At a park overlooking San Francisco Bay last April, dozens of Nepalis rang in the New Year Bikram Sambat 2059 by sharing Nepali food and culture with their native-born American friends and neighbours. Such gatherings of old traditions and new friends are now a regular feature of life in the many American and Canadian cities Nepalis now call home.
The Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) community, until recently small and low-profile, is emerging as an organised and assertive force in the United States. And the biggest sign of this is probably the 20th annual convention of the Association of Nepalis in the Americas (ANA) that opens on 4 July, the biggest US holiday. Founded in 1983 as an umbrella organisation for the dozens of NRN groups in North America, the ANA has evolved into a diverse network that allows Nepalis to meet each other, teach children about Nepali traditions, network within the community and discuss their homeland with other NRNs.
This year the ANA is bestowing six Making Our Mark (MOM) awards on NRNs who have made noteworthy accomplishments and helped establish Nepalis as an independent, successful and increasingly vibrant social group in the US. Ten NRNs have been nominated for the award, representing accomplishments in corporate business, information technology, performance art, literature, journalism, sports and diplomacy (see box).
One nominee, Ram Kharel, moved to the US in 1991 to explore business opportunities and received permanent resident status in 1996, although he is still a Nepali citizen and makes frequent trips home. In 1997, he started Sagarmatha TV, the only Nepali television programme produced outside the country, to provide entertainment to Nepalis living abroad and introduce the country to the world. Sagarmatha, which carries the slogan "mother and motherland are dearer than heaven", now reaches tens of thousands households in the Washington DC area with its weekly broadcasts.
Kul Chandra Gautam's is another success story. A Nepali citizen, like Kharel, Gautam is a top official at the UN, where he serves as an Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. The growing population of Nepalis living in the US, he says, makes it natural that they will find new ways to make their mark. "Earlier the only Nepalis you found here were students. Now you find them in all walks of life."
Gautam says that organisations such as the ANA help Nepalis retain their cultural identity and pass on traditions and language to children. The result of such efforts has been increasing awareness among second- and third-generation NRNs about their homeland, and commitment towards it. "The ANA has played a very important role in helping expatriate Nepalis network with their fellow compatriots," he says. "It has helped instil a sense of pride and solidarity in the Nepali community."
One example of this growing cultural pride is the ongoing construction of the Nepal Educational and Cultural Centre (NECC) in Washington. The project started in March 1996 when the ANA put up $250,000 to purchase land for the project. When completed, it will house temples to Pashupati and the Buddha, and serve as a cultural hub for the NRN community. The ANA plans to open the NECC on 4 July 2005, but still needs to raise funds to cover the $1 million required to complete the project.
While there are no official estimates of the Nepali population in the US, unofficial counts place the number at 25,000. And in the absence of energetic Nepali community networks until now, many Nepali-Americans have been concerned about the ability of NRNs to maintain their cultural and social traditions. With the emergence of strong NRN institutions like the ANA, the hope is that such fears will be alleviated.
Nepali immigration to the US has traditionally been modest. Of the more than 8.8 million recorded Asians who immigrated to the US between 1820 and 2000, only a few thousand were Nepali. In the 1989-2000 period, only 3,954 Nepalis received US immigrant visas, compared with 445,000 Indians, although many more moved to the US at least temporarily through other channels-by overstaying tourist or student visas or, less commonly, through extra-legal channels. In the past few years, the number of Nepalis who have annually received non-immigrant visas has hovered around 13,000.
However, recent changes in US immigration policy will now allow many more Nepalis to become American citizens. Under the terms of a 'diversity visa' lottery, 55,000 immigrant visas are available each year to citizens of countries that have not traditionally served as sources of US immigrants, of which Nepal is one. In the upcoming year, 2,320 such diversity visas will be issued to Nepalis-three times the number issued this year, and the second highest in Asia after Bangladesh.
Unlike Indian and Pakistani immigrants, the small and scattered Nepali community in the US has largely remained on the cultural and social sidelines. But now, with increasing numbers and confidence, that is changing and stronger leadership is emerging from within the growing community. The sophistication of this year's ANA meeting is a far cry from its modest beginnings, when, we are told, small numbers of middle-aged Nepali immigrants assembled to share dal-bhat and bemoan the state of affairs back home. The ANA is working to get a US Congressman address the convention, and former US Ambassador to Nepal Julia Chang Block is slated to deliver the keynote address. The rock band 1974 AD is making a trip to the US to perform at the gathering, and BBC journalist and Nepali Times columnist Daniel Lak will attend to deliver a speech on the political situation in Nepal. There will also be forum discussions on political organisation, entrepreneurship, education, child-raising and contemporary Nepali affairs.
NRNs see a positive role for themselves back in their home country. "In the long run, what we are able to achieve here will influence how and what we are able to contribute to the uplift of Nepal and Nepalis, much like the success of NRIs has now begun to have an impact on India's economic and social revival," states an ANA declaration.
The NRN community now has more incentive to do just that, after the recent government decision to issue 10-year visas to non-citizen NRNs. Until now, emigrant Nepalis wishing to visit home had to apply for the same tourist visa issued to other foreigners, which allows a maximum stay of only five months in a calendar year. Now, say NRNs we spoke with, they will find it easier to return home, invest in Nepal and familiarise their children with their motherland.
The change in Nepali law came about through the efforts of Gandhi Pandit, Minendra Rijal and Prakash Sharan Mahat, three influential Nepalis in Kathmandu who lobbied the government. To thank them, the ANA will recognise the three at its summer convention, although only Pandit will be able to attend in person. He won't be the first Nepali to be felicitated by the NRN community-in 2000, Sher Bahadur Deuba attended the ANA Millennium Convention in Atlanta, where he discussed Nepali affairs and agreed to help alter the visa regulation.
Making our Mark
At its annual convention this July, the Association of Nepalis in the Americas will give six awards to six of the following 10 Non-Resident Nepalis who have made notable accomplishments in the US.
The "Making Our Mark" Award nominees:
Arun Banskota Senior vice president of Fortune 15 company El Paso Energy International
Debind Thapa Magar Professional super-bantam weight boxer with an 18-1 record
Kiran Chetry 26 year-old anchor of Fox Hourly News Update
Kiran Bhakta Joshi Head of Walt Disney's Feature Animation Division
Kul Chandra Gautam Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF
Raj Kapoor The only professional Nepali dance and music artist practicing in the US.
Ram Kharel Founder and president of Sagarmatha TV, which broadcasts 30 minutes of Nepali programming in the US every week
Ravi Adhikari Award-winning journalist who has covered South Asian immigrant affairs in the US for the past six years
Samrat Updhayay Author of Arresting God in Kathmandu and the first Nepali to be published in the US
Sudha Shah Sales executive for German software giant SAP America