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Richmond's Indian community is one family

Richmond's Indian community is one family

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A community is often defined by addresses on mailboxes or school boundary lines.

Sometimes, though, it has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with a universal sense of service to and respect for one another.

In Richmond's small but growing Indian population, there is such a feeling. It transcends economic and social circles and turns a blind eye to one's origins. Northern or southern India — Chester or Short Pump — it doesn't matter where you're from or where you live now.

Housewives and high-ranking officials — everyone feels its reach.

"Richmond Indians are one family," said Lakshmi Suresh, a wife, mother of two children and for nearly a decade a Richmond resident. "Everybody is connected with each other."

She talked recently as she sat in an office inside the newer of two temple buildings on the grounds of the Hindu Center of Virginia in Henrico County's West End.

A native of Kerala, a state in southern India, Suresh moved to the United States with her husband 14 years ago. She serves on one of the Hindu Center's executive committees and volunteers nearly every day in all facets of temple activities.

Her children attend public schools. They visit the center often to take art classes and for other activities. Through the center and school, they'll learn more about India's many regions and customs in a way that Suresh admits she never did — with a broad stroke — despite growing up there.

All of her and her family's needs, be they spiritual or earthly, are close to their Glen Allen home. Life in Richmond, she said, is good.

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According to the most recent U.S. Census data estimates, there are more than 38,000 Asian residents living among metro Richmond's four largest localities. Asian countries of origin include India, as well as Korea, the Philippines, China and more.

Most — more than 21,000 people — live in Henrico, making up 6.8 percent of the county's residents. That surpasses the statewide average of 5.8 percent.

In Chesterfield, 3.4 percent of the population is of Asian descent, or nearly 11,000 people, followed by more than 4,700 people in Richmond. Just over 1,500 people call Hanover County home.

But go back just 20 years and those numbers would have been much smaller. Hindu Center officials estimate that during the mid-1980s the Indian population in Richmond was about one-tenth the size it is today.

Sapna Schardein, 34, remembers being the only Indian student in her classes as a child.

An elementary school reading specialist, Schardein was born and raised in Richmond. Her parents moved here from southern India before she was born.

She'd go to temple with them on weekends, she said, often spending entire Sundays there. That schedule — American life during the week and temple life on the weekends — was one of the Western constructs they adopted, she said. Hinduism doesn't have a Sabbath. Devoted Hindu followers visit the temple for prayers every day.

But Sunday church services are the norm in America, so that's what they did.

"I had my school life and then I had my temple life, and those two things didn't really meet in between," Schardein said. She saw her Indian friends on the weekends or during special events or holidays.

"When I was little, I knew every single person" at temple, she said.

These days, newly married and working, Schardein doesn't go to the temple as often. When she does, however, "I don't recognize the people there now."

The growth also can be seen and felt in other ways — from local school divisions' efforts to promote their increasingly diverse student populations through international-themed activities for children and their parents, to the visibility of Indian restaurants, for example, and other Indian-owned stores and businesses.

Even the building of the new 20,000-square-foot temple at the Hindu Center two years ago points to the needs of a growing community.

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Hindu Center officials say immigrants and their families come to Richmond to work, and many are employed within the technology, engineering, law and medical fields. They stay and start families, having found a tight-knit network of people willing to lend a hand with anything from visa issues to medical care.

Mohini Nallapaneni, a teacher at the center and an employee with the Virginia Department of Transportation, cited an experience several years ago when she was burned in a kitchen fire.

During her hospital stay, she said, she was visited by many of the area's top Indian doctors who offered their assistance. They were people she'd met through her involvement with the center and just meeting people within the community. She's been in the United States for 16 years.

With all of the constant attention, she said, "the nurses thought I was some kind of celebrity."

Simply put, "the community is there for you," she said.

The sense of inclusion was a guiding principle when the Hindu Center on Springfield Road was built during the mid-1980s. Though one of four temples in the metro Richmond area, it's the only one that is nondenominational. Where other temples focus on one Hindu deity, multiple deities are found in the worship room at the Hindu Center temple.

"We are from different backgrounds but we work as one," said Lajpat Rai, chairman of the Hindu Center's board of trustees. "When people come here, they are welcomed that way and treated with respect."

He continued: "This temple represents all of India. We are all from different parts of India and we have different customs there, but here, we celebrate everyone together."

Geetha Ravindra spends every Sunday morning at the center working with a group of teens, all of whom were born and raised in the United States

For an hour or two, they leave their Western lives at the door of the small upstairs room in the older temple building and talk about their Indian lives — and things they typically don't mention at Friday night football games or around the school lunch table.

They willingly congregate to share stories and learn from one another about Hinduism and Indian culture and values. Few kids in the room attend the same high schools, a testament to the small number of Indian families within each of their respective neighborhoods.

But through this class they've become friends, bound by a curiosity to learn more about the India their parents know well but that they've only seen during occasional family trips.

Nishil Thakkar, 17, a student at Henrico High School, started coming to the class last year. Schoolwork and sports keep him busy, he said, but when another Indian classmate suggested he visit the class, he gave it a shot.

"I had so much going on in my life but never really had time to dedicate to religion," he said. The class has given him an outlet to learn more about his faith.

"You can't really be at school and talking about your religion or thinking about religion the same way you can here," he said.

Shireen Sarkan, 14, agreed.

The Maggie Walker Governor's School student said despite her American upbringing, "we want to get back to our roots. I want my kids to know where I'm from, too."

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Ravindra said community outreach is a large part of the class. The teens work with local food banks, Habitat for Humanity and more. They also partner with youth from other churches and synagogues, as well as local schools.

Everyone learns from each other.

"These are kids who don't have to be here," Ravindra said. "They can make a choice on Sunday mornings to sleep in or do homework, but they've all made a conscious choice to learn a little bit about their culture and their faith."

Teens, regardless of race, face a lot of challenges nowadays, she said.

"If they can at least feel that they have a belief system and a value system that they can depend on to make good choices," she said, "that can give them strength."

The Festival of India is almost here — Schardein can feel it in her bones.

The two-day event takes place Saturday and Sept. 30 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It's central Virginia's second-largest ethnic festival, drawing tens of thousands of people.

Schardein recalled the excitement that used to swirl around her home in the months and weeks leading up to it. The hundreds of pieces of chicken her mother cooked in their kitchen in preparation for the food booths, the revolving door of "aunties" and "uncles" who stopped by to help, and dance practices for her and her friends.

She and her sister would take unfinished homework along because, other than going home late at night to sleep, they spent their whole weekend at the festival.

"It was the weekend we all looked forward to (and) it was amazing," she said. "It felt like a month long because it was just such an intense experience."

Hindu Center President Rambabu Chirumamilla said the festival is as much a celebration of all of India's people as it is an opportunity to connect with all of Richmond.

"The whole focus is about the diversity of India," he said. "We come in all hues, all shapes, all sizes.

"It's not a Hindu thing," he stressed. "It's a culture thing."

It's a culture that Michael Rao knows well.

As Virginia Commonwealth University's president, Rao said he sees Indians as strong leaders in Richmond's business, social and philanthropic communities. The university recently began a partnership with the Indian community that explores its impact and influence in the city.

But that culture also extends into his daily life as a father and husband.

Rao's late father was Indian, and so is his wife, whom he met when he traveled to India to see his father's homeland.

Indians as a people, he said, "are deeply committed to family (and) very interested in enriching the American landscape with the incredibly important values" found in their culture.

"We're just pretty much interested in humanity," he said. "We believe in the potential that all human beings possess."

A community is often defined by addresses on mailboxes or school boundary lines.

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According to the

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The sense of

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The Festival of India


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