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Experiences with the Bhutanese in Pittsburgh, PA USA

Visiting at Claire Lama's home. Left to right: Poonam, Nadine, Claire and Jenetha

Claire Lama offered wonderful hospitality in Pittsburgh. Her husband Prasant is a wonderful cook and her son Ezra loves to play. Poonam Pokwal arrived from St. Paul. She had just begun her apprentice facilitating in the camps, and is grateful for the opportunity to learn and apprentice. We stayed in a lovely room on the third floor with the sunshine, treetops and fireflies.

Claire organized several opportunities for us to introduce the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) activities with very diverse groups. Jamuna Shrestha, Nadine Hoover and Poonam Pokwal facilitated three groups:
  • A two-hour mini-workshop with a yoga group of eleven Bhutanese women on June 20 in a health care center. The participants were all Bhutanese mostly illiterate and older women, with the English-speaking yoga instructor and her interpreter, who both participated.
  • A three-hour mini-workshop with thirteen nursing mothers with eight children, most of them babies, on June 23 in the same health care center. The participants usually meet once a month to learn and share about the child and mother relationship after the birth of their healthy, happy new baby.
  • A three-hour mini-workshop with sixteen professionals working with Bhutanese (three were Bhutanese themselves) and two Bhutanese women who did not understand much English at a family care center on June 23, 2018.
We did not charge anything for any of these events, and Claire offered lovely, healthy snacks for her nursing mothers with infants. All of them went very well and the participants were enthusiastically engaged.

Nadine and Jamuna shared how infants have trillions of brain cells forming connections, half of which the brain discards at age three, many more at age seven and into teen years. Violence shuts down that formation in the brain. Learning to keep a peaceful environment with love and respect around your infants and children is the greatest thing you can do for their development. They were excited about teaching their families. Pittsburgh, PA, June, 2017

Nadine encouraged using a richness of language necessary for people to understand. The first group had their own interpreter who did simultaneous interpretation for the instructor, with a little support from Jamuna as the interpreter was also participating which sometimes distracted him from interpreting. Jamuna interpreted just enough for Nadine to participate with the nursing mothers, and Poonam did simultaneous translation for the two non-English speakers in the last group.

TIP: When interpreting for one or two people, but it can work for up to four people, the interpreter sits in the middle moving their chair back slightly and the two people sit normally in the circle moving their chair(s) slightly closer to the interpreter. This way the interpreter can speak softly looking forward and the sound carries easily to both people without having to turn their head to one side or the other.
We lightly followed this agenda of activities:
  • Opening Talk: Why are we here? Jamuna explained why she is here. She began supporting the Bhutanese in 1991 when they first came through India to Nepal. Then in 2008 discovered how helpful the AVP workshops were. It took four years to get permission from the UN High Commission on Human Rights to share this with the Bhutanese, but for the last five years she has been doing AVP with the Bhutanese, interrupted by two massive fires of the bamboo/grass huts in the camps, and a massive earthquake! Then news of the suicide rate among the 97,000 Bhutanese resettled in the U.S. broke her heart, so she is grateful to Friends Peace Teams to support her to come and visit the Bhutanese in the U.S. We explained our work was based on the AVP philosophy.
  • Welcome: Sit comfortably. Relax on your skeleton. Stop. Stop in your body and stop in your mind. Let what you want, like, understand fall away. Feel your breath, your heartbeat, the unconditional gift  of life. Open to the feel the transforming power of life. Life is valuable, you are alive and valuable. Nothing we can say or do will make us any more valuable than we are right now. This is it. This is enough.
  • Gathering: Name and a power for good I have is….
  • Good Listening: We brainstormed good listening, ensuring that the elements of: 1) stop your body, stop your mind; 2) turn towards, not away from the speaker; 3) try to track their words and meaning, not your own.
  • Affirmation in Pairs: Taking turns in pairs, we practiced listening and saying positive things about ourselves for 3 minutes.
  • Light and Lively: Big Wind Blows, naming things to introduce ourselves (with nursing mothers we did Pattern Balls sitting!)
  • Mothers with their children drawing of their core selves: confident, compassionate, connected, clear, calm, creative… This is who we are individually and collectively. The core self is where we should be making decisions and taking action from, and noticing and asking others be be in our core selves when we work together. Pittsburgh, PA, June, 2017

    Core Self Drawings: Remembering a time when we felt totally ourselves, we drew that feeling, then wrote our name and three words somewhere on the picture. We showed our pictures reading the three words and collecting them in the center, noting that this is who we are individually and collectively, this is the good place from which to make decisions and take action, and to help remind each other to come back to that place when we feel distress has taken over.

  • Storytelling: With the last group only, we had time to share stories in two different pairs of a time I experienced violence myself and a time I solved a situation nonviolently. At the end we put two pairs together to make a list of things that made the situation go well instead of poorly, by noticing in each story the pivotal moment or turning point and studying the factors that made it go well. Each group read out and posted their list.
  • Reflection: Recalling what we did the whole time and going around the circle to make any final comments on what we liked, didn’t like or suggestions for the facilitators.
  • Closing: We played knee clap, or closed with the reflection comments.


Facilitator’s Comments:

  • On the good listening companion’s exercise, people often tried to start from negative so as a facilitator should give examples.
  • We did more focus on stop – think – speak practice as a speaker, which encouraged participants to think and speak out. Later on they feel good, relaxed, happy and joyful and realized how many positive things we have and God gifted to us skills and knowledge to handle or cope in any difficult situations. So we don’t need to be afraid and anxious.
  • After lunch at a Nepali restaurant following the yoga group. Left to right: Jamuna, Shanti, Nadine, Goma, and Mon, the interpreter. Pittsburgh, PA, June, 2017

    We noticed how the commercial cooperate culture is growing everywhere, and this is not necessarily American culture. We all face the same commercial cooperate culture take-over, and we all need to learn how to live together in healthy environment. We can make create the culture we want together.

  • Sometimes the merciful thing to do means resting to become strong and healthy. We gave participants the right to pass and to rest, if that’s what they needed! (The “service providers” needed rest the most.)
  • In each and every activity we should stick to giving the instructions, step by step. No matter what the group dynamic, we should just give clear instructions. Facilitators should talk less and focus on the activities.
  • Be flexible to keep people active and engaged. For me, this was the first workshop I did with mothers with infants. It is important for facilitators to think about how we can observe the group’s needs through facial expressions and body language. Which we can do, because most communication is nonverbal.
  • We used the powerful sequence of the roadmap. Even though we did very short mini-workshops, it worked well because we followed the roadmap. We invested time in friendships or getting to know each other’s names, sharing something about ourselves and learning something about others. We had little time for agreements, so we just had participants read the AVP philosophy, then we did some affirmation, then built up communication skills, and then did cooperative tasks and games.
  • We realized we need to teach and practice new facilitators how to work with participants who were more emotional or overwhelmed from trauma. In the yoga group, many had cumulative traumatic experiences and so many of them had thoughts of suicide. Sharing that with the group effects others, too. So we need to notice how to carefully do grounding exercises.

Claire Lama (left) organized the Taste of Empowerment Workshop for a mothers group of Bhutanese resettled in Pittsburgh, PA, June, 2017

One Participant’s Testimony

A 56-years-old woman, living with family in Pittsburgh since three years ago, has one daughter, one son and a daughter in-law. She said that all things are very good in USA, but we are struggling with the English language, because in our family no one can understand the English language. Basically when the post office delivers informational letters, we don’t understand. We always need to ask for help from others. Sometimes we send in the forms. We have tried from our side to fill them out properly and on time, but because of lack of support, miss interpretation or mistakes in filling them out, they are returned to us. We felt very badly about this, and sometimes missed the deadline to get important work, supports or appointments. When we think about that, we start to get headaches, cannot see around us and have suicidal thoughts. I begin to think, “How can I survive?” I feel like life is worthless, and if I can finish my life by myself, this is one of the best solutions.
Nadine explained how emotion stays in a part of the brain that has no sense of time. When we feel good, we tend to imagine we’ll always feel good, but when we feel bad, it can feel like we always felt that way and always will. Do not trust your emotional brain for information about time! In the workshop we regularly did groundings: get up, change where you are standing or sitting, look outside yourself, look at colors, objects, what you can see, touch or hear, especially up high so your eyes get bigger. Go for a walk and if that doesn’t help, run! Going farther down inside yourself does not help, get out and pay attention to things outside. Do this with a companion, so you can help each other remember, tell your stories, release the emotion from the body, but then come back whenever you want to. Practice remembering for short times, then coming back outside yourself and paying attention to others makes life less overwhelming and heals.
The woman said what she liked most about the Taste of Empowerment workshop was the visiting of power and learning tools to share our traumatic experiences with one another. She felt more relaxed and relieved. She felt hopeful again. She promised to practice peace and yoga as a daily practice.

Taste of Empowerment Workshop with service providers helping Bhutanese resettled in Pittsburgh, PA, June, 2017. (Seven of the fifteen participants are here with Nadine Hoover, Poonam Pokwal and Jamuna Shrestha).