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Doing Democracy American Spring for Bhutanese Oregonians

From: OregonLive.com (The Oregonian website):

Bhutanese Portlanders practiced democracy in a big way, all day Saturday, May 11. Nearly every community member eligible to vote, according to event organizers, came with their families to David Douglas High’s cavernous cafeteria. Many of those in attendance resettled less than three years ago in far eastside neighborhoods served by the school, the rest have been in the U.S. for less than six. But all dressed in their best — devout Hindu elders, proud working parents, and smartly suburbanizing kids — for their first experience in community self-determination and elected leadership.

The all-day event was a well-engineered blend of traditional and contemporary music, dance, and fragrant cuisine. It was at once, a brightly festive and earnestly focused setting for democracy in its purest form: electing local volunteer leaders — no big campaign funders, no high-stakes patronage, only great expectations from a wounded refugee enclave experimenting in American ideals.

"First of all, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the trust and confidence that has been placed on me as the first elected president of Bhutanese community in Oregon," said Chhabi Koirala, Oregon’s Bhutanese community’s newly elected president.

"I would like to thank our communities, Bhutanese election commissioners, David Douglas High School, and all other agencies and volunteers for their commitment and contributions in the establishment of the Bhutanese Community Organization."

According to Som Nath Subedi, spokesman for the seven-member Bhutanese Elections Commission of Oregon, the Saturday gathering culminated six months of careful community education on representative governance.

"Our elections commissioners gave more than 500 volunteer hours and drove more than 500 miles, visiting our families’ apartments after work and on weekends, often hungry and in the rain, sometimes coming upon uncooperative persons who did not welcome materials about the election," Mr. Subedi said over the cafeteria’s din.

"They are the real heroes," he nodded toward the commissioners seated behind the school’s long tables, checking first-time voter identification documents at the bottle-necked end of a line along the cafeteria’s south and west walls. "They are the neutralists among Bhutanese Oregonians. Under the rules we adopted for this election, they can’t take votes as candidates or cast votes for candidates. They’re doing this because they felt this was needed to lift our community into the next level of local democracy."

Members of the elections commission are Kul Subba, Yadu Pokhrel, Ganga Magar, Krishna Tiwari, Ram Adhikari, Lokey Ghimire, and Mr. Subedi.

The May 11 ballots cast and carefully counted for community association president, vice president, and five advisory board members were the first western-style election votes ever, anywhere, for these Bhutanese families.

Elected officers, in addition to Mr. Koirala, are: Hem Ghimire as vice president; Deepak Koirala, Dhan Bir Gurung, Nanda Ghising, Shiva Nepal and Mani Gajmere as community association board of directors.

"We certainly have come together as a team, both in addressing issues as well as identifying areas of immediate significance. I am confident that our organization will continue to grow, both in scale and influence," said Mr. Koirala, proud of Oregon’s Bhutanese democratic processes and anticipating the complexities of community-building in their new homeland.

"The organization is formed to achieve self-sufficiency and full integration into mainstream society by providing informative and accessible community services to all Bhutanese families and individuals resettled, and in the process of resettling, in Oregon."

Post-heavenly kingdom

Much of American awareness of Bhutan is limited to enthusiastic documentary accounts of the Himalayan "Heavenly Kingdom," often noted for scoring sky-high in international rankings of the Gross National Happiness index, also know as GNH.

The concept of GNH, in contrast to the content of oft-cited GNP (Gross National Product) was coined in 1972 by Bhutan King H.H. Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The GNH index factors a nation’s mental, social, and environmental health along with more common metrics of economic productivity. It has taken on currency after several international conventions seeking an alternative to the more dollar-driven GNP, as a measure of how well a people are really doing. A nation’s material plenty, including citizens’ access to stable salaries and consumer goods may or may not result in individuals reporting a high level of personal security, psycho- logical, social, or spiritual satisfaction.

The reason the Kingdom of Bhutan rates the highest GNH among developing nations, critics of the ruling royal family, including Bhutanese Portlanders, will tell you, is because its Nepali ethnic minority population was deported. Those who would report low happiness were expelled over the last two decades and confined to windy United Nations refugee camps in neighboring Nepal.

The Royal Bhutan Army forcibly deported about 102,000 Bhutan Nepalis. About half that number have since been resettled in the west by faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities of Oregon and Lutheran Community Services Northwest. According to Mr. Koirala, metro Portland’s Bhutanese population of approximately 1,200 Bhutanese may rise to 1,500 by the end of this year.

Proud parents, strong students

A dozen reassuring state and municipal officials, refugee service agency leaders, celebrated the community’s rich Nepali heritage and promising American future. Among those dignitaries nodding along with the candidates’ concluding speeches and clapping along with touring Nepali singing sensation Nalina Chitrakar, were Neeru Kamal of the State of Oregon’s Refugee Programs Office; Iraqi Society of Oregon’s general secretary Dr. Baher Butti; Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, East Portland Action Plan advocate Lore Wintergreen; Portland Police Bureau, East Precinct Commander Michael Lee; Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO); Salah Ansari and Lee Po Cha, directors, respectively, at Lutheran Community Services North- west, and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. David Douglas High School’s beloved English language teacher Anne Downing hosted the event.

From his front row folding chair, CIO’s Kayse Jama said, "Immigrants and refugees have an abundance of resources to give this country, and they continually revitalize our democracy and create a more inclusive society with their contributions." Mr. Jama was, not so long ago, a refugee from Somalia’s bitter civil war.

According to Mr. Jama, the Bhutanese election commission’s spokesman, Som Subedi, began training for local leadership only two years after he and his family arrived in Portland. Mr. Subedi was a 2010 graduate of CIO’s PILOT (Pan-Immigrant Leadership and Organizing Training), an intensive yearlong program which includes studying U.S. immigrant history, civil rights, community organizing, and advocacy. The program is funded by the Portland City Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

Several Oregon Bhutanese, including Mr. Subedi, participated in CIO’s 2012 CAN (Capacity for Associations of Newcomers), a community development program designed for immigrant- or refugee-led organizations.

Portland’s part in all this

For the past several decades, Portland has been nationally noted as a model for many things, among them: the city’s parks and recreation opportunities; environmentally sustainable urban transportation; and Portland’s vigorous neighborhood associations.

Portland’s commitment to immigrant and refugee communities participating in local governance continues this policy of inviting neighborhood groups to contribute to Portland’s investments in livability. Newly elected president Chhabi Koirala, as well as almost all of the Bhutanese election commissioners, are past participants in civic engagement programs in the portfolio of Portland city commissioner Amanda Fritz. Commissioner Fritz immigrated to the U.S. from the United Kingdom.

Amidst that big Saturday’s din of dignified community elders, optimistic parents, and very cool kids, Chad Stover, mayor Charlie Hales’ policy assistant for international affairs said, "I am proud to represent the mayor’s office on this very special day of democracy in action with our local Bhutanese community."

"Not only do Bhutanese Portlanders represent their native homeland," Stover said, "but they also represent a fundamental part of our local community, adding to the cultural diversity of our city. We are pleased to help facilitate their democratic rights and participation in civic engagement."

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