By Sister Michele Schroeck
When I think of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint from the territory of the United States and Canada and patroness of ecology, I think of the Bhutanese immigrants living in my neighborhood. They were expelled from their native lands and sent to Nepal, where they lived in refugee camps in the 1990s before coming to the United States. These Bhutanese like many other native peoples were forced to leave their ancestral home.
In the late 1980s, Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population, the Lhotshampas, as a demographic and cultural threat. The Bhutanese government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, stripping about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paving the way for their expulsion.Even though they were forced from their homeland, they still claim their Bhutanese heritage. Many still live in refugee camps in Nepal years later.
For so many native peoples, land is central to their lives. Many were farmers and continue the tradition of growing their own food. The House of Mercy neighborhood outreach in Erie, Pennsylvania, provides a garden of 28 raised beds where many Bhutanese/Nepalis grow their own cultural foods and herbs.
I am amazed at how resourceful the Bhutanese are. They use tree branches to support the plants. They save their seeds from the plants the year before. They use the compost provided by the city. They create a garden border around their housing units and use all the available space to grow food. I often see them drying herbs in the sun. Some evenings I will watch several from a family sitting on the driveway and sorting and preparing the leaves for cooking. One mother told me how growing their own food saves them money and preserves their cultural foods and heritage.
I am so proud of the Gautam family and all the immigrant families in the House of Mercy area. Chuda worked at a recycling company until he was badly injured in a work accident. I helped Thagi, his wife, get her driver’s license and practice English. Their four children and elderly parents live with them. Saradha, the oldest, was in second grade when she came to the U.S. Through the activities at the House of Mercy, she and her siblings had homework help after school. She was exposed to environmental education, art and many field trips. In middle school, she participated in career and leadership development and, as a high schooler, got to visit Washington, D.C., with other House of Mercy youth.
Her family saved and moved into homeownership three years ago. I took Saradha to visit local colleges and helped her apply for financial aid. I had tears in my eyes as I watched her graduate from high school with honors this year. She will be attending a local university to study pre-med in the fall and is working part-time at the Sisters of Mercy. May St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks, guide all refugee families to a welcome and home in the United States.