'We are one in spirit' - Eastern Iowa Bhutanese community group organizes vigil for Las Vegas victims

Candles are lit at a prayer vigil for the victims of the shooting in Las Vegas, held by members of the local Bhutanese community at Tucker Park in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. The vigil was the culmination of thirteen days of prayer for many Bhutanese in the area, who practice diverse faiths from Buddhism to Hinduism to Christianity. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Candles are lit at a prayer vigil for the victims of the shooting in Las Vegas, held by members of the local Bhutanese community at Tucker Park in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. The vigil was the culmination of thirteen days of prayer for many Bhutanese in the area, who practice diverse faiths from Buddhism to Hinduism to Christianity. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The candles were hard to light Tuesday. The wind kept whipping through the picnic shelter at Hiawatha’s Tucker Park, blowing out the fragile flames the people gathered there were trying to light.

With hands cupped carefully around each candle, however, finally 59 candles were lit: one for each life lost when a mass shooter opened fire on a concert crowd in Las Vegas Oct. 1.

The Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa, a nonprofit community group, organized the prayer vigil to honor the dead and offer support to their families and for the injured survivors. About 20 people gathered; they laid flowers and a wreath in front of photos of the victims and stood together in silence before lighting the candles. On the walls of the park structure behind the candles, they had taped up two American flags.

Community member Bhim Magar helped organize the event, inspired by a vigil he attended in Cedar Rapids in 2015. Organized by the Iowa Nepalese Association, that vigil honored the victims of an earthquake in Nepal which killed thousands of people. The gathering of supporters lighting candles together in the face of unspeakable tragedy stuck with him.

He and many other members of the Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa fled Bhutan as refugees in the 1990s. Their families were Lhotshampa, people of Nepalese descent, a group that was persecuted by the Bhutanese government and forced out of the country. They lived in refugee camps for years before being resettled in the United States and other countries.

In the 2015 vigil, Magar saw people of all walks of life and backgrounds coming together, praying together and offering each other support. It didn’t matter what country someone was from or what their background was.

“A vigil is a common way of praying for all the people,” he said.

Members of the Iowa Bhutanese community are Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. On Tuesday, they all prayed together, bowing their heads after Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa director Harka Thapa asked for a minute of silence.

The Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa still is a fairly new entity, established in 2015 in response to the small community’s growth, with many families settling in Hiawatha and Cedar Rapids. They are drawn here from other cities around the country by the promise of good jobs, good schools and a peaceful way of life, community members said.

And they want the wider Corridor community to know they are here and sharing in this American life.

“We are very thoughtful about our nation and what we can contribute from our small community,” said Mongal Gurung of Hiawatha. “We might be Hindu, we might be Buddhist, we might be Christian, but we are one in spirit.”

The group also has been meeting in the park for cultural activities, such as Durga Puja in September, a celebration to mark the beginning of the Dipawali festival.

“We don’t have a community hall, so we do it outside here,” said Ganga Kharel of Hiawatha.

He said wanted to attend the vigil out of respect and solidarity.

“That’s someone’s father, someone’s sister. It might happen to my family, it might happen anytime,” he said.

Thapa said in the Hindu tradition, mourners pray for 13 days when someone dies. On the 13th day the community comes together to honor the deceased. He said they wanted the Tucker Park vigil to represent that for the dead in Las Vegas.

“Life is uncertain and certain. We are not immortal. We’d like to show we are also human, and we feel very bad for them and want to pray for them and teach our community this way of living,” said Thapa. “Here we are not Nepalese, Bhutanese, Indian, we are just people together.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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