NEW YORK – Inside the temple in New York’s Queens borough, monks in maroon robes chanted and lit incense and candles on an altar in front of a golden Buddha statue.
Earlier, on the sidewalk outside, people with face masks, shopping baskets and reusable bags stood in a socially distanced line stretching two blocks, waiting to carry rice, fruit and vegetables they badly needed to get through the difficult times due to the pandemic.
“It’s really a big help because you get everything fresh, organic,” said Jyoti Rajbanshi, a Nepalese nursing student at Long Island University who lost her job and had to use her health cards. credit and rely on the weekly pantry. “And then at least you don’t have to spend money on groceries.
The United Sherpa Association launched the food program from scratch last April as the coronavirus ravaged the borough and other parts of the city. The Buddhist temple and community center serves all comers, including immigrants living in the country without legal permission and the swollen ranks of the unemployed, but it has become a particularly important lifeline for Nepali students living thousands of miles away. of their family.
Some have been forced by the closures to leave the dormitories where they previously ate most of their meals. They are not eligible for federal stimulus checks. Their student visas generally do not allow them to work full-time or off-campus to support themselves. And there is often little help from home, with families in their country heavily dependent on tourism battling mightily during the pandemic.
“They don’t have unemployment insurance. They don’t have a home here. They are far from home,” said Urgen Sherpa, president of the association, who describes the students it helps as “unknown victims” of the coronavirus.
They are among approximately 2 million New Yorkers facing food insecurity, a number that is believed to have nearly doubled amid the biggest rise in unemployment since the Great Depression.
At the start of the pandemic, residents of Queens’ immigrant-rich neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona have been hit hard and have tested positive for the virus in greater numbers than in other parts of the city. The United Sherpa Association closed its temple and canceled sports programs, cultural activities, and Sherpa and Nepali language classes.
It also sprang into action to help those in difficulty, with members calling contacts around the world to import masks, gloves and hand sanitizer that were often out of stock at local stores. The association has provided stipends of $500 to more than 30 students and mobilized an army of volunteers to make home deliveries of personal protective equipment and food boxes.
When the pantry was launched, news spread on social media and students volunteered to collect food and distribute it every Friday outside the temple, located in a former Christian church. .
Some of the volunteers are beneficiaries themselves, like Tshering Chhoki Sherpa, a 26-year-old graduate student from Baruch College who started working there in July.
“It feels good to be a part of it,” she said, “and also to get help.”
Beyond mere sustenance, the pantry also comforts the spirit, she said: “When I come here I feel like I’m back home because everyone speak in Nepali.”
Like many temple devotees, she belongs to the Sherpa, an ethnic group from the Himalayan region whose members are known to work as guides and support staff for adventurers who come to climb Mount Everest and other of the highest peaks. of the world.
Nepal, a country of 30 million people, has been closed to foreigners for much of the last year due to the pandemic, devastating the tourism industry and leading to the closure of businesses and the loss of jobs . Tshering Chhoki Sherpa’s family, for their part, temporarily closed the hotel they ran on one of the hiking trails to Everest, and they made do in New York thanks to savings and security guards. to eat.
Nepal has also been hit hard by the virus and a shortage of available hospital beds has led the government to ask patients with fewer symptoms to self-isolate. Thus, for struggling students in New York, returning home was not seen as a viable solution.
Rajbanshi said his parents both contracted COVID-19. His uncle too, who died. She has not seen her family in Nepal for three years and she is worried about them.
It’s a common feeling.
“In Nepal, I hear more difficult news every day,” said 23-year-old Mina Shaestha, who has postponed her entrance to LaGuardia Community College due to the pandemic. “People are starving. They stay in the same room because of the quarantine.
Her partner works part-time at a grocery store, and with little money coming in, the potatoes, onions, pasta, pumpkins and milk they get from the pantry are crucial to feeding them as well as their 2 year old son.
“We save money for food and we can pay for extra things, like rent,” Shaesta said.
Pantry volunteer Dechhen Karmo Sherpa, a 16-year-old American born to Nepalese parents, said she was moved to support him because she saw a community in need.
It was “a way to really give back,” she said, “at a time when you feel so helpless.”
This story was first published on February 14, 2021. It was updated on February 16, 2021 to correct the spelling of the name of pantry volunteer Dechhen Karmo Sherpa.
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