OAKLAND -- The first American citizen in the Mainali family didn't have to flee her country, grow up stateless in another or testify about her life to interviewers with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Her parents already handled all of that.

All baby Shreya Laxmi Mainali needed to do was arrive healthy, which she did, crying softly as she was born June 26 on the ninth floor at Highland Hospital.

"The life of Shreya will be much more better than ours," said Leela Mainali, exhausted but smiling after her daughter's birth. "She will be no more refugee now. She is an American citizen."

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Thirteen months after Leela Mainali flew from Nepal to California with her husband and his parents, Shreya's arrival heralded a new era for the Bhutanese family -- part of a wave of refugees who began arriving here and around the country three years ago. The 18 years they spent in a refugee camp seemed a world away, and Shreya will learn of it only from the stories shared by relatives in the years to come.

"From today, me and Leela become parents, with lots of responsibility," said Shreya's father, Benu Mainali. "I will give my concentration to the bright future of my child."

From the delivery room window, the 29-year-old father and grocery store worker caught a glimpse of the setting sun glowing over the Oakland flatlands and the San Francisco Bay beyond. He pressed the hand of his 21-year-old wife, who was too preoccupied to enjoy the view.

"I think I am going to die now," Leela Mainali said matter-of-factly, cutting loose from her usually shy demeanor as she suffered final bouts of labor pain before the birth. No, no, "you're doing great," cheered a chorus of professional attendants -- a doctor, nurses and a midwife.

As she comforted her daughter-in-law, 63-year-old Bishnu Mainali was struck by how differently births happen in their newly adopted country -- the bright lights and open window instead of a secluded room, the team of medics, the epidural, the drugs, the constant blip of machines. Instead of warm mustard oil, nurses brought ice packs. Still, the grandmother said in Nepali, some things are universal.

"It is always a hard time to give birth," she said.

Bishnu Mainali was planting radishes in a field in southern Bhutan in March 1982 when she went into labor with Benu, her eighth child of what would be nine. No doctors or nurses lived near their rural village at the foot of the Himalayas, but a neighbor rushed over to help. They placed a coin over the umbilical cord, and cut it with a knife.

Bishnu Mainali, like her son, also was born outside, beneath the shade of a lemon tree in 1948 near the Bhutanese village of Budichu.

How much Shreya cares to learn about these stories will be a mystery to the Mainalis until she grows up, but they hope to instill in her a curiosity about her heritage -- and her people's exodus -- while letting her be free to choose her own path, the couple said.

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"I will be giving her some culture and tradition of my forefathers," Benu Mainali said. "And she should adapt here with the culture and traditions here. She will get both. I have to take her to Bhutan, to Nepal, in order to let her know where her parents were born, where her grandparents were born."

With family roots in Bhutan since at least the early 20th century, and a thriving farm business of orange groves, cardamom and vegetables, farmers Bishnu and Devi Charan Mainali -- Benu's parents -- had no plans to live anywhere else. Political turmoil uprooted them in the early 1990s and forced them to leave everything they knew behind.

Descendants of Nepali migrants who settled in southern Bhutan generations earlier, the Mainalis and thousands of other families suddenly lost their citizenship in the kingdom of their birth. A royal government concerned about the rapid growth of its Nepali-speaking minority imposed new rules on them. More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis fled across the southern border. Neighboring India refused to let them stay, so the United Nations put them up in a cluster of refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

They lived in the crowded camps for 16 years before the U.S. and other countries began welcoming the refugees in 2008, dispersing them across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Leela Mainali's parents still live in a bamboo hut in the camp and await their resettlement.

More than 40,300 Bhutanese refugees have moved to the U.S. in the three years since the resettlement began, and more than 1,100 of them had moved to California as of July 1, according to official figures. At least 20,000 more are expected to arrive in the U.S. soon as the refugee camps empty out.

A few months before the Mainalis arrived in May 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 272 Oakland residents who identify as Bhutanese, higher than other West Coast cities but still just a tiny shard in the region's ethnic mosaic. Another 77 live across the estuary in Alameda, the census found.

The community felt much larger than that, at least in spirit, when the Mainalis held a naming ceremony for their newborn daughter July 6. Hindu tradition requires the ceremony be held on the 11th day after birth.

The city's burgeoning Bhutanese community -- many fellow Hindus, others Buddhist or Christian -- flooded the family's East Oakland apartment, but so did Vietnamese-American, African-American and Mexican-American families the young couple has befriended in the past year through work and neighborly interactions.

One of the first to arrive to the festivities was Purna Mongar, who was the first Bhutanese refugee that international organizations sent to Oakland in early 2008, beating the Mainalis by two years. This was at least his seventh naming ceremony in Oakland, said Mongar, including his son's. Administering the services was another refugee, Hem Ghimirey, a former schoolteacher whose scriptural knowledge makes him the closest the East Bay Bhutanese community has to its own Hindu priest.

The Mainalis picked the baby's first name on their own at the hospital. Shreya means auspicious. After an elaborate, hours-long ceremony, Ghimirey helped them select a middle name -- Laxmi, after the goddess of wealth.

Then, they celebrated with a feast and a round of whiskey for the guests.

"I don't know what kind of mother I will be, but I want to be the best mother," Leela Mainali said. "The most important thing is love and care, according to the interest of the child."

About the series
This is part of an occasional series following the Mainali family, who relocated from Bhutan to Oakland as part of a larger influx of political refugees and are continuing to adjust to their new country. Read the entire series and see photos and videos at InsideBayArea.com/bhutan.