Photos

Bhutanese Refugees in Atlanta

15 Sep ’10

Bhutan. A small country, primarily known for its concept of Gross National Happiness, situated to the east of Nepal between India and Tibet. It’s a lovely country, but like any other nation, it has a not-so-lovely history. In the mid-1980s, Central and Northern Bhutanese, comprised largely of two ethnic groups in the hopes of forming a homogeneous society, began making life increasingly more difficult for the Southern Bhutanese or Lhotshampa people, many of whom had ethnic ties to Nepal. Lhotshampas spoke Nepali, dressed Nepali, and were Hindu. The Northern Bhutanese speak Dzongkha and practice Buddhism.

A census was conducted to determine whether the Lhotshampas were in Bhutan legally. Identity cards were issued. Laws were passed requiring all Bhutanese citizens to assume the cultural dress of the Northern Bhutanese. Lhotshampas were fined or jailed for dressing in Nepali clothing. The Nepali language was not allowed to be taught in schools. Many Lhotshampas were arrested, and after being released from jail, found their homes destroyed. By the late 1990s, around 80,000 Bhutanese refugees were living in refugee camps in Nepal. Northern Bhutanese have moved to the south and taken over the homes and land of the Lhotshampas. They have no home to return to.

So, many of the Bhutanese refugees are being resettled here. Right here in Atlanta, in fact! And I am lucky enough to know some of them. The IRC has a “Family Mentor” program that I volunteered with and they paired me with my family. Initially, it was 7 people. Devi is the mom, Tech Nath is the husband. They have two sons, Rajesh and Roses, ages 11 and 5. Tech Nath’s parents live with them, Tuka Maya the grandma and Shree Lal, the grandpa. And the grandparents raise Tech Nath’s niece, Malati. That was the original family. But they live in an apartment complex where members of their extended family also live, so I’ve met Tech Nath’s sister Lacchi, and her husband and two young children. And Beda and his wife Camala, and their adorable baby girl Bimala and Beda’s mom whose name I can’t remember. Beda is a cousin, I think.

Anyhow, there’s a large, loving Bhutanese family and they have welcomed me – and MY family – into the mix! Mark and I were invited to join them for a special puja on Sunday where the wives pray for their husbands. They put a red dot in my hairline and gave me a red beaded necklace to signify that I am married. They dressed me up in a gorgeous sari that Devi had brought over from Nepal, and first we visited the amazing Hindu temple in Lilburn (http://atlanta.baps.org/), where they made an offering to Ganesh and we had a mammoth photo session, and then we went to their community center for the puja and to hear a guru who had flown in from Nepal give a teaching.

And we ate roti and drank chai and it was a fantastic day.

I was impressed by how large the Bhutanese community is, and also how welcoming. So many people said hello to me, complimented my sari, offered me food and drinks. No one acted as if I was an intruder or an imposter, imposing my White Woman-ness on their holy day. They just pulled me in to the circle of praying women, pushed my hands together, and smiled. No, I’m not Hindu. No, I don’t speak Nepali – at least not well enough to know what was being said in the prayers – but I was still invited into the circle of the women and made to feel welcome. I was called “Didi” (Auntie) by all of the children. I was asked again and again to join people in pictures.

It’s a pretty special thing to be invited into a family, a culture, a community and to be treated so warmly and so well.

For those of you who have helped out so generously by donating items my family needed, thank you. They send their thanks, as well. I am happy to report that Devi has a job now, so both she and her husband are working, which definitely helps their financial situation. They are still on a very tight budget, but they are becoming self-sufficient. Tech Nath recently passed the test for his driver’s license, so the family is trying to save up for a car. All of the kids are doing GREAT in school, and Devi was recognized at her job for outstanding performance. (Lacchi is looking for part-time work now, so if anyone has job leads, please let me know! She speaks English fluently and has also learned some Spanish. She is looking for a morning shift, since she needs to be home with her kids in the afternoon. She needs more help in computer skills, but would do fine in retail or hospitality.)

Bhutanese. Refugees. Atlanta. Nepali. Nepal. Bhutan. Photos. Photography. Hindi. Festival. LeahAndMark.com

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5 Comments

  • Reply debra 15 Sep ’10 at 10:02 am

    This blog is full of win! Yay for giving to communities and making new friends!

  • Reply Deepak Jois 15 Sep ’10 at 11:56 pm

    Loved this post! Btw “Didi” is used to refer to an older sister.

  • Reply Atlanta. Chattahoochee. River. Trash. The. Dress. Photo. Shoot. Locations. Wedding. Photographer. | LeahAndMark.com 20 Sep ’10 at 8:11 am

    […] I’m not saying we always succeed. I’m saying that we always aim for deliverable photos. I’m saying that we always aim for epic shots. Whether it’s a wedding, a Steampunk fashion show, or Bhutanese refugees. […]

  • Reply Sammy 22 Sep ’10 at 8:52 pm

    I am a Bhutanese visiting Atlanta during Dasai time.
    I would love to meet some Bhutanese and also attend any programs during Dasai. My email is gcp2000 at yahoo dot com

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    […] up on finding out how to shoot the event. Whether you’re in a black box, hanging out with Bhutanese refugees, or photographing a bride and groom in middle of the day. Sure experience helps – but until […]

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