Buddhist Temple Food Pantry A Lifeline For Nepalese Students

Lama Gelbu, left, Pasang Sherpa, center, and Yanddu Lama, right, prepare bags of fruit used as ceremonial offerings at the conclusion of the Dakini Day practice (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

NEW YORK (AP) — Inside the temple in the New York City borough of Queens, monks clad in maroon robes chanted and lit incense and candles at an altar before a golden statue of Buddha.

Earlier, on the sidewalk outside, people with face masks, shopping baskets and reusable bags stood in a socially distanced line stretching two city blocks, waiting to cart off badly needed rice, fruit and vegetables to get them through hard times due to the pandemic.

“It’s really a big help because you get all fresh, organic," said Jyoti Rajbanshi, a Nepalese nursing student at Long Island University who has lost work and resorted to running up her credit cards and relying on the weekly pantry. “And then at least you don’t have to spend some money on buying the groceries.”

The United Sherpa Association launched the food program from scratch last April as the coronavirus was ravaging 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 Nepalese college students living thousands of miles from their families.

Some were forced by lockdowns to leave dorms where previously they got most of their meals. They don't qualify for federal stimulus checks. Their student visas generally don't allow them to work full-time or off-campus to support themselves. And there's often little help from home, with families in their heavily tourism-dependent country struggling mightily during the pandemic.

“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, who calls the students it helps “unknown victims” of the coronavirus.

They're part of the estimated 2 million residents of New York City facing food insecurity, a number said to have nearly doubled amid the biggest surge in unemployment since the Great Depression.

Early on in the pandemic, residents of the immigrant-rich Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona neighborhoods of Queens were hit hard and tested positive for the virus in greater numbers than in other parts of the city. The United Sherpa Association closed its temple and canceled its sports programs, cultural activities and Sherpa and Nepali language classes.

It also sprang into action to help those who were struggling, with members calling contacts across the world to import masks, gloves and hand sanitizer that were often out of stock at local stores. The association gave $500 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 launched, word spread through social media and students volunteered to pick up food and distribute it every Friday outside the temple, housed in a former Christian church.

Some of the volunteers are beneficiaries themselves, like 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,” she said, “and also getting 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 talks in Nepali.”

Like many who worship at the temple, she belongs to the Sherpa, an ethnic group from the Himalayan region whose members are known for working as guides and support staff for adventurers who come to climb Mount Everest and other peaks among the highest in the world.

Nepal, a country of 30 million people, was closed to foreigners much of the last year because of the pandemic, devastating the tourism industry and resulting in shuttered businesses and lost jobs. Tshering Chhoki Sherpa's family, for their part, temporarily closed the hotel they ran on one of the trekking paths to Everest, and she got by in New York on savings and the pantry.

Nepal was also hit hard by the virus, and shortages of available hospital beds led the government to ask patients with lesser symptoms to isolate at home. So for students struggling in New York, going home wasn't seen as a viable solution.

Rajbanshi said her parents both contracted COVID-19. So did her uncle, who died. She hasn't seen her family in Nepal in three years, and she worries about them.

It's a common sentiment.

“In Nepal, every day I hear harder news," said Mina Shaestha, 23, who deferred her entrance to LaGuardia Community College because of the pandemic. "People are dying of hunger. They are staying in the same room because of 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 feed them and their 2-year-old son.

“We save the money from the food and we can pay the extra things, like rent,” Shaesta said.

Pantry volunteer Deshen Karmo Sherpa, a 16-year-old who was born in the United States to Nepalese parents, said she was moved to support it because she saw a community in need.

It was "a way to actually give back," she said, "in a time where you feel so helpless.”

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Raja writes about the usefulness or appropriateness of the term "BIPOC" - Black, Indigenous, People of Color- in discourse about race and justice, and how it relates to and reflects the politics of race and racism in the United States.
The river has been important since the dawn of civilization and has served as a commercial hub and lifeline for countless peoples over many millennia. Yet there has always seemed to be a justice that was out of reach for some.
"Many synagogues are leaning into the Purim tradition of giving gifts to friends and the poor— a custom known as “mishloach manot.”
"We know through surveys that people are more likely to like Muslims if they know one personally. But because only about 1% of Americans practice the Islamic faith, many people just don’t come into contact with any Muslims."
Purim tells the tale of Esther, an orphaned girl-turned-queen, how she married King Achashverosh, then saved the entire Jewish community in the ancient Persian city of Shushan, through her bravery and wit.
Higher education remains highly unequal and racial divides persist. How can these realities be explained in a context defined by wokeness?
There are so many forces that pull people apart from one another. Institutions and systems and ways of thinking that want us to feel separated, broken, helpless, and quick to capitalize on moments of weakness. The very thing that brings out...
Others noted Rihanna chose to display Ganesh on Feb. 15, the day Hindus celebrate as Ganesh's birthday, or Ganesh Jayanti. The god of beginnings, Ganesh is honored before starting a business or major project.
Until this year, most schools, states and national high school athletic associations had typically forbidden religious headwear, citing safety concerns, unless a student or coach had applied for a waiver. No waiver, no play.
Do a quick Google or YouTube search for tarot, and you’ll find the two main things people tend to inquire about are love and money. Underlying these inquiries is a belief that a tarot reading can tell the future, which begs the question of whether...
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Asian Americans are suffering under the weight of these mounting incidents. Many, including those in our own circles, have expressed concern about leaving their homes to perform everyday tasks.
"Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population, but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths."
Can interfaith leadership foster greater equity for the health of communities of color? Four leaders in healthcare discuss racial health disparities in our nation and how interfaith leadership can be implemented in order to solve them.
“It's an invitation to be subversive by focusing on ourselves."
Across the state, nearly every major health care system has partnered with Black and Hispanic houses of worship to expand vaccine access, setting up mobile clinics in their parking lots and fellowship halls.
Gandhi organized a nonviolent protest on behalf of the farmers. That was when the word satyagraha was used for the first time in the context of a political protest.
Pierce, who is in her 40s and identifies as a Pentecostal, talked with Religion News Service about what she learned from her grandmother, the kinds of hymns she doesn’t sing and her expectations about the future of the Black church.
"We have to develop new approaches to politics that can turn the temperature down on our political conflicts and start bringing people closer together. So much is at stake"
Our nation's very foundation is built on mendacity hermeneutics of scripture and intentional omission of women, indigenous populations, and enslaved Africans from the protection under any of its laws, whether created by Man or divinely inspired.
Ash Wednesday is a time when persons are invited to face their mortality; to remember the limited time we have on this earth and reflect on who we want to be, and the path we want to travel; and who or what we live for.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.