US President Barack Obama on Wednesday lit a lamp to celebrate the Hindu holiday Diwali as he reached out to Asian Americans with a new initiative aimed at expanding opportunities.
Obama became the first US president to personally take part in a White House ceremony for the festival of lights, lighting a "diya" oil lamp inside the executive mansion and bowing respectfully before a Hindu priest.
"While this is a time of rejoicing, it's also a time for reflection, when we remember those who are less fortunate and renew our commitment to reach out to those in need," Obama said.
Obama used the occasion to sign an executive order setting up a commission, comprised of 20 members from a wide range of government agencies, to conduct a two-year study of how to assist Asian Americans.
The executive order saluted the success of many Asian Americans but pointed out that some communities -- Americans of Hmong, Cambodian and Malaysian descent -- suffer high rates of poverty.
One in five Asian Americans lacks health insurance, in part because more than one million of them are sole proprietors of businesses, the order said.
"It's tempting, given the strengths of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, for us to buy into the myth of the 'model minority' and to overlook the very real challenges that certain Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are facing," Obama said.
He also pointed to health disparities such as higher rates of diabetes and Hepatitis B, along with barriers to employment and workplace advancement.
Previous presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had also launched initiatives for Asian Americans.
But some community activists were upset that Bush's initiative, run under the Commerce Department, was tightly focused on business development rather than a range of issues.
Obama "has restored its broad mission to ensure that all federal agencies are addressing the needs of underserved Asian American and Pacific Islander communities," said Representative Mike Honda, who heads the community's caucus in Congress.