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A Taste of Nepal Comes to Queens

A new wave of Asian immigration has changed the demographics of Jackson Heights and other Queens neighborhoods.

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Shyangden, a composer, vocalist and guitarist, blends Nepali folk tunes with rock, jazz and blues influences. His three-piece band performs four nights a week at the Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights, the first Nepalese-Tibetan restaurant in the city. Large numbers of young Nepalese and a handful of “tourists” – a term that refers to American and European patrons who would be tourists in Nepal – visit the restaurant to enjoy the combination of Nepalese music and traditional Nepalese dishes such as Yak-shya Shyapta (sliced yak meat sauteed with vegetables) and Yak Cheyley (sliced yak tongue,) made using yak meat transported from farms in Waitsfield, Vermont.

Entrepreneurs and self-employed Nepalese form a small niche among immigrants. Most work instead for hourly wages in salons, restaurants, grocery stores, fuel stations, and in the case of women, as domestic help, said Luna Ranjit, Executive Director of Adhikaar, which conducts two-day nanny training workshops to enable Nepalese women to negotiate better wages.

Diversity Visas Fuel Community's Growth

The interest of working class Nepalese in immigration to the U.S. has been stirred to some extent by an increased awareness of the Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery, often called the green card lottery. Each year, the U.S. State Department gives 50,000 permanent visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The winners of the lottery are chosen through a random compute-generated drawing.

Official statistics show that the number of DV lottery winners from Nepal has increased six-fold in the last decade. In 2001, 376 Nepalese won the green card lottery; in 2010, the number was 2,132. Nepal is now the third largest Asian exporter of DV lottery winners after Bangladesh and Iran.
Enthusiasm about the “U.S. lottery” has grown significantly in Nepal in the last few years, says Kamal Raj Aryal, 36, the principal of a high school in the Nepalese district of Nawalparasi who arrived in New York with his wife, two young children, and a permanent green card five weeks ago. Dedicated lottery agencies have sprung up and local cyber cafes now offer lottery services such as assistance with filling out e-forms.

“People are looking for ways to leave the country because the political climate is unpredictable and violent,” said Shree Parajuli, 46, a Nepalese immigrant and the President of the Ridgewood Nepalese Society, a cultural organization in New York. A district-level politician in Nepal, Parajuli came to the U.S. in 2000 with his wife and two sons, seeking political asylum. “There is a general sense that the communist force is rising again.”

In the span of only 20 years, Nepal, a Hindu state under a monarchy for the most part of modern history, transitioned to a parliamentary system of government, saw the rise of a powerful and violent Maoist rebellion, endured a decade-long civil war that left more than 12,000 Nepalese dead, and ultimately, relapsed into the hands of a monarch. In 2008, Nepal abolished monarchy and was reborn as a federal republic, but in the last two years two governments have failed, and the office of the Prime Minister remains vacant.

Since the late-nineties, Nepalese who were emigrating in large numbers to India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, made Europe and North America their new destinations. Ridgewood in Queens alone has 1600 Nepalese residents, according to a 2009 survey by the Ridgewood Nepalese Society. Three apartment buildings on Putnam Avenue are home to over 300 Nepalese.

“Every two weeks, I see new Nepalese people,” said Aramis Lopez, 52, superintendent of building 16-15, where 50 percent of the apartments are occupied by the community. “A large number of tenants move out every few months, and new tenants pour in.” 

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