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Refugees Blend Relgious Traditions into New Homes

For Hari Bangaley Adhikari, a devout Hindu from Bhutan, the doorway to a good life in Syracuse has been Catholic Charities.

“They help me so much, “ Adhikari said. A representative from Catholic Charities asked him to work with the nonprofit organization as a case manager.  “I was so happy to hear that. Becoming a case manager is a good thing for me, a new person to the country.”

Adhikari now works with the refugee resettlement program, connecting refugees to the Onondaga County Department of Social Services.

He is one of the 7,210 refugees who’ve settled in Syracuse since 2001, according to a report from The Onondaga Citizens League. Most of them arrived from Burma and Bhutan.

Many refugees struggle transitioning into a new society, especially when they are of a religious minority, say those who work in resettling them. Sometimes there are misunderstandings between the new Americans and the established residents. Sometimes the newcomers face challenges in finding appropriate places for their rituals or cultural festivities. And sometimes it can be a challenge to find food prescribed by their faith.

Susan Parker, a former food programs educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension program, discovered that many people from the resettled refugee demographic sought places to slaughter animals before consumption. But such activity conflicts with the New York state law regarding the treatment of animals.

“I know there’s a lot of religious reasons that they do certain things, like the way they kill animals, chop it up, and eat it. I know it is important to them,” Parker said.  Most Halal meat in Syracuse is shipped from New Zealand, she said.

In 2013 there have been cases regarding religion where landlords filed complaints about their tenants, whom are resettled refugees, according to Gregory Ayer, the enforcement manager of CNY Fair Housing. He suggested implementing programs on cultural studies for anyone involved in the refugee resettlement to develop empathy and understanding of cultural differences. But he points out that newcomers are arriving at a fast pace, which is difficult for everyone, like landlords, to be timely educated.

“It’s a never-ending battle. And with the government and nonprofits losing funding it is a constant struggle,” Ayer said.

For Adhikari of Bhutan, his own experiences connect him to other new Americans.

The Bhutanese army forced him out of his country in 1992 during a time of ethnic conflict, he said. As a case manager with Catholic Charities, he assures other newcomers that they are now in a place where there is freedom of religion and where cultural diversity is embraced.

He also encourages them to help others understand their religious and cultural traditions. The Bhutanese community often gathers to celebrate cultural festivities or perform religious rituals at a participant’s home to avoid paying venue fees.  Adhikari is also the U.S. national leader for the Bhutanese population, a role that involves being a liaison between the Bhutanese community and the established residents, like landlords.

“I talk with the landlords first,” said Adhikari, “to make sure they are aware of events at the homes.”
(Vekonda Luangaphay is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper, and online journalism.)

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Posted in Spring 2014 | Comments Off