New York’s Nepalis: “How Do We Build a Country?”

Purushotam Khadgi places a donation jar for earthquake victims at the cash register.

Purushotam Khadgi put a donation jar for earthquake victims at the cash register of his Woodside Cafe (Natasha Payés/ NY City Lens).


Hard knocks on Anshu Khadka’s bedroom door jarred her out of her sleep early Saturday morning. It was 5 a.m. and the knocking was from her roommate, to inform her of an earthquake that had just struck Nepal—the biggest in several decades. Thousands were injured. Hundreds were dead.

In a panic, Khadka grabbed her phone and called her parents, who live in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. But Khadka couldn’t reach her mother. She tried phoning her dad, but again got no answer. For the next two hours, as tears streamed down her face, Khadka kept trying to call her parents, but to no avail. Finally, a few minutes after 7 a.m., Khadka got a text from her younger brother who also lives in New York. It read: Mom and dad are fine.

Khadka, 22, a sophomore at Queens College, wasn’t the only Nepali in the city who phoned home in desperation to see if relatives had survived the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25. Those interviewed for this story said their families were safe, but larger questions and fears loomed: With no access to running water, food, and electricity, what is to come in the following days? Moreover, how will Nepalis rebuild their country?

“It took more than two years to build a small bridge over the Bagmati River,” said Khadka, as way of an example of the difficulties that lie ahead. “I don’t know how we’re going to build a country.”

Purushotam Khadgi, owner of the Woodside Café in Jackson Heights, tried contacting his two brothers and sister-in-law for five hours when he learned of the earthquake on CNN. Finally, he heard from his sister-in-law who informed him that the earthquake damaged their three-story home. The family now sleeps in a tent in the front yard and enters the home for food supplies in between aftershocks. To help his family and other quake survivors, Khadgi has placed a donation jar near the cash register that reads, “More than 1,500 people are dead and many more casualties. Every single penny counts.” Nepalis from across the region gathered in Jackson Heights on Sunday night for a candlelight vigil.

Diva Shrestha, a college admissions director for Bucknell University, was in Chicago on business when she learned of the earthquake. Shortly after it struck, about noon in Nepal, 1 a.m. in Chicago, Shrestha reached her mom in Nepal who told her the family—father and 26-year-old brother—were o.k. Because it’s unsafe to stay in their home, her family has sought refuge in their four-door Honda sedan, she said. They take turns sleeping and keeping watch.

Like so many Nepalis in Jackson Heights, Shrestha, 28, has teamed up with community organizations to help with relief efforts. Although she’s pleased to see people raise funds to help, she hopes organizers will take lessons learned from Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and apply it to Nepal’s situation. “Don’t just jump on the bandwagon and donate. We need to strategize and monitor everything that is going on,” she said.

Shrestha’s cousin, Dipika, who also has the same surname, specifically worries about the potential threat of diseases as a result of the earthquake. “There might be an epidemic of diseases because of dust and decaying bodies. We don’t know what will happen,” said Dipika, 28.

“I’m more afraid of that than the actual tremors,” her cousin, Shrestha chimed in.

Grief and uncertainty seem to weigh heavily in the hearts and minds of Nepalis in the city, including Anshu Khadka, who has no idea what will happen to her middle-aged parents in Kathmandu. “They don’t have anything now,” she said. “No one has access to any resources.” People who live in the capital rely on food and electricity from outside the city, but given that roads are destroyed, Khadka said she is unsure how and from where relief will come.