At the center of Gyanu Dulal’s childhood in a Bhutanese village was a Hindu temple.
It was where he, his parents, grandparents, extended family and neighbors gathered for daily prayers, community events and annual celebrations.
Now Dulal wants such a sacred space in the Beehive State, where he can join with about 2,000 Bhutanese refugees to practice their faith, preserve their traditions, and pass on their language.
“Our younger children are forgetting how to speak it,” he says, “and our senior people are isolated and depressed in their apartments because they have no place to practice their rituals.”
A group of Utah lawyers is stepping in to help.
It’s known as the Refugee Justice League and was organized a year ago by two longtime friends, attorneys Brad Parker and Jim McConkie.
More than 300 lawyers have volunteered their services for free.
The organization’s aim is to “defend the constitutional rights of refugees who have been discriminated against on the basis of religion, ethnicity or national origin.”
Refugees have “a right to feel welcome and to be treated with dignity,” the league’s mission statement says, and “to know that they have friends willing to defend their right to live peacefully in their new homeland, maintain their cultural preferences, and practice their religious devotions openly without restrictions or harassment.”
Helping the Bhutanese/Nepalese build a house of worship and community center seems to fit within that goal.
Matthew Wirthlin is a Salt Lake City real estate attorney with Holland & Hart and member of the league. He was unsure, however, how his talents would benefit refugees. Until now.
“I don’t get a lot of opportunities to use my skills to help people in need,” Wirthlin says. “But this particular project” taps his expertise.
The refugees are in the beginning phase, one he knows well: Setting up a religious nonprofit, considering locations, talking about land use and what it takes to build a sacred structure.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Wirthlin says, “to help folks who have experienced hardships I will never know.”
In fact, Dulal’s journey includes harsh details and persecution the refugee never could have imagined growing up in his idyllic Himalayan home squeezed between India and China.
Starting in the 17th century, Bhutan and Nepalese Hindus lived in peace side by side with Tibetan Buddhists in the southern part of the country, sharing the benefits of religious freedom to practice their faith.
Everyone, Dulal says, thrived.
In the 1980s, however, a new king came to power from a different ethnic group, Dulal says, and the government launched a campaign known as “One People, One Nation.”
The balance of power was upended as majority Buddhists imposed their religion and language on the Hindu minority, he says, while also pushing Hindus out of jobs, looting their businesses and raping their women.
When the Nepalese Bhutan population protested, Dulal says, some were arrested and accused of being terrorists.
They faced a stark choice: Leave the country or be killed.
In late 1990, his family escaped to Nepal, where they spent the next 17 years clustered in a refugee camp on a riverbank and eating rations provided by aid organizations. There, Dulal met his wife and the couple’s two children were born.
In 2008, the family emigrated as part of a U.N. refugee resettlement plan. The U.S. took some 60,000 Bhutanese, and the Dulals wound up in the Beehive State.
They’ve done well here, the patriarch says. His son earned a degree in engineering at the University of Utah, and his daughter is there now studying it as well.
Last year, the Bhutanese gathered at a Krishna temple for classes, dances and festivals. But the older members couldn’t understand the priest, Dulal says. “We need to have our own temple.”
The proposed temple and community center, wherever it ends up, will be open to Hindus, Buddhist, Kirats and similar faith minorities.
Such an inclusive space does not seem an unreasonable dream, says Wirthlin. As a member of Utah’s dominant Mormon religion, “I want to help them enjoy rights I totally take for granted.”