We slowly drive back to the apartments, the scenery outside changing from outdated townhomes to upscale ghettos. Four Bhutanese women—Madhu, Chandra, Durga, and Lachi—are crammed into my car, Hobby Lobby shopping bags clutched between their knees. After an hour-long yarn-purchasing expedition, we have exhausted the limited conversation that their basic English and my pathetic Hindi can provide. So we have settled into an anxious silence, waiting for someone to introduce a topic that everyone can easily understand.
The last of the townhomes slide by when Madhu, the eldest and ringleader of the women, speaks up. “My house burned down.”
I pause. “What?” I ask, thoroughly confused. I was just in front of her apartment, and from the outside, it looked fine, albeit missing the glass for the sliding balcony door.
“My house burned down,” Madhu repeats, a little more confidently.
“…at your apartment?”
“Noooo,” Mahdu says, and laughs. “In Nepal.”
Fires are painfully common within the Bhutanese refugee camps, where overcrowding, rudimentary cooking facilities and ethnic persecution often result in some form of conflagration. But in March 2008 the worst fire broke out, destroying over 1200 huts and displacing some 8,000 refugees, who had already been displaced for nearly 20 years [i]. I was familiar with the tragedy, and had even referenced it when talking with potential supporters in my previous job, but I never really imagined one of the survivors being my friend.
“What happened?” I ask Madhu. She crooks her head and then begins speaking with Chandra in Nepali. Chandra, who knows about thirty more words of English than the other ladies, is the resident English expert and translator.
“She says that there was a fire, and her house burned down, and they had to live in the forest,” Chandra says. The “forest” of course, being the jungle.
“How long did you live in the forest?” A flurry of Nepali passes through the car. “Until they came here.”
“It was very bad,” says Madhu, stretching out the word “very” into three syllables, and laughs. “I was so sad. I cried for two days.” She laughs again. “But I am here now and I am very happy!” She laughs, and this time, the whole car laughs with her.
As the world mourns for Japan, my thoughts keep turning to Madhu. Three years ago, as she stared at the charred remains of her home, gathering any salvageable pieces of her life to take with her to the jungle, she could not have imagined ever becoming an American businesswoman. Yet here she is, one of the founding artisans of the Community Cloth, and leader of four other women. Her apartment serves as “home base” for the group, where they knit together, chatting and encouraging one another. But she didn’t get this far solely through resettlement agencies and relief aid; Madhu made it because she did what she does best—laugh. Surrounded by destruction, she found joy and humor, and embraced it. Madhu is not the sole possessor of this quality. Virtually every single Cloth artisan has the most amazing laugh, laughing when things are funny, laughing at sad stories of their lives, laughing because there is nothing to talk about. Their laughter is infectious, and represents the soul of the Cloth.
Even as the news from Fukushima becomes grimmer, I hope one of the survivors is able to look around them—look at the destruction, look at their family, and look to the future of rebuilding—and find peace. And I hope they can laugh.
Postscript: This month, another major fire broke out in the Goldhap refugee camp in Nepal. Over 600 huts were destroyed, including the World Food Program-led food store, and 25 were injured. To make a donation towards rebuilding, contact:
Bhadra Rai, Director of the Bhutanese Community of Houston
Checks can be made to:
Bhutanese Community of Houston
6601 Sands Point Dr. #18
Houston, TX 77074
Walking up to Narmaya’s door, it’s obvious that behind it is a lively home because there are so many pairs of bright colored flip flops on the mat. I kick off my shoes and step inside a different world that looks like a little Nepal, even carrying its faraway scents. Narmaya greets you with a tired but warm smile. She lives with her three daughters, one son, her husband and his parents – eight people share this two-room home. Some of the things I see when I first walk in are Christmas lights strung around the ceiling, pictures of family, a calendar, a large bag of rice and an altar with incense on it. In the corner drying on sheets of a newspaper are bits of lettuce, onion and celery steeped in red hot spices which will be incorporated into the family’s meals that week.
My sweet friend utters one word, a question, a welcome and a comfort, all in one – “tea?” Of course I accept but this time I ask to watch how she prepares the chai. I step into her tiny white-walled kitchen as she retrieves a small pot and locates the necessities: a large bag of Assam black tea, milk, sugar, and pepper. She boils the water, throws in a small handful of black tea, some sugar, a hearty dose of black pepper, and lets it simmer. She stirs and adds milk. There is no need for measuring spoons, she has been doing this same ritual for years and has it down to a science. She takes the rich colored tea off the heat and strains it into a mug. The temperature of the chai is perfect, the taste, consistently delicious. Having a tray to serve tea and fruit on is a necessity as hospitality is extremely important in the Bhutanese and Nepali cultures. In fact, it seems the essentials for entertaining include: a chair for your guest, a tray and a small table for tea.
Even though Narmaya is not drinking tea, she has prepared some for me. Before I leave, I make sure to check with her on finished knitting projects. A lovely light blue scarf and a white scarf materialize. She is also skilled at knitting wonderful shawls and shrugs and has a good eye for colors and textures. We check the length and quality of the scarves and make sure they have tags and prices. Sometimes it is difficult to convey to the artisans the value of their time or their handmade, detailed work but we let them set prices. As I finish another unforgettable cup of tea, slip on my sandals and head out the door with precious scarves in tow, I’m eager to share the stories of the admirable woman that created them.
Editor’s Foreword: Welcome to our blog! This is the first in a series of weekly posts that you can find every Thursday, right here. We will cover a range of topics from upcoming events to the cultures of origin of our women. We hope you find them insightful and provocative. If you like what you read, keep coming back and tell your friends! If you are inspired by the quiet courage of our women, get involved!
With much gratitude,
The Community Cloth
If you educate a boy, you educate a person. If you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.
- Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary General, U.N, paraphrasing an old African proverb
March 8 was International Women’s Day. Many events are still occurring around the world, and will continue throughout March. Observed since the early 1900s, International Women’s Day is a reminder that the health, vitality, and economic well-being of a society is directly linked to the freedom and equality that women experience. Each incremental footstep of empowerment for women has an exponential impact on society. When women are empowered to pursue their dreams, society flourishes.
This is something we as Americans take for granted, but it wasn’t always true for us, and it isn’t yet true for many cultures around the world.
Rosie the Riveter is one of the iconic images of America – feminine and strong. Rosie represents the unyielding belief that hard work and perseverance will lead to achievement, personally and communally. WE can do it. The rising tide of empowerment for women lifts all of society’s boats.
The world is full of Rosies, but many cultures do not value or allow for the full expression of freedom or pursuit of hopes and dreams. For many, America continues to be a land of opportunity, welcoming their talents and values. The path is long and difficult, and making it to America is a testament to their courage and fortitude. Many women end up in Houston, a place of unparalleled diversity that appreciates all cultures of origin. It is here that women from all corners of the earth can dare to dream, and it is here that The Community Cloth can be a catalyst to enable women in this pursuit to share their stories of struggle and success.
We look forward to sharing some of these stories with you and hope you find them as stirring as we have.