Most people living in Concord, N.H. knew nothing about the events unfolding in the basement of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on a chilly Friday night in March.
But it was here that their newest neighbors, refugees from Bhutan, were announcing their presence in a big way.
There was dancing, much of it executed in traditional Bhutanese style, some of it pure homage to Michael Jackson (during his mid-’80s heyday).
There was singing, delivered in the form of two blazing solos by a swaggering teenager who’d likely caught a few episodes of “American Idol.”
There was also music — loud and proud, the rhythms redolent of a Bollywood musical.
The mayor of Concord, James Bouley, officially greeted his newest constituents, asking them through a translator to teach him how to say “Welcome” in Nepali. In response, the crowd shouted “Namaste!”
A celebratory feel dominated the evening, but the event also served as prelude to a Saturday program aimed at helping the Bhutanese make their way in this unfamiliar place. A Clark student/faculty team from the International Development, Community & Environment Department, led by research professor Richard Ford and IDCE director William Fisher, helped conduct workshops with the Bhutanese that provided tools and strategies to help them establish lives in the United States.
“We give them the tools, and then we ease back. We stay as involved as they want, but our goal is to make ourselves obsolete.” - William Fisher, IDCE Director
The program springs from Ford’s work in Kenya 25 years ago, where he and fellow Clark research professor Barbara Thomas-Slayter, working with several Kenyan colleagues, developed the process known as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), which uses community-based development and action to build stable, thriving communities. Ford and his students first put those practices to use domestically in Lewiston, Maine, which has been host to an influx of refugees from war-torn Somalia beginning in 2001. For the Concord project he conducted a seven-week module course on PRA during the spring 2010 semester that’s designed to be a “hands-on community-building experience” for Clark students.
The Bhutanese who have come to the U.S. are the Lhotshampa, people of Nepali origin, who were exiled from Bhutan 18 years ago after protesting the government’s discrimination against their group. The refugees lived in camps in India and then Nepal, until 2006 when the U.S. offered to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese. (About 560 Bhutanese refugees have arrived in New Hampshire since 2007; about 360 of them live in Concord.)
Self-sufficiency is the key, Ford told the 60 participants from Concord and Manchester who attended the workshops. “We have not come to solve your problems,” he cautioned. “Clark is here for two reasons. One is to listen. Two is to give you a roadmap of ways that you can travel with others already here, to fix some of these problems.”
Facilitators — including Clark students — worked with the Bhutanese to compile a list that ranked the most important challenges facing their community as they become acclimated to the U.S. Their major concerns ranged from organizing family finances to learning a new language to developing skills that will gain them entry into the job market.
The rationale behind PRA is “bringing forward existing resources, skills and knowledge in any community, whether it’s strong or not, to find assets and then develop techniques which anyone can use – people of any age, any language, any education level,” said Amanda Barker, who assisted at the Concord workshops. Barker is an IDCE student pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy.
Barker stressed that PRA is not about giving money to a community in need. Instead, it gives them something more valuable and sustainable: a way to educate one another and listen to each other in order to bring out what assets and skills are already present in the community and organize them. The PRA workshop model also is very conversational; it’s designed to allow everyone to speak, without a leader, in a comfortable environment.
The Clark group worked in tandem with alumna Aparna Nepal (IDSC/M.A. ’04), a program planner for the New Hampshire Department of Public Health, who has made the acculturation of the Bhutanese in Concord one of her priorities. She’s no stranger to their plight: during her student days, Nepal served on Ford’s team in Lewiston.
Ford urged the participants to create a Community Action Plan, which will help the Bhutanese identify solutions to their issues by reaching consensus on the community’s greatest needs, establishing effective leadership, organizing, and pursuing the best strategies for achieving positive outcomes — economically and socially.
Said Fisher: “The ultimate goals of these workshops are to create communities that are empowered and hold ownership of their problems and successes; communities that are inspired to become the managers and architects of their own future.”
Fisher says the tools presented to the Bhutanese aren’t meant to be “magic bullets.”
“We give them the tools, and then we ease back. We stay as involved as they want, but our goal is to make ourselves obsolete.”
– By Jim Keogh, Clark University Director of News and Editorial Services, with Marlene McManus ’10
An archive of News & Media Relations posts can be found at https://news.clarku.edu/news.