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Families struggle, comfort each other after Nepal earthquake
The destruction also means another kind of broken dream for many Nepali people in the U.S., since it's common to buy homes in Nepal for their families, and for their own retirement. For those people, the homes in Nepal, now ruined, represent a loss of their life savings. - photo by Lane Anderson
Adhikaar is a nonprofit advocacy group in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of New York's most diverse neighborhoods, and home to the majority of New York's estimated 40,000 Nepalese residents. Until last week, Adhikaar provided English lessons and worker's rights advocacy to about 1,000 Nepali women mostly nannies and nail salon workers.

But since the earthquake rocked Nepal a week ago Saturday, those women have flooded Adhikaar's bright red door on Woodside Avenue, and it has become an impromptu crisis center for members seeking help with making phone calls, finding family and seeking comfort.

"Women who know their families are OK are worried about what will happen next week if they will run out of food and water. Other women can't get ahold of their families," says Sonam Dolker, Adhikaar's program director. She offers tea and consolation. There have been lots of hugs, she says, and tears.

"Suddenly, we are disaster relief," says Dolker, 22, who lived in Nepal until age 12.

Like many Nepalis living in the U.S., most of Adhikaar's members left to get work in the U.S. to send money back to families in Nepal. Some are mothers who have not seen their children for years.

"They have been raising their kids via Skype, and now they can't get through," says Narbada Chhetri, Adhikaar's director of advocacy. It's frightening for them, she says, because with aftershocks and food and water shortages, women have been eager to check in with their families from day to day.

Communication remains one of the biggest issues since the earthquake, and though in some ways it's business as usual at Adhikaar on a Sunday afternoon a half-dozen women sit around a table for English lessons, under a map of the globe where Nepal is outlined in black marker a steady stream of visitors come in for information.

Kanchi Shrestha moved to the U.S. just four months ago, and she works as a housekeeper and comes to Adhikaar for English lessons. She has two adult daughters in Kalanki, a suburb of Kathmandu, and both are safe, she says, but they are living under a tarpaulin in their yard. She doesn't have regular cellphone access, so she has her family leave messages here with the staff.

Facebook and social media have taken on a special role for families to stay in touch, but it's not available to everyone. "The Internet is a luxury in Nepal," says Luna Ranjit, 37, executive director and co-founder of Adhikaar. "Not everyone can afford it."

Electricity is also an issue. Ranjit reached one of her cousins by cellphone only to hear her voice for a few moments before her phone died. "That was four or five days ago, and she left me a voicemail, but now I don't know what's happening," she says. Last she heard, family members, who own a moving business, were living inside of moving trucks.

For Nepalese families in the U.S., the constant feed of images and information on social media is both a blessing and a curse. For some, it's a reliable way to maintain comforting around-the-clock contact, says Priti Behry, 29, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 10, along with her parents, but whose extended family is in Kathmandu. Her Facebook feed is flooded with images and updates from her friends in the Nepali community.

"We feel so disconnected," says Behry, whose feed is filled with images of leveled neighborhoods in Kathmandu. "I think of Nepal as peaceful and beautiful, and now I can't not think about the destruction. At the same time, it keeps me close to it."

The destruction also means another kind of broken dream for many Nepali people in the U.S., since it's common to buy homes in Nepal for their families, and for their own retirement. For those people, the homes in Nepal, now ruined, represent a loss of their life savings. Sending money home is so common among Nepali workers abroad that 25 percent of the country's GDP is made up of remittance money, according to the World Bank.

"Many people will build a house in Nepal first for their families, and won't buy a home for themselves. It's the only home they own," says Narbada Chhetri, Adhikaar's director of advocacy.

Her 50-year-old aunt, who has worked in the U.S. for decades as a housekeeper, doesn't own a home in America, but instead bought a home in Kathmandu for her grandmother to live in. She had plans to retire there. "Now that dream is shattered. Her life savings are gone."

Luna Ranjit is worried about her family's home for different reasons. Her 73-year-old mother, Panna Devit Ranjit, came to the United States to visit last month, and watched the devastation in her home country on TV in Queens. Relatives have reported that the home is still standing, but the 80-year-old structure will almost certainly not be safe to live in.

"It was already a twisted house," says Luna Ranjit, who adds that the house was tilted in the last earthquake in 1937. Her mother's tourist visa expires in July, and she is concerned about what she will be sending her mother back to, and whether she will have a roof over her head.

Cases like Ranjit's mother's have raised questions about what can be done for Nepalese in the U.S. on tourist and work visas, and those who are working here undocumented and face the prospect of going back to a ruined home and a reeling country.

Ranjit, Dolker and a small group from Adhikaar attended a press conference Sunday at New York Sen. Chuck Shumer's office that called on the Department of Homeland Security to offer temporary protected status, or TPS, to Nepalese nationals in the U.S. It would allow people like Punna Ranjit to stay beyond their visas and get permission to work.

Many of them are suffering because their relatives have been lost or died. Many more are suffering because their homes and villages and towns and neighborhoods have been utterly destroyed, Schumer said. To send them back to Nepal right now would be wrong.

The special status would also allow people like the women who frequent Adhikaar to return to their homeland to see family and stricken relatives and still return to the U.S.

Shumer's press conference, and a week of successful disaster fundraising so far Adhikaar has raised over $46,000 in relief funds on its Indiegogo campaign had the staff in better spirits on Sunday. On returning to the office, they took a break with a meal of rice, daal and eggplant that they ate with their hands, in the Nepali tradition.

Several thousand more dollars were raised at private parties and barbecues over the weekend, where members of the Nepalese community invited friends and neighbors to donate to a network of small, spontaneously born volunteers that, Ranjit says, have been the first on the scene in small villages in south-central Nepal.

The good news will help get them through the coming days, says Dolker, as hopes for survivors and missing persons will diminish. "It feels good to do anything we can," she says. "We feel less helpless."
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