Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa comes together for Teej festival

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — With celebratory songs, dances and food, members of the Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa gathered at the Unity Center of Cedar Rapids last Saturday to celebrate the Hindu holiday Teej.

For community members, most of whom are ethnic Nepalese who spent years in refugee camps in Nepal after their community was forcibly expelled from Bhutan in the 1990s, this was a day to celebrate, to leave the travails of the past behind and simply have fun.

Teej honors the goddess Parvati and is an especially celebratory day for women and girls, who dress up, often in bright red saris.

“This day is for every Nepali woman. We like to celebrate and dance in that time and sing songs and wear nice dresses and eat delicious food,” said Kumari Paudyal of Cedar Rapids.

 

Paudyal was one of the many women who prepared dances for the day; she performed to the song “Ramri Pani Bhaki Chu.” She left Bhutan as a child and spent 19 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before coming to the United States almost nine years ago. She works as a team lead at CCB Packaging in Hiawatha.

“I would like to thank the American government for bringing us here,” she said. “It was hard to have Teej in the camp. My parents were working as farmers, but there wasn’t enough money. Here is a more beautiful life than in Nepal.”

On Sept. 17, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced plans to cap refugee resettlement in the United States next year at 30,000, the lowest since the program’s creation in 1980.

Srijana Pathak, of Cedar Rapids, was an emcee for the day, announcing different singers and dancers. Originally from Nepal, she moved to the United States in 2009, living in New York and Ohio before moving to Iowa with her husband. She studies medical assisting at Kirkwood Community College.

She said she wants the rest of the Cedar Rapids-area community to learn more about Nepali-Bhutanese culture.

“I want to show them how our culture is,” she said, explaining that on Teej, married women wear potha, strings of bright green beads, and use red pigment to decorate the parts of their hair.

She said holiday celebrations like this are a chance for the entire community to gather. Members come together for smaller celebrations, “But this one is more special,” she said.

The Unity Center of Cedar Rapids, a non-denominational Christian church, hosted the event and has hosted other Bhutanese Community of Eastern Iowa events before. The last festival they had there was a Buddhist one, but for the Teej celebration on Sept. 22, an illustration of the Hindu god Shiva, the goddess Parvati’s husband, hung on one wall. Supplicants left fruit and marigolds on a table beneath him, with an American flag perched next to the offerings.

“We have one community, but many groups,” said community leader Harka Thapa. “It’s diversity in unity ... Buddists, Hindus and Christians are here, too. Everyone is here.”

He said they know firsthand the dangers of discrimination and separating people into different groups, because of how their community was treated in their homeland of Bhutan. The Bhutanese government claimed that because they had a different ethnic background, they were illegal immigrants.

“Discrimination — we don’t want that,” Thapa said. “We want to break that thing. Because everyone is equal, has equal rights.”

He pointed out a man who led a song earlier, when a group sat around musicians on the floor, surrounded by community members singing in honor of the holiday.

“He is Buddhist, but it doesn’t matter,” Thapa said. “Our community is here to help each other. The first thing we think is important to do in life is to help each other.”

He said even though life in America is easier than in the refugee camps, there are still struggles. Many community members can only find entry-level work when they arrive. For the elders of the community, adjusting to a new country is the most difficult. Many feel isolated in a place where they don’t know the language or culture.

“They suffered a lot in their country and in the refugee camps, and then they had to leave everything behind,” he said.

Celebrations like Teej are a chance to break through those feelings. It is also a chance to pass down traditions to the next generation.

“We want to continue our culture, our singing and dancing, for our kids, so they don’t lose our traditions,” he said.

Another community leader, Bhim Magar, described the meaning of one of the songs they sang.

 

“It says that Parvati is respecting and honoring her husband Lord Shiva,” he said. “Teej is a special day where wives pray for their husband’s long life.”

The actual holiday had been a week earlier. It lasts for three days, and includes fasting as women pray for health for their husbands and families. On the third day, the men serve a meal to the women.

“For the married women, it’s a break time,” Thapa said. “In Nepal, as farmers, these women have to work hard, hard, 12-15 hour days.”

All of that was far from the mind of Alesha Kharel, 12, of Cedar Rapids. A seventh-grader at Oak Ridge Middle School who danced to the song “Sapani Ma Aaune Lai,” she said she had spent hours choreographing her routine and practicing after school, eager to perform in front of her friends and family.

“I never really get stage fright,” she said. “I tried learning by watching videos.

To her, the festival’s purpose is simple.

“I only know we have fun,” she said. “Last year we were up all night dancing. It’s fun.”

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