Volume 7 - Issue 01
JANUARY - 2009
…the love of Sai comes to the refuge of the Bhutanese refugees
It is a country which is often referred to as one which is “scarcely touched by the modern age.” Progress, in this nation, is not measured by Gross National Product, but by Gross National Happiness. The people of this land take great measures to preserve their old culture, rich traditions, and more importantly, their literally ‘top of the world’ natural environment.
Yes, this tiny landlocked nation is perched right on the roof of the world. Nestled in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is one of those rare countries of this world where people live in great harmony with nature and where the environment is still pristine even today. In fact, the country has been identified as one of the 10 bio-diversity hot-spots in this world. But what is more interesting is the fact that it was rated as the happiest country in Asia by Business Week in 2006.
Yes, the majority of Bhutanese are pleased and proud of their country, and the way their land is governed, even though only in the previous year, in 2008, this nation moved from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy.
But, at the same time, this is not the story of every Bhutanese. At least one-sixth of the population of this mountainous nation lead a precarious existence in refugee camps, all from the ethnic Nepalese group.
A large number of them are actually descendants of Nepali settlers (Nepal is a neighbouring country) who came to work in the southern valleys of Bhutan in the late 19th and early 20th century. They are referred to as Lhotshampas (literally translated as "people from the south"), and in many ways are different from the indigenous population.
They speak Nepali, while Dzongkha is the country’s national language; most Nepalese are Hindus, while Buddhism is the state religion, which is followed by two-thirds of its population. But at the same time, they constitute almost 35% of the population of Bhutan and for generations had a ‘perfect life’ in this peaceful kingdom working as farmers.
In fact, the government encouraged the integration of this significant group into mainstream Bhutanese society in many ways, from teaching in Nepali in the schools of the southern Bhutan, to inter-ethnic group marriages.
But after 1980, the attitude of the Bhutan rulers changed for various reasons and the government started a series of “ethno-nationalist” policies in the 1990s. Since then hundreds of thousands of Nepalese-Bhutanese have become stateless and have been living in seven refugee camps in South-eastern Nepal.
The United Nations Commission for Refugees stepped in to help these homeless people and began discussions with the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments to provide the exiled people a home in either country, but met with little success. However, in 2006, the US government generously offered to resettle more than 60,000 of these refugees over the next five years.
Many other countries too joined in this noble endeavour, one of them being the island country of New Zealand. And so, in March 2008, 17 families, after 17 years of miserable existence in refugee camps, moved to the USA and New Zealand. And that is where our full story begins….
Project SAIRAM Launched
The Sai devotees in New Zealand saw this as a great opportunity to reach out and share their love with these newcomers to their land. Therefore, when the first group arrived in March 2008 from Nepal, they immediately called a meeting of all the forty refugees and launched a programme they called SAIRAM (Service Action Initiatives for Refugees, Asylum-seekers & Migrants). What started as an enthusiastic initiative of two Sai devotees has today snowballed into an elaborate project involving all the Sai centres in the Auckland region of New Zealand.
“We have had 129 Bhutanese comprising of 26 families and spread over four groups arrive since the first meeting in March 2008. The sheer love and joy that has resulted in this new relationship is undoubtedly the Divine Grace of Bhagavan Baba,” says Mr. Ravi Rudra, one of the main coordinators of this initiative. He adds, “None of our planning, vision, or organisation can explain the wonderful manner in which this programme has unfolded. Actually, we did not have any great strategies, except a preparedness to respond to an opportunity and follow our hearts.”
The Sai devotees truly followed their hearts to the full. They maintained close communication with the Immigration Officials at the Refugee Hostel, and within 48 hours (to allow time for recovery from jet lag and formal interviews by local authorities) they met all the new arrivals, and assured them that the Sai Family will be their family, and the Sai devotees are their brothers and sisters who are available to assist them in any way during their stay at the Hostel.
Most of the Bhutanese, after landing in a completely foreign land, were not only terribly homesick, and but also had come ill-prepared for the colder weather of New Zealand, especially during the winter months. What was more difficult to literally digest for them was the alien food offered at the Refugee Hostel. In fact, many did not eat the food served even on their flight to New Zealand; it was so different from what they had been eating for decades. All these elements of culture shock contributed to their initial feeling of awkwardness and unhappiness.
The Sai devotees were determined to make them feel good, and so, arranged for them a variety of programmes. They started with distributing warm clothing and offering them Indian and Nepali cuisine and went on to conduct long weekend sessions which consisted of devotional singing, Nepali dancing, temple visits, fun games and sports, music and inspiring movie shows, to get-togethers on the beach.
“I can never forget the picnic we had on the sands with a group of 40 or so,” says Mr. Mike Naiker of Auckland. “One older lady of 65 years saw the ocean for the first time in her life; the youth who were crossing the bridge found it such a novel experience that they were spellbound.
"There are many things that we take for granted here in New Zealand, but seeing through their eyes we realised how such tiny acts of kindness made a remarkable difference in their attitude. Their outlook of life, in spite of their problems, was a great lesson to the rest of us who are leading a reasonably comfortable life.”
Eager to make these much-suffering families feel at home in the new land, some Sai families opened their homes wholeheartedly to entertain the Bhutanese, not just for individual families but for the entire group. Narrating this joyful experience, one family in Auckland says,
“We believe that Swami had given us this opportunity to be part of this wonderful sharing experience; it is such an enriching and uplifting feeling. In spite of formidable life challenges, both in Nepal and Bhutan, and all their suffering, they do not bear any grudges or feel sorry for themselves. Instead, their faces glowed with happiness for not what they had lost or left behind, but what they have gained.
"Their family spirit is strong and each one is totally supportive of each other. This was wonderful to observe, and for all of us, it was a learning experience of love and compassion.”
The open-arms welcome of Sai devotees not only gave the refugees the much needed emotional and physical support, but also instilled in them courage and self-confidence. What also helped this process was the fact that many of the Sai centre group members were themselves migrants to New Zealand. When they shared their own stories and offered practical suggestions, the ‘New’ New Zealanders seemed convinced and secure.
Krishna Samy, a Sai devotee involved in this project, says, “To me, it was an eye-opener to know how hard the lives of these Bhutanese had been as refugees, not for a few days or months, but for years together.”
Life, for these Bhutanese, truly had been a struggle for at least 17 years. For instance, when a family of nine was asked how many rooms they had in their hut back in Nepal, they replied with a smile, “Only one! We just have make-shift partitions - curtains suspended with string for living and domestic areas.”
Another 22 year old teenager said that she went to university only to sit in the exams as she had to work to pay for her studies. She prepared for her exams by borrowing the notes of her friends. The families received only a small allowance of food on a weekly basis with a ration of one litre of kerosene a month, which they used only to provide light for studies.
“Given what they have undergone for so many years, they valued every aspect of any help we offered them and they accepted it with sincere gratitude,” continues Krishna Samy. “Swami always asks us to ‘understand and adjust’, and that is what we did. For me, personally, whatever time I have spent with them in different groups has given me joy and self-satisfaction as I realised just how many needs these people have!”
One of the refugees, Tara Ghimirey, overwhelmed with the love showered on her, says, “People here are so polite, generous, helpful, cooperative and patient… there is no discrimination of any kind, be it colour, culture, religion, etc.”
Music and Sai: That’s the Bond They Share
While the refugees were moved by the love of the Sai New Zealanders, the devotees too were fascinated by their new companions’ multi-faceted abilities and talents. Mr. David Wilson, a Sai devotee from Auckland who participated in this programme, says,
“What impressed me the most was their faith and trust in us which was very strong. Besides, the young men had beautiful voices, and some could play the guitar very well. I loved mingling with them and felt so much harmony singing songs and bhajans together with them.
“In fact, I had a spare guitar and was happy to give it to the young Bhutanese brothers so that they have an instrument to keep them singing once they are resettled in proper homes further down the country.
“The other day, I remember, a new group of Bhutanese arrived. I had actually not met any of them, but one evening I was walking my dog near the top of Mt. Eden - a well known Auckland city landmark and tourist site - when I noticed a group of people who looked very different culturally.
“One of the gentlemen from that group asked me a question about our local trees; he seemed educated, and I guessed he must have been a teacher. After listening to him and observing his features, I was convinced he was a Bhutanese. I asked him if he was from Bhutan and he was extremely surprised that I had guessed his country. Then, I folded my palms and said “Sai Ram”, and a big smile came over his face. Soon, we were talking like friends.
I welcomed them to our country and some of them even gave me a hug as if I was their brother. They were so happy to have been recognized so quickly by a complete stranger in a new and foreign land. The name ‘Sai Ram’ united us. We are just one big family.”
It is with this feeling of oneness that the Sai Volunteers went ahead to make the lives of their new brothers and sisters as comfortable as possible. As starters, they provided every family a “Starter Pack”, based on each family’s specific needs (depending on the age, gender and size of each family member). These suitcases contained:
In addition to these packs, there were other gifts like school bags, shoes, saris, and guitars too. All these were packed neatly by the Sai devotees and offered to them lovingly. Recalling that experience, Ms. Yogi Moodley, says, “The feeling of love, warmth and fellowship amongst our ladies group when we were packing the starter packs, sorting through the clothes or helping to serve them meals is something I will cherish forever. I feel so privileged to have participated in this wonderful service initiative.”
Thanks to the love of the devotees and their survival skills coupled with family values, within a few days the Bhutanese earned the affection of not only the Refugee Hostel Staff, but also of other fellow refugees belonging to other ethnicities. Together they sang and danced; a beautiful feeling of unity pervaded the Hostel.
Now, this was true not only of the Bhutanese, but also of members of the Sai Centres. This service activity provided a beautiful reason to bring so many devotees together continuously, who would otherwise meet only once in a while.
Even smaller Centres and Sai groups in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch, rose to the occasion and took a far greater and active role so that entire Sai families could be involved in this project. The sheer happiness and flow of love was simply touching.
After the initial six weeks in the Refugee Hostel in Auckland, the Bhutanese were scheduled to be taken to Christchurch and Palmerston North by the New Zealand government. Therefore, the devotees organized a farewell function on the last Sunday of their stay in Auckland, and that occasion was an emotional one for everyone who was present. Tears began to flow from the eyes of the newcomers – they had to say goodbye twice in just a few weeks, first in Nepal and now in Auckland.
At the same time, they were happy too, for they had now found a country which loves them and which they can call now as their own. In fact, there was one young woman, who was very upset when she initially arrived in New Zealand. She had expected to see her eldest sister along with her children, whom she had cared for a lot in Nepal.
She imagined them to be in New Zealand, but they had actually migrated to the USA. This was the cause for her deep sorrow for many days, but she too soon came out of it. During the last few days in Auckland, when everyone saw her smiling and carrying around small children of other ethnicities in the Refugee Hostel, they could not contain their joy. Their stay in Auckland had truly converted the Bhutanese refugees into new and happy New Zealanders.
Resettlement in Their New Homes
The second and final stage in the resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees, after the initial orientation stay in the Refugee Hostel in Auckland, was moving to their new homes.
The New Zealand government greatly assisted these families by providing them residences in Christchurch, in South Island, and Palmerston North, a smaller town in the North Island. The government made available these houses despite the scarcity of accommodation in the housing market, and having to cater to large family numbers, as much as 9 in some cases.
The Sai devotees stepped in again to help. This time, many kind New Zealanders from the community too came forward to serve as volunteers and take care of every need of the new citizens. The devotees and volunteers quickly furnished their new homes with beds, sofas, dining table and chairs, curtains, pillows, TV, DVD, kitchen utensils, and so on. The churches too provided assistance in many ways.
Actually, after the Bhutanese arrived in these towns, the volunteers picked them up from the airports and drove them straight to their fully furnished houses. The Bhutanese were now completely overwhelmed! Having undergone decades of ostracism from society, they had never expected so much love in their wildest of dreams. They could not believe that they were amidst such comforts, when just six weeks ago they were living in penury and sleeping in temporary huts in Nepal.
But the devotees did not stop with this. They continued to assist them by taking them to the shopping markets, hosting them in their homes for meals, showing them the bus routes, and so on. In all these activities, Sai volunteers were also helped by the Bhutanese people who had settled down earlier and were now guiding the new comers with great enthusiasm.
“Till now we have assisted with the resettlement of 33 Bhutanese refugees from 8 families in Christchurch,” says Mr. Micheal Spurr, the Chairman of the Christchurch Sai Centre. “We have distributed clothes and many household necessities through the official channels (Refugee Services) as well as personally. In fact, seven families have been regularly picked up by Christchurch Sai devotees for Bhajans on Thursdays, and about eight families of devotees (maybe 20 or 30 people) from the Christchurch centre have been involved in helping in one way or other.
Four individual members of the Christchurch Sai Youth group have interestingly signed up as official volunteers with Refugee Services, and are busy regularly helping the refugee families. For me, this small service project has been an extremely rewarding experience and I have thoroughly enjoyed being able to assist them in whatever way possible.”
One of the Bhutanese-turned-New Zealander, Mr. Padam Lal Bastola, from Palmerston North says, “This country, New Zealand, is such a good place to be. I find the people here always very helpful and courageous. They love to extend their hand and help others in every situation.”
Educated, Employed and Empowered
Happy to be in New Zealand, the Bhutanese are now building their lives. The majority of the adults now attend English and Computer Skills classes, while the children attend good schools. Kriti Das, one of the New Zealand Sai Youth, who has been helping these kids, says, “I have been part of the tutoring classes for the Bhutanese children this year and I have really enjoyed my time. These children are beautiful and smart.
"They are great with English and other subjects at school considering that it is their second or sometimes third language. I have benefited by talking to them and learning about their culture, background, challenges and values. Another beautiful gain for the children as well as for us, the helpers, is the gift of friendship. I would love to be part of this service project as long as I can”.
While the children get special coaching, many families have been given computers and internet connection for a year by a special government grant to help them learn new skills faster. For many young women, nursing is the chosen area of profession and they have begun to take the relevant courses. For New Zealand, this is a great plus as the country needs to fill a lot of vacancies in their healthcare system at the earliest. These maybe the general professions taken up by the new citizens, but they are also a few others who plan to study accountancy, aviation and similar other professional courses. Undoubtedly, a new and bright chapter of their lives has just begun.
A very happy Ms. Anu Koirala from Palmerston North, says, “I have been in New Zealand for six months and have found it peaceful; the people here are so friendly. I only expect that the future of all refugees is same as all of us here.”
Recently the Bhutanese community took part in community events and celebrated many festivals like Dasara and Deepavali along with others. Their talent for singing and dancing is something which is looked forward to by everyone around; they spread joy very easily. And they are always grateful to the members of the Sai family. Karna Bahadur, from Palmerston North, says, “They call this country New Zealand, but I call it ‘New Silent’ as it so peaceful. We have progressed a lot by walking in the direction shown by the Sai Family”.
Tell this to any Sai volunteer, and he or she will say, “This is not only ‘New Silent’ but also New ‘Sailand’.” In fact, that is how Bhagavan Baba referred to this country on one occasion. And as years roll by we see the love of Sai manifesting in so many silent but eloquent ways. The Bhutanese story is only one instance, and an example enough to show the depth of Sai love that is embedded in the hearts of the devotees of this land located miles way from Prasanthi Nilayam and the way it expresses itself in manifold ways in the manner advocated by Bhagavan Baba.
We are grateful to Mr. Ravi Rudra for sharing with us this story and the visuals.
~ Heart2Heart Team
Vol 7 Issue 01 - JANUARY 2009
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