June 25, 2010

Pabitra Rizal's gifts

On the ferociously hot and muggy recent Sunday afternoon, a hug fest launched Pabitra's and my reunion. We had recently returned to our lives in Atlanta; Pabitra from visiting her "mum" in a refugee camp, in Nepal, and I, from my life in Israel. Our exchange included an Israeli-made Bhutanese flag, the gift of Israeli flag store owner Yehudit Liman, who instructed me, Please deliver these Bhutanese flags to your friends in Atlanta, the Bhutanese refugees about whom you speak so fondly.

And, when uber-volunteer Craig (whose initiative, care, and nurturing of the self-sustaining Bhutan Baskets enterprise) dropped by to welcome back the one whom I call the Mayor of the Atlanta Bhutanese Community, the conversation took deep dives. Pabitra, a Bhutanese-born visionary, leader, activist, advocate, and go-to person answered our questions.
  • How did you feel returning to the camp you had left five years ago and continued to call home?
  • Why were you initially afraid to return there?
  • What do people in the camps know about life in the U.S.A.?
  • How much did you pay for dental work in Khathmandu when you visited the capital city? 
  • What did it cost to treat your ingrown toenail, and what were the doctor's credentials?
The back story
In 1991, Bhutan expelled Pabitra, her family, and roughly 100,000 native-born fellow ethnic Nepalis after countless people endured imprisonment, separation, torture, murder, and rape. For decades since, these exiled, stateless people have been living in seven U.N.-run refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. In 2005, Pabitra left her camp to attend a conference in the U.S.A., where she sought political asylum. She had not seen her mother until last month.

In 2008, the chance to seek resettlement in a third country (the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, and the Netherlands) under the United Nations Third-Country Resettlement Program for Refugees reversed the fortunes of more than 60,000 Bhutanese refugees.

Today, Pabitra and a community of 6,000 Bhutanese refugees live in Atlanta (more members are steadily joining them here and the others nationwide). Craig, I, and other Atlanta Bhutanese Refugee Support Group volunteers are helping our new neighbors to resettle and rebuild their lives. And our dear friend who laughs easily and often, and relishes her mother's Nepalese cooking is a key cultural interpreter and go-to person in helping us and her community to navigate the challenges.

Craig's (abridged) list of Pabitra's gifts
Pabitra is a shining light. You know she is in a room because people listen. She carries regally the weight and future of her community, and she is busy, productive, and planning her next move and next month’s move.

Pabitra knows what family really means. She traveled around the world returning to a refugee camp to see her brother and mother. The last leg of her journey she completed on foot and carried only a small satchel of clothes (having left her passport and documents in Kathmandu with friends). If people living in the camp had known she came from the U.S.A. or advocated resettlement, she would have been at risk.

Pabitra is thankful that she has been given a great gift of freedom in the U.S.A. She remains positive and understands that she is responsible for managing her life and helping others to navigate their way. Tired and tireless today, twenty years from now she will be the same focused, driven person with big dreams and major accomplishments.

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Cross-posted at Bhutan > Atlanta

    June 23, 2010

    Israeli-made Bhutanese flags for Bhutanese refugees

    Please deliver these flags to your friends in Atlanta, the Bhutanese refugees about whom you speak so fondly. May they be respected, supported, and encouraged as they move forward in their lives, going from strength to strength.
    — Yehudit Weizman-Liman

    The day I left Israel to return to Atlanta last month, I stopped by the Weizman-Liman Flag Store in Tel Aviv (at the corner of Allenby and Brenner Streets). My twofold mission — to exchange goodbye hugs with my proprietor-friends, Yehudit and Yisrael Liman, and to pick up their gifts for the Bhutanese refugee community in Atlanta.

    In October 1938, just months after the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, Nachman Weizman left his native Vienna with his wife and two small children (Yehudit was less than two years old) for Mandatory Palestine. There, he borrowed a sewing machine, bought white fabric, sewed a doctor's coat, and presented it as a work sample to Hadassah Hospital, then on Balfour Street. From the hospital's first work order, Weizman's business grew to include uniforms for the British Navy, raincoats for utility workers, winter coats for postal workers, and more. On May 14, 1948, in a public ceremony in Tel-Aviv when David Ben-Gurion read the Israeli Declaration of Independence declaring the establishment of the State of Israel flanking him were two vertical Israeli flags, hanging from ceiling to floor that Nachman Weizman had prepared. After his death, Yehudit headed up the business that had already shifted focus from uniforms to flags of all nations in all sizes and for all occasions. 

    In the front office, Yehudit engages with customers
    by phone, in person, and via email and fax

    Pausing in her work to greet me with her usual warm smile, kiss, and hug, Yehudit stepped into the adjoining workshop where Carmela was sewing flags from bolts of fabric measured and cut.

    There, Yehudit wrapped the five Bhutanese flags she had prepared for me to deliver to five Atlanta Bhutanese families. Later, among the lucky ones, the Sharmas and Ghimireys, posed with their gifts. (Pabitra Rizal posed with her gift flag and shared her refugee journey here.)

    Holding their new flag, Rhea and Rewaj Sharma —
    born in a refugee camp in Nepal to Bhutanese refugees

    American-born Ryan watches Tulasi Ghimirey, his dad, who
    changed into Bhutanese garb to honor his homeland flag

    Yehudit has invited me twice before to be her emissary — donating Israeli flags to honor elders, country, and faith, and gifting my friend Josh Gomes when he was scoring basketball points for Israel. Her deep faith and ethical values drive these deeds of loving kindness.

    Refugees, neighbors, volunteers, friends, and flags connect us to our histories, homelands, memories, and cultures. And, to each other.

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