariii has actively involved itself with settlement efforts of the Bhutanese refugees in the US. Religion at the service of the Refugees Since 2001, the Bush administration supported federal faith-based initiatives, as part of refugee resettlement programs in the US. Even before 2001, eight of the ten major resettlement agencies in the United States were run by faith-based organisations (Gozdziak 2002). One of my interlocutors, Mr. K, who is a non Hindu, non South-Asian individual, social worker associated with refugee resettlement efforts in the Atlanta area,...