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Bishnu Mainali, right, makes a donation during a service at the Hope Well Baptist Church on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, in Alameda, Calif. The Mainalis are Bhutanese refugees who immigrated to the U.S. from a camp in Nepal in May. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Of all the wonders the Mainali family hoped to experience in America, salvation through a newfound faith in Jesus Christ was not on the list.

Then the family matriarch, Bishnu Mainali, discovered a Baptist church near downtown Alameda and listened each Sunday to the scripture and sermons. The lifelong Hindu found camaraderie among the friendly congregation and a positive message in the Christian teachings. Now, she is trying to convince her reluctant family it is time to be saved.

"The U.S. is a country of Christians," said the 64-year-old refugee, speaking at her apartment a few days before Christmas. "We have to move toward the side of the majority."

The Bhutanese refugees knew the United States would bring surprises and require adaptation when they left their refugee camp in the plains of southern Nepal seven months ago and flew to California. They settled into an apartment in the Laurel district of Oakland in late May, and quickly learned to navigate the bus system, find the cheapest groceries and adjust to the busy pace of American life.

Bishnu's daughter-in-law, Leela Mainali, could not have imagined her first job would be making pizzas at a Little Caesars shop. A year ago, the 20-year-old helped cook and care for her family in a hut built with bamboo and thatch that had no electricity.


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Her husband, Benu Mainali, Bishnu's youngest son, didn't think he would find a job so quickly, but made the connections, impressed his supervisors with his dedication and rose the ranks to a full-time position at Farmer Joe's Marketplace in the Dimond district. The late-night grocery store job, at $8.56 an hour, was a demotion of sorts for the former schoolteacher, but America's freedom and its long-term possibilities were worth the discomfort of starting at the bottom, he said.

His father, Devi Charan Mainali, knew in Nepal that his lack of English would make him feel isolated in America, and he was right. The 67-year-old, who once owned his own farm in Bhutan, quelled the loneliness by strolling the Oakland foothills, collecting cans and bottles that he carries to a recycling center to net about $25 each week.

By early fall, the Mainalis stopped earning the monthly cash assistance that the federal government sends to each refugee upon arrival to the United States. They stopped getting food stamps by the end of the year. As they endured their first Bay Area winter, they were surviving on their wages from the grocery store and Little Caesars, with cushion from Devi, who as an elder refugee is eligible for monthly Social Security benefits. Life was not easy -- with clashing work schedules, the young couple barely saw each other -- but they were living independently, and getting by. After failing the first time, Benu passed his road test last month, earned a driver's license and began saving for his first car.

Unexpected 'welcome'

Some changes, however, took everyone by surprise. At noon each Sunday, as her son stocks groceries, her daughter-in-law cooks pizza and her husband hunts for cans, Bishnu sits in the chapel of the Hopewell Baptist Church and joins the congregation in hymns and prayer.

"Khusi chhu," the Rev. Mike Chantigian bellowed in beginner's Nepali on a recent Sunday. "Are you happy?"

The pastor was speaking to the nearly two dozen Nepali-speaking people, most of them Bhutanese refugees, who clustered together in the back rows of the church hall on Lincoln Avenue. Some have been coming to this Alameda church for many months or a few years. Two were at the church for the first time, having just arrived from the refugee camps less than a month earlier. Churchgoers gave the newcomers a rousing greeting.

"Welcome to America!" shouted the beaming pastor, before scuttling over to shake their hands. The former Marine, who was evangelized in the late 1970s while waiting in line at a dentist's office, said he was as surprised as everyone else that his tiny church had become a destination for Bhutanese refugees exploring Christianity, but considers it a blessing. Most come through word-of-mouth, but he also makes home visits, has trained a refugee to lead Nepali language services and has invested in translation equipment so that the newest churchgoers will soon be able to understand his sermons.

The refugees are among more than 40,000 Bhutanese exiles who have migrated out of camps in Nepal over the past three years. The exodus, overseen by the United Nations, has dispersed a stateless people across dozens of cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

The refugees fled southern Bhutan in the 1990s after the Himalayan kingdom stripped many Nepali-speaking people of their citizenship and tensions rose over ethnic differences and civil rights. The more than 100,000 people who fled became stuck in southeastern Nepal, where they have lived for nearly two decades in bamboo huts in a cluster of United Nations camps. The United States and other developed counties agreed four years ago to take in the refugees.

Bishnu arrived in May hoping for new friends in a strange land, and found the companionship she was looking for when Bhutanese acquaintances began inviting her to weekly services at the Alameda church. More than 1,000 Bhutanese refugees have migrated to California since January 2008, and 750 of them live in East Oakland and Alameda, according to statistics from the government and local organizations.

The vast majority are Hindu, and a sizable minority are longtime Buddhists, but up to 8 percent have turned to Baptist, Mormon and other churches since their arrival, estimates Ananta Gurung, director of the Alameda-based Bhutanese American Community Center, a nonprofit formed by the Bhutanese immigrants to network and help one another.

"The Christian groups go to their house, give them help, motivate people," said Gurung, who is Buddhist. "Everybody has their own choice. We can't really interfere with that."

Some have joined the Baptist church, others have become Mormon and a handful belong to an evangelical church in Eastlake, an Oakland district that is home to many refugees.

A new faith

Rajen Sanyasi has transformed, in the past two years, into one of the leaders of the burgeoning community of Bhutanese Baptists.

The soft-spoken 24-year-old is a refugee whose family was one of the first to arrive in Alameda in 2008. He woke up one Saturday morning in November 2009 to find Chantigian sitting in his living room beside his mother and sister, who had already converted to Christianity.

"They asked me, 'How do you feel? How do you like Christianity and the Christian life? Your mom likes it. Your sister likes it,' " Sanyasi recalled. He had good feelings about the religion after knowing some of its adherents in Nepal, and so it was not hard for him to pledge his faith in Jesus Christ that morning.

"I really liked the lifestyle of Christians," he said. "They forgive. They are good people. They're not jealous."

In March 2009, Sanyasi was baptized in a backyard pool with several other Bhutanese refugees. One of the first activities the former dancer gave up was Nepali-style dancing because that, and other rituals of his prior life, were "extra things we shouldn't have to do," he said. Months later, he was trained to help lead the Baptist services in the Nepali language. It was his way, he said, of helping people, and everyone thought he was good at it.

Dressed in a suit every Sunday, he stands at the church's lectern and reads biblical verses, then explains them and relates the passages to the Bhutanese refugee experience.

"The life they went through, it was very difficult," he said. "I ask them, 'You know what? Do you remember that life? It was God's gift. It was a blessing. God put us through that life.' "

The messages resonated with Bishnu, whose life in Bhutan and Nepal was marked by struggle.

The bubbly, talkative grandmother was the first in the family to jump into the warm embrace of the family-run institution in Alameda, and at first her weekly jaunts did not attract much attention.

Her children, including three sons in Oakland, were too busy trying to make ends meet and adapting to life in a new country. They were happy she found a way to pass the time. The services gave her solace, she said. She loved the wreaths and the candles, the songs and the words. She cannot read or write, but a Nepali friend sits beside her with a Bible and explains what the verses mean.

Slowly, the services began to shake her lifelong foundation in Hinduism and led to soul-searching debates and conflict at home. Word spread by telephone that the family matriarch was dabbling in Christianity. Polite rebukes were voiced from family members scattered across upstate New York, Australia and the Himalayas. Her children could understand the sentiments that drove her to find companionship in the church. But baptism, and abandoning her long-held beliefs? Don't do it, they urged. She has not been baptized, but has continued her path toward becoming a Christian despite their protests.

"The people from the church, they're not forcing me to turn into a Christian," Bishnu said, speaking in Nepali through a family member. Being a Bhutanese person of Nepali descent, it is important to preserve her traditions and culture, she said.

"But turning into a Christian, we can also preserve these traditions," she said.

Her son, Benu, is not convinced.

"She has no idea how she has to act when she turns Christian," he said.

Gone will be the family celebrations of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the Dashain harvest celebration. Gone, too, will be the prayers and rituals and all the tenets of Hinduism that had sustained them for so many years, he said.

It was their deep-held traditions, and their faith, that caused the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese to be forced out of their homeland by the nation's ruling majority group two decades ago, Benu said. Why, he asked, should they give all of this up now?

"If my parents forget everything, how can I teach the culture and traditions to my child?" asked Benu, who with Leela, his wife, would like to raise a family of U.S.-born children. "If we share, they will know. If we don't share anything with them, they will have no idea."

Reporting for this story was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.

About the series
Bay Area News Group staff writer Matt O'Brien and photojournalist Jane Tyska traveled to Bhutan and Nepal in the spring to report on the little-known experiences of Bhutanese refugees who'd left their homes amid political and ethnic conflict. The series followed the Mainali family, who spent nearly 20 years in a United Nations-run refugee camp in Nepal before resettling in Oakland. Nearly a year later, the family continues to adjust to their new home. Read the full series at InsideBayArea.com/bhutan.