Through out the day last Saturday, the Berkeley waterfront was alive with unique and delightful sounds, sights and smells as the Newar Organization of Northern California brought together an assembly in honor of their culture. The Newar people make up one distinct ethnic group out of several dozen native to the Himalayas of Nepal. The August 3rd Newar gathering of family and friends, centered around a splendidly decorative stage, and large banquet spread carefully over several tables. Nearly 150 attended, enjoying the traditional foods and festivities in celebration of Newar traditions and community in the Bay Area. Brightly colored cloth tents were erected and traditional ornaments, flags and medallions, decorated the assembly grounds. Youth gathered for games and soccer in the adjoining green as speakers shared the stage, presenting stories, poetry, song and dance.
The 2011 Nepal Census found Newars to be Nepal's sixth largest ethnic group.
They are also one of the oldest, inhabiting the Kathmandu valley since prehistoric times. Their language, classified as Tibeto-Burman, has been strongly influenced by the Indo-Aryan languages which dominate the Indian subcontinent to the south. Similarly, Newar religion reflects a mixture of both Hindu and Buddhist practices.
Lalit Shresthe, speaking at the event, urged parents to continue speaking Newari at home. "Children of other ethnic groups have succeeded in carrying on their native language in addition to English" he said, "we are free to do the same." Event organizer Amrit Karmacharya explained, "our language is quite different, we are part of the Nepali community but we have our own traditions, that is what brings us together…meeting as a group like this is a great way for us to carry on our language and values."
Bishu Shakya a respected elder of the community, asked for "people to be true to the religion they are from. All over the world, this is my utmost request." His folk songs accompanied by drumming and instrumentation brought cheers of enjoyment. Shortly after, Iswar Maskey spoke, relating his experience of coming to San Francisco 35 years ago. "At that time there were only two Nepali in the Bay Area. It wasn't easy. I felt like a chick dropped in an eagles nest. I am proud to see more and more Newars living here and the community growing."
Growth has not only been seen among the Newar, but more broadly, the Nepalese community has expanded significantly in recent years. The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) reports that numbers in the area have increased recently due to social unrest in Nepal. Sahayeta.org, a Bay-area Nepalese Alliance, describes "an influx of international students, political refugees and immigrants entering the Bay Area." Co-founder and president, Nisha Thapa, estimates that nearly 20,000 Nepalese now live in the San Francisco Bay area.
With so many immigrants coming from backgrounds that contrast sharply with those typical of this nation, there has been a pressing need for supportive community platform. That is what Sahayeta.org is all about, making it their mission "to facilitate integration…through education, information and mentorship." Since it was founded six years ago Sahayeta.org has aimed "to connect these individuals with resources to get them situated in their new environment while helping create a sense of community by celebrating the Himalayan heritage and culture." The organization serving as an essential resource for the community has also provided support in areas such as health, education, job training and legal assistance. In addition to Sahayeta, other organizations home to the Bay Area and serving a similar mission are Motherland Nepal (motherlandnepal.org) and the Nepali Association of Northern California (NANC).
Interestingly, all of these organizations were founded by community members who themselves were immigrants to the U.S. Certainly this speaks of the unique ability of those who have successfully coped with such adjustments to help others who are faced with similar challenges. President of the Newar Organization Narayan Somname, voiced this sentiment at the gathering on Saturday when he said "every group needs to preserve their own culture. Our main goal for this assembly has been to bring community together to support Newar culture and especially our language." The large turnout of families and the full-spirited enjoyment of their community that was witnessed on Saturday is perhaps the best testimonial to success in this area.