THE questions began over momo, small Nepali dumplings filled with minced chicken and chives, in the mirror-lined dining room of Chilli Chicken, a restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights that is run by a Nepali man who had a Bluetooth headset attached to his ear.
“This is optional,” began Luna Ranjit, president of Adhikaar, a Nepali immigrant group in Queens that has just begun a survey of the estimated 30,000 Nepalese who live in the city. “You don’t have to answer any of the questions you don’t feel comfortable with.”
Ms. Ranjit, who wears her black hair in a ponytail and whose English is less accented than that of many of her fellow immigrants, was speaking with a slim 35-year-old named Top Dangi. After he agreed to proceed, Ms. Ranjit, 29, peppered him with questions about his health, his job prospects, his command of English, his apartment in Sunnyside and the reasons he left Katmandu, the Nepali capital, two and a half years ago. The man’s frustrations became quickly apparent.
“Employment is the main thing,” said Mr. Dangi, a financial adviser in Richmond Hill, speaking in his characteristic soft cadences. But as he continued — “One thing I find out, people are not actually getting what they want” — it became clear that he thinks his countrymen need help with health care, insurance and many other things besides jobs.
New York’s Nepalese, whose home country is the size of Arkansas, are not easily categorized. While many are clustered in Jackson Heights and Sunnyside, close to immigrants from neighboring India, thousands of others live in Ridgewood, Elmhurst, Jamaica and Astoria. Moreover, the Nepalese are divided into a wide array of ethnic groups, from the famed mountain guides known as Sherpas to the Newars to the Tamangs. To Nepali eyes these groups look different — Sherpas seem more like Tibetans, Ms. Ranjit said, and Tamangs more like Filipinos — and they often speak different dialects.
These differences have made it hard to get an accurate picture of New York’s Nepalese, but Ms. Ranjit hopes her survey, to be conducted over the next six months, offers the solution.
The smallness of the group is another problem. “We do feel that because of our relative insignificance, our voice is not being heard,” said Ms. Ranjit, who was wearing a pink pashmina shawl hand-woven in Nepal as she conducted her interview of Mr. Dangi. Whenever survey results are arranged according to ethnic group, she added, “there’s never a column for Nepalis.”
Though professional Nepalese began coming to the United States in the 1960s, emigration started in earnest after a Maoist insurgency began in 1996, sparking a civil war that led to more than 13,000 deaths and did not end until last November. With the city’s Nepalese population growing, Ms. Ranjit and three other immigrants founded Adhikaar — the word means “rights” — as an advocacy group in 2005.
“The Nepali community is growing up now,” said Ram Bisht, owner of the restaurant. When he arrived in Queens in 1989, Nepali parties would typically include no more than 100 people; now, the numbers are more likely to approach 500. But, he added, as more Nepalese arrive in New York, the connections between them are growing thinner. He says the survey could help change that.
“Before, everyone used to know everyone, and we used to always be in contact with each other,” Mr. Bisht said. “Now, it’s very hard to keep count of the people.” With his countrymen increasing, however, Mr. Bisht plans to open another restaurant nearby, a 24-hour fast-food place that will offer Nepali fare like momo.
Mr. Dangi stressed the need for job placement and English training, and he acknowledged that his own English skills need help. Five people in Katmandu, including his wife, depend on the money he sends, and the $20,000 to $30,000 he makes in a year is not enough. If more Nepalese could get together and share information, he said, life might become a little brighter.
“It’s very, very important,” he said of his desire to bring Nepalese closer together. “Without information on basic needs, how can you help them?”
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