Lynn might seem like an unlikely place for Hindu immigrants to settle. There are no South Asian grocery stores, Indian restaurants, or Hindu temples, and the Asian community is made up largely of people from Cambodia and Vietnam.
But it is here that refugees from the Kingdom of Bhutan, at the eastern end of the Himalaya Mountains and surrounded by India and Tibet, have been settling since late last year. The city is now home to approximately 35 Bhutanese families, who are the most recent refugee group to arrive in Lynn, according to Natasha Soolkin, manager of the city’s New American Center and the regional director of the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts, which is helping the newcomers.
On a recent Friday afternoon on the third floor of an apartment building, a group of elderly Bhutanese sat on flowery couches watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in English, a language none of them understand. Socks were drying on a rack near the window. Colorful pictures of Hindu deities were taped to the otherwise bare white walls, and a bicycle was parked in the kitchen. Every room seemed to have a bed in it. Communication was difficult: All those who speak English were at work.
At a nearby apartment, Rabi Dhungana, 23 – the only one in his family who speaks English – was home recovering from surgery. He moved to America with his parents and two younger sisters by way of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and then New York in early February. Their sunny, three-bedroom apartment is a welcome change for them, he said, because their entire bamboo dwelling at the United Nations camp in Nepal was about the size of their current living room.
According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, 4,833 Bhutanese moved to the United States in 2008 from the refugee camps in Nepal.
These refugees are among more than 100,000 people who left in the early 1990s after the Bhutanese government passed laws making it difficult for people of Nepali Hindu ancestry to retain their culture in the predominantly Buddhist country.
With about 100,000 refugees still living in seven camps in Nepal, some 60,000 are expected to arrive in the United States by 2012, according to the United Nations.
Jennifer Kritz, spokeswoman for the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants, said that 191 people from Bhutan have already arrived in Massachusetts.
The refugees receive financial assistance from the federal government for up to eight months.
In Lynn, the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts and the New American Center provide English as a Second Language classes and employment services. The newcomers also are getting assistance from charitable organizations such as Catholic Charities of Boston, Lutheran Social Services of New England, and Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, along with the International Rescue Committee, and the International Institute of Boston.
These charities get federal money to rent apartments for the refugees and purchase items such as furniture before their arrival.
Lutheran Social Services, for instance, provides assistance for 90 days, driving refugees to doctors’ appointments, showing them around the community, and negotiating with their landlord, according to Jozefina Lantz, director of services to new Americans. In time, the refugees also will be aided with the citizenship exam.
When he was 6 years old, Dhungana said, his parents walked for a month from southern Bhutan, where they were farmers, to the refugee camps in Nepal.
They fled after they were forbidden to speak the Nepali language and wear their native clothes, he said. The family stayed in the camps for 17 years.
Their hut in the camp had a small plastic-covered toilet, but no running water. They had to haul water from the river in buckets, but it was never enough, Dhungana said.
Each person received 400 grams of rice for two weeks and rations of sugar, lentils, and powdered milk. Vegetables were provided once a month.
Less than two months after arriving in the United States, Dhungana said he felt a pain in his stomach.
On a recent afternoon, he lifted up his shirt to show a visitor the bandage over a small incision near his navel, medical documents from Massachusetts General Hospital, and two bottles of prescription medicine. He had surgery to remove his appendix and now he must stay home for a month to give his body time to heal.
Still, he said he is happy this happened to him in America, rather than at the refugee camp.
“It is better here,” he said.
When Dhungana and his family left the camp, they had the clothes on their backs, the sandals on their feet, and one carry-on bag. Among the things they took were a small bronze sculpture of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati, and baby Ganesh (the Hindu deity with the elephant head). They also took sacred thread, and two small, black rocks from a river in Nepal. All these religious objects are now kept together in a corner of his parents’ bedroom.
Before he had the surgery, Dhungana used to go grocery shopping with his father.
They carried the food home on foot from about 15 minutes away, since they have no car. Now, his younger sister carries the bags. Still, on a recent afternoon, the family offered a visitor a cup of spiced, sweet coffee with milk, a large glass of mango juice, and a bowl of homemade soup with noodles, tomatoes, and onions. When the visitor got up to leave, they gave her an apple.