NEW YORK – Inside the temple in New York’s Queens Quarter, monks in brown robes sang and lit incense and candles on an altar in front of a golden Buddha statue.
Earlier, on the sidewalk outside, people wearing face masks, baskets and reusable bags stood in a socially distant line spanning two blocks, waiting to haul rice, fruit and vegetables. vegetables they needed so badly to get through the difficult times of the pandemic.
“It’s really a big help because you get everything fresh and 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 kicked off 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 serve all comers, including immigrants living in the country without legal permission and the swollen ranks of the unemployed, but it has become an especially important lifeline for Nepalese students living thousands of miles away. of their family.
Some have been forced by the blockades 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 at home, with families in their heavily tourism-dependent countries struggling 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 calls on students to help” unknown victims “of the coronavirus.
They are among an estimated 2 million New York City residents facing food insecurity, a number that is believed to have nearly doubled amid the biggest increase in unemployment since the Great Depression.
At the start of the pandemic, residents of the immigrant-rich neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona in Queens were hit hard and tested positive for the virus in greater numbers than in other parts of the city. United Sherpa has closed its temple and canceled sports programs, cultural activities, and Sherpa and Nepalese language courses.
It also took 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 paid $ 500 in stipends to more than 30 students and mobilized an army of volunteers to make home deliveries of personal protective equipment and boxes of food.
When the pantry was launched, word spread across social media and students volunteered to collect food and distribute it every Friday outside the temple, housed in a former Christian church. .
Some of the volunteers are beneficiaries themselves, such as Tshering Chhoki Sherpa, a 26-year-old graduate student at Baruch College who started working there in July.
“It feels good to be a part of it,” she said, “and also to get some help.”
Beyond just sustenance, the pantry also comforts the mind, she said: “When I come here I feel like I’m back home because everyone speaks Nepali. ”
Like many temple worshipers, 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 world’s highest peaks. .
Nepal, a country of 30 million people, has been closed to foreigners much of last year due to the pandemic, devastating the tourism industry and leading to business closures and job losses . 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 with savings and keeping it. -to eat.
Nepal has also been hit hard by the virus, and the shortage of available hospital beds has led the government to ask patients with less severe symptoms to self-isolate at home. So for struggling students in New York City, going home was not seen as a viable solution.
Rajbanshi said his parents both contracted COVID-19. His uncle too, who is deceased. She has not seen her family in Nepal for three years and is worried about them.
It’s a common feeling.
“In Nepal every day I hear harsher news,” said Mina Shaestha, 23, who has postponed her entry 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 in a grocery store, and with little money, the potatoes, onions, pasta, pumpkins and milk they get from the pantry are essential to feed them and their children. 2 year old son.
“We save the food money and we can pay for the extra things, like rent,” Shaesta said.
Pantry volunteer Dechhen Karmo Sherpa, a 16-year-old U.S.-born teenager to Nepalese parents, said she was moved to support him because she saw a community in need.
It was “a way to give back,” she said, “at a time when you feel so helpless.”
This story was first posted 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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