The Sri Lakshmi Hindu temple in Ashland welcomed a group of new devotees last weekend as they celebrated the Indian festival of “Holi,” with its tradition of smearing colored powders on faces and clothes.
The refugees from Bhutan, a kingdom tucked between India and Nepal, arrived Saturday at the white building with elephants carved in the walls, and marked the approach of spring amid the joyful screams of children, the smell of a ceremonial fire, and the blasting of Bollywood music.
“This is their temple, that’s what I told them,” said president Kumar Nochur. “They’re new to this country, but we have the temple ready for them.”
The newcomers, who began arriving in the area last year, are being resettled in the state by a number of Christian nonprofit organizations, including Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, but they are mostly Hindus and their language, Nepali, is similar to Hindi. So when local Indian community groups got word they were coming, they reached out to their Hindu brothers and sisters.
Last Saturday, local members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America organization rented a school bus to transport about 60 of the newcomers from Lynn to the Ashland temple. For many, it was their first time in a temple since arriving in America.
“On special occasions, we’ll rent the bus again to bring them here,” Nochur said.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 4,833 Bhutanese refugees moved to the United States last year from Nepal, where they had been living in refugee camps, some for many years. With more than 100,000 refugees still in Nepal, roughly 60,000 are expected to arrive in the United States by 2012, and some are being resettled in Massachusetts and in nearby New Hampshire communities. There are about 70 Bhutanese families in Lynn and Worcester, and more people are arriving every month, according to members of the local Indian-American community.
The refugees left Bhutan after the government passed laws making it difficult for people of Nepalese ancestry to become citizens and retain their Nepalese culture. Many who left lived in the southern part of Bhutan.
“I’m glad to be here,” said Ganesh Monger, 22, one of the few refugees who could speak English. “I like throwing colors at other people.”
Monger said he was born in Bhutan but stayed in a refugee camp for 17 years. Life in the UN camp – where he lived in a small bamboo hut – was good, he said, because people didn’t have to pay for anything and school was free. After coming to the United States, Monger found a job at a restaurant in the airport, but his mother and father are still unemployed, he said.
Last Saturday, he wore his hat and coat indoors, but like several other Bhutanese refugees, went outside barefoot.
“It’s crazy!” he said about the weather. “It’s too cold.”
The local Indian community organized clothes and appliance drives and has made an effort to provide each family with a computer for children’s homework assignments.
“Some we refurbished and gave to them. Some used laptops we bought,” said Abhaya Asthana, general secretary of the local VHP-America. Some people were able to get used computers from their offices to donate, she said.
The community has also been assisting the refugees with drivers’ education classes, buying cars, and finding employment. Raghav Narayan, a coordinator for the Bhutanese Refugee Empowerment project with an organization called Sewa International, said Indian-American volunteers raised funds to send at least one person from each family to driving school and pooled money to buy used cars for them.
The volunteers also found gas station jobs for “a few guys” in Quincy and taught refugees to use Google, prepare resumes, and how to quit a job properly by giving advance notice. This is important, Narayan said, because if one person from Bhutan makes a bad impression, employers won’t want to hire any more people from the country.
Still, the first request that came from the refugees themselves was their desire to go to temple.
“They started asking, `Is there a Hindu temple in this country?’ ” Narayan said. “We realized they are also very religious, spiritual people.”
On Saturday, while the majority of Hindus at the Sri Lakshmi temple covered each other in bright purple, green, yellow and red powders, some were passing out brochures about the Bhutanese Resettlement Project, which explained to community members how to donate money and goods to help the refugees. The temple itself already provided employment for four Bhutanese immigrants in maintenance and cleaning jobs, and temple officials said they hope the refugees will become regular visitors to the religious center.
Gautam Desai, president of Sewa International USA, said he has heard stories about the religious charities pressuring the refugees to convert to Christianity.
“Many chapters offer every week transportation to church. In many places refugees are required to visit their office which might be in a church,” Desai said. “That’s why we have to make an effort to bring them to temple.”
No instances of proselytizing have been reported in Massachusetts, although Jozefina Lantz, director of Services for New Americans at the Worcester-based Lutheran Social Services, said that the group’s Roxbury office is located in the basement of a church.
At Sri Lakshmi, no one complained about religious pressure from Christian groups. People were too busy clapping, jamming to the music, and being merry.
As time went on, the red, yellow and purple colorings made it harder to tell the newcomers from their hosts.
After the fun of throwing color finished, everyone sat together on the lawn near the temple and shared a mid-afternoon vegetarian meal and tried to stay warm under the early spring sunshine.