In the New York City borough of Queens, an army of volunteers assist Buddhist monks from the United Sherpa Association, a non-profit cultural organization set up to promote and preserve the Sherpa culture in the United States. The association has set up shop in a Buddhist temple and has been offering food to all in need since the coronavirus pandemic began last spring.
Some of the volunteers at the temple food pantry are beneficiaries themselves, including Tshering Chhoki Sherpa, a 26-year-old graduate student at Baruch College who started working there in July. “It feels good being a part of it, and also getting help,” she said. “When I come here I feel like I’m back home, because everyone talks in Nepali.” (ABC News)
Along with the food program, last year the United Sherpa Association’s members called contacts around the world to gather masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, which were often out of stock in area stores. The association also gave stipends worth US$500 to more than 30 students and utilized its large volunteer base to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) and food to the homes of community members in need.
The food pantry in particular has been a lasting lifeline for many in New York’s Nepalese community. “It’s really a big help because you get all fresh, organic,” said Jyoti Rajbanshi, a Nepalese nursing student at Long Island University who lost her job and was relying on credit cards to buy food. “And then at least you don’t have to spend some money on buying the groceries.” (ABC News)
Inside the temple, which was once a Christian church, monks clad in traditional maroon robes still chant and light incense and candles at an altar before a golden statue of the Buddha. Outside, people in face masks stand in lines stretching several city blocks awaiting their opportunity to pick up food and other items offered at the temple.
No one is turned away from the temple, situated in a highly diverse and immigrant-rich neighborhood in New York City. As people of color—and in particular immigrants—have been especially hard hit in the United States during the pandemic, the temple’s program has been especially necessary for many.
Included in those finding its services essential are Nepalese college students, many stranded in the US due to travel restrictions and away from family and friends throughout the pandemic. In addition to being cut off from their home country, many have been forced out of dormitories and have not qualified for certain aid packages such as the US federal stimulus checks.
“They don’t have unemployment insurance. They don’t have homes here. They are far away from home,” said Urgen Sherpa, the association’s president, calling the students it helps “unknown victims” of the coronavirus. (ABC News)
Many of those who utilize the food pantry and worship at the temple are members of the Sherpa ethnic group of Nepal. The Sherpa are famous for their members who work as guides to those who climb Mount Everest and other peaks in the Himalayan region.
Nepal, which has 30 million people, has seen some 272,945 cases of coronavirus and 2,055 deaths. The country was closed to foreigners for much of 2020 due to the pandemic, leaving many in the tourist-heavy economy without work or ways to support their families. With recent confirmed cases reaching low levels this month, many have pushed for a rapid re-opening of the economy, even as the health authorities urge caution. “It’s as if nothing has happened. The nightclubs are crowded. Schools and colleges are reopening. Sports venues are full. It doesn’t seem like there is any COVID,” says Sameer Mani Dixit, a public health specialist. “It defies logic.” (The Guardian)
Meanwhile, the US remains the hardest-hit nation in the world with more than 28 million confirmed cases and 500,000 total deaths recorded. New cases have been decreasing in recent weeks, however, and vaccines are now being administered to more than one million people per day.
As hope and uncertainty remain high, the food pantry offers both sustenance and purpose. Pantry volunteer Dechhen Karmo Sherpa, a 16-year-old who was born in the US to Nepalese parents, says that her volunteer work is “a way to actually give back in a time where you feel so helpless.” (ABC News)
Buddhist temple food pantry a lifeline for Nepalese students (ABC News)
Buddhist temple offers lifeline for Nepalese students in New York (Irish Examiner)
New York-based Buddhist temple’s food pantry turns into a lifeline for people (Hindustan Times)
‘It’s as if there’s no Covid’: Nepal defies pandemic amid a broken economy (The Guardian)
United Sherpa Association