See democracy in action, as these Portland newcomers elect their local leadership …
Members of Portland’s Bhutanese community line up to vote for their community’s leaders at David Douglas High School.
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Bhutan is a landlocked state in South Asia, located at the eastern end of the Himalayas. In the 1990s, Bhutan forced about one-fifth of its population to leave the country in the name of “preserving its culture”.
These Bhutanese survived, for a generation, in UN-sponsored temporary camps in the Republic of Nepal, before they were granted political asylum by host countries, including the United States. About 1,000 of them settled in the greater Portland area. Now, they have held an election to determine their leadership.
Master of Ceremonies Utsav Pokhrel, and organizer Som N. Subedi, pause for a photo during the event.
“This is our first effort at participatory democracy,” said Som N. Subedi, the contact person with the Bhutanese Community Election of Governing Board Directors, held on May 11 at David Douglas High School located in outer East Portland.
Subedi worked with the all-volunteer staff, making sure everything ran smoothly. Afterward, he explained why so many members of his community, including himself, put so much effort into the election.
“We haven’t had an organization since we got here in the Portland metro area, under the United States refugee-resettlement program. During these five years, we selected some people from the community, and formed a couple of organizations that didn’t work.
After having their identification verified, these Bhutanese vote for new leadership for their Board of Directors.
“After forming and dismantling [these organizations],” Subedi told East Portland News, “I thought holding an election was the last and best democratic solution for the formation of our Bhutanese Organization. Bhutanese in Oregon could choose their best candidates to serve their organization.”
Although he’d been “dreaming” of such an election for years, Subedi explained, the Bhutanese Election Commission of Oregon was formed on February 9 of this year. These volunteers, he said, gave more than 500 hours of service, and drove more than 500 miles to organize the election.
This voter casts her ballot, supervised by volunteer Steve Sieg, a family mentor and sponsor to the Bhutanese community.
“17 different election models came up during the process of framing, but Election Commissioners and candidates brought a new model, and agreed to move forward.”
Members of the Bhutanese community streamed into the David Douglas High’s North Cafeteria – arriving by carpool and by complementary bus service provided by volunteer drivers, such as Lore Evergreen from the East Portland Action Plan.
More than 500 people attended, including guests from the refugee resettlement offices, State refugee coordination office, the Mayor’s office, the New Portlanders Program, and nonprofit organizations such as the Asian Pacific Network of America and the Center for Intercultural Organizing.
Portland Police Bureau East Prescient Commander Michael Lee and Captain Mark Kruger meet, and take photos with, Bhutanese families and kids.
“379 community members voted,” Subedi reported.
Chhabi Koirala was elected President, Hem Ghimire, Vice President; and Deepak Koirala, Dhan Bir Gurung, Nanda Ghising, Shiva Nepal and Mani Gajmere were elected to their Board of Directors.
Looking ahead, Subedi said the new leadership will seek 501(c)3 non-profit status. “And, they will help preserve the culture and identity of the Bhutanese community, integration of the Bhutanese community into the mainstream system, and help the community members navigate the resources available.”
Caterer Harjinder Chand of Namaste Restaurant sets up chafing dishes for the banquet.
According to the Board President Chhabi Koirala, the new leadership will focus more on their community’s self-sufficiency.
It was worth the effort, Subedi said. “We hope our election provides a good model to other new communities in the future.”
The serious business of electing new leadership turns into a party, as community members and guests serve themselves a delicious dinner.
© 2013 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News