Pittsburgh’s large population of refugees from Bhutan and Nepal has been in the national news for years. Thousands of immigrants fleeing political persecution in those countries have made their way here, many settling in the South Hills. And the city’s dining scene has even been enlivened by a handful of restaurants serving Himalayan cuisine.
But Til Gurung thinks it’s time for Pittsburghers with roots in that part of the world to join forces for a single event. Gurung, himself a Bhutanese refugee who’s lived here since 2011, has organized the inaugural Himalayan Cultural Exhibition and Food Festival. The two-day event takes place this weekend at at indoor facilities in South Park, including the agricultural hall, museum, and fairground buildings.
“This is an opportunity for you to meet and interact with the Himalayan people, enjoy the Himalayan food and music, without actually flying to the Himalayas,” he quipped in a phone interview.
The event is sponsored by the Himalayan Foundation USA, which Gurung founded in 2016 to aid needy refugees and preserve their way of life. Between political repression in their homelands and the accelerating pace of modern life, he said, “Our culture is ending so fast that we are worried that it may vanish within 30 or 50 years. We want change, but not to the extent that we get extinct.”
The foundation holds cultural and language classes for children and adults, and hopes to one day establish a Himalayan Cultural Center here, he said. In the meantime, the new festival is intended to highlight Himalayan culture and build bridges with non-immigrant communities in Pittsburgh.
The festival will feature singing, dance, and displays of everything from traditional farming implements to photos of life in Bhutan and Nepal.
Special guests include acclaimed Bhutanese singer Kiran Zajmer. “He was born in one of the refugee camps in Nepal,” says Gurung. “He came to U.S. when he was a young boy, but he built up his singing skills.”
Other performers include leading Bhutanese singer Pratap Subba.
As with any cultural festival, food will be a key attraction. Dishes from Bhutan and Nepal will be somewhat familiar to lovers of Indian cuisine, but features distinctive forms and flavors.
“Most of the people here, they love momo, which is dumpling; chow mein, which is noodle; or they can even simply come and try Nepali food — rice, vegetable and lentil soup,” said Gurung.
Gurung was born in 1968. He said growing up in Bhutan, he volunteered to serve those in need. But in the ’80s, Bhutanese government policies grew increasingly oppressive toward certain ethnic groups.
Some citizens were expelled outright, and others, like Gurung and his family, were persecuted until they left. Starting in 1993, Gurung, his wife and three children spent nearly 16 years living in a refugee camp in Nepal.
Gurung came to the U.S. in 2009, and lived in Oakland, Calif., before moving to Pittsburgh. He now lives in Brentwood and works as an occupational therapy aide.
Interviewed 10 days before the new festival, he said he expected to host seven food vendors and another 20 booths run by both businesses and nonprofit groups.
The festival runs 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 30, and Sun., Oct. 31.