Building Relationships with Himalayan Refugees

Story by Dione Lien, Bay Area Chapter, MSW Intern
Photography contributed by Surya Chataut at Chataut Photography

Entertainment - young dancer at Himalayan event

Entertainment - young dancer at Himalayan event

Two summer youth interns and I went to a Himalayan-community networking event with the intention to tell as many people as possible about Red Cross’ restoring family links service, but what we also took away were valuable lessons about Nepal’s cultural traditions, its current social conditions, and how the country’s political climate affects the refugee community’s reluctance to access Red Cross services.

The Himalayan Networking Event in Oakland, California was a collaboration of Sahayeta.org and Ama Foundation, which serve underprivileged children in Nepal as well as Nepalese refugees and immigrants in the Bay Area.  The goal of the event was to bring together individuals and organizations interested in improving the welfare of the Himalayan community, and to provide a platform to share ideas and visions for the future. 

The Red Cross hosted a table providing literature about Restoring Family Links services specific to the Himalayan region while guest speakers presented information about the forward-thinking projects that are currently underway to address various social needs in Nepal.  We were quite inspired by these efforts—individuals are working at the grassroots level, bringing computers to rural classrooms and sustainable energy to entire villages.  After the presentations, we participated in focus group discussions where various agencies collaborated on envisioning solutions for improving social welfare within the Himalayan region. 

Breakout group at Himalayan event

Breakout group at Himalayan event

The evening concluded with activities that were as much of a cultural celebration as they were a networking opportunity.  We ate our dinner of Himalayan cuisine as we chatted with our tablemates in a more casual setting. We enjoyed music and ethnic dance performances, as well as a documentary, Himalayan Gold Rush, which highlights the dangerous journey that many men, women and children make to the high Himalayas in search of Yarsagumbu, a valuable fungus-larvae prized in East Asia for its energizing and healing properties.  The summer youth interns particularly enjoyed learning about the rich details of a new culture. Summer intern Marycon added, “I also liked learning about the needs of the Nepalese refugees, which is something I never really thought about before.”

Sharing ideas and projects at the Himalayan event

Sharing ideas and projects at the Himalayan event

While chatting with other event participants, I learned that despite the organization’s commitment to independence, residents of Nepal generally associate the Red Cross with their country’s government, which historically has not acted in the best interest of its people.  According to one participant, Nepal’s political history is “long and complicated,” but he declined to elaborate.  Another explained that because of these perceptions, Nepalese refugees in the United States may hesitate to trust the American Red Cross.  These exchanges helped me understand that although family tracing and other International Services may be needed, our potential clients’ perceptions of the Red Cross may prevent them from asking for help.  I was reminded about the importance of continuing to refine outreach efforts for all refugee communities who each have varied perceptions of the Red Cross based on their experiences with the national societies in their countries of origin.

Overall, however, the Himalayan Networking event had a positive outcome--Red Cross International Services was introduced to over 80 individuals who represented at least 10 agencies that work with the Himalayan/Nepalese population. One RFL presentation was requested, and three individuals expressed interest in staying connected to collaborate on future projects.  We were thrilled to have such a successful outreach experience, but also felt fortunate to have walked away with many enlightening lessons about the Himalayan region and about how to approach our work with all refugee communities.