Helping Bhutanese refugees resettle
Sathya Sai Circle of Friends
According to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), there are approximately 11.4 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, and 26 million others internally displaced by conflict, persecution and violence. Most refugees land in their host country with no money or tangible assets to their names and only meager language skills. But they all have the hope of a new life in a welcoming country. I did not know any of this when the Sathya Sai Center of Minneapolis South, together with the Lutheran Social Service (LSS) Refugee Resettlement program, began working with one such migrant Bhutanese refugee family, who emigrated to the US after having lived in refugee camps in Nepal for 18 years.
In July 2009, our center organized its first annual retreat - LEAP (Love, Energy, Action, and Progress). It was a blessed occasion for center members to share their thoughts and learn about their individual and global mission. During this retreat, several members expressed interest in taking up a challenging service activity. A few weeks later our Service Coordinator came up with a few options, and the Refugee Resettlement project appealed to most of us, as it had been taken up by other centers in the US and sounded like a wonderful thing to do in our own community.
When it came to pass, our group was christened the “Sathya Sai Circle of Friends,” and in September 2009, we were assigned our first family of eight (ages ranging from 18 to 58). We eagerly awaited their arrival from Nepal. As excited as we were, none of us knew how to help. Integrating them into their new society and a completely alien culture seemed daunting. However, armed with Swami’s love and the ideal of selfless service, we forged ahead and first ensured that their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing were met through government assistance programs.
Once that had been taken care of, we enrolled the children in school, arranged to get vaccinations and health checkups done and prescriptions filled, got them connected to Internet and telephone services so they could look up bus routes and interview tips, and keep in touch with their extended family in Nepal. We helped the adults write new resumes, and constantly motivated them to do well in school and persevere in their job-search efforts. Seven to eight center members accomplished this by taking turns with tasks. My husband and I worked together because it was easier for us to visit them together and schedule appointments around our convenience.
A situation calling for tough love
During this time a fraternal bond developed between us and the families, and we began to see them as a part of our Sai family. This tender bond prepared us to give tough love when the situation demanded. This tough love was even tougher on my husband and me, because as if we did not have enough ego battles as a married couple already, we would often disagree on how to deal with a certain situation involving the family. We would have certainly held ourselves back respectfully with any other center member, and been more understanding. But since those customary social graces did not have to be maintained between us at home, we argued freely.
For instance, when the younger boys in the family indulged in an expensive laptop, camera, and mobile phone, our group decided that the boys needed to be taught fiscal responsibility. My husband suggested that we make them pay us back for certain things we had paid for before they started to receive government assistance. He believed that our paying for their necessities had caused them to relax and spend their savings on unnecessary excesses. He was rather upset that they were throwing away not their own hard-earned money but government assistance, which is taxpayers’ money. He urged that such irresponsible behavior must be nipped in the bud, and, if neglected, they might go on to bring financial ruin upon themselves.
I agreed with him in principle, only I was not sure if such a measure would actually help them. I rationalized that it was too early to discipline them; making them pay would put a strain on their already meager finances, thinking that everyone should be allowed a few temptations in the beginning, particularly in a country like the US, where electronics are cheap and essential, seemingly second only to air and sunlight. I also thought they might resent us for being hard on them; chastising them I did not feel would be in line with Swami’s teaching of nonjudgmental and unconditional love in service.
We went back and forth on it, and finally it dawned on me that my husband’s idea was to correct them, not punish them. His idea had emerged from love for their well being, not from anger. And in turn, my husband understood that I was reluctant to be strict with them because our mutual trust and friendship were not strong enough to take that strain at that point, and any misstep might cause them to feel bitter. Together, we recognized the need to let go and do what was best for our wards, even if it meant they would not like it.
After having worked out a harmonious solution, we sat them down and explained how every purchase now would affect them in the future, and how they would need savings to survive the first few months after their assistance ran out. We drew examples from our own lives as students a few years earlier. Having thus reasoned with them, we surrendered the problem and hoped for the best.
Service is a lifetime program. It knows no rest or respite. The body has been given to you so that you may devote its strength and skills to the service of your brothers and sisters. Serve until you see God in all people; then, what you do will be elevated to worship.
Sathya Sai Baba, 6 Jan 1975
Giving up attachment to the results
We did not know if they learned anything from those conversations, but we were no longer attached to the result. Shortly after that, the boys obtained jobs, ran out of assistance, and started working. Today, after several months of fledgling efforts and many such wonderful lessons, our center has become an integral part of their lives, and they, ours. We continue to meet them – less frequently now that they have settled down –and experience the joy of brotherhood. In fact, our responsibility has grown to include two more families, both related to the first family. It has been a joy to watch the boys in the first family handle most of the work on behalf of the two new families.
Since this project needed continuous hands-on commitment, it constantly tested our reserves of patience and love, but the challenge was welcomed by all. An added benefit for my husband and me was that we got to see new facets of each other’s personality. We were deeply grateful for the timing, as we had been going through some career-related difficulties, and this project opened our eyes to harsher realities in the world, such as poverty, lack of basic human rights, and desperation.
I am not trying to patronize here, but really, how many among us have had no home to call our own, lived in refugee camps for years, been unable to afford even basic education, grown up to have few employable skills, and migrated to a foreign country against our will? It put our own problems in perspective, and I now deal with problems with more love and a reduced sense of entitlement.
It was also an exercise in learning and kindness with the other team members who donated their time, energy, and money generously. One couple was even inspired to donate their old car! It was humbling to see the actions that divine love can inspire.
In April 2010, at a volunteer recognition event held by the Center for Changing Lives, the Sathya Sai Circle of Friends team received the Strongest New Circle of Friends Team Award, in recognition for their commitment and support to the refugee families. It was our Divine Father who made it possible. Sathya Sai Baba says love is the royal road to Him. What is this love exactly? Love is God in action, and God is love in action. And, as we learned with this project, service is the way to experience that truth.
Sathya Sai Center of Minneapolis South, MN
Service of your fellow beings is needed more than service to the Lord Himself. In fact, such service is equal to service of the Lord. That is the path of real devotion. For what greater means can there be to please God than pleasing His children?
Sathya Sai Baba, Sivarathri, March 1966