Nepali Times
Ashok died for a better future


Twenty-one year old Ashok Bhattarai's death in Texas on 28 September wasn't the first time that a Nepali has been a victim of crime abroad. But it was among the first to receive an overwhelming response.

Within days, the Nepali community sprung into action via the internet to raise the $15,000 required to send his body home. Nepalis here are well aware that Ashok may not be the last.

Within a week, a staggering $104,000 poured in through cash, checks and Paypal donations. The money will not replace Ashok, but hopefully it will help ease the financial burden of his family in Parasi who had taken a Rs 900,000 loan to send their son to America.

Ashok had been in the US for 15 months and was studying bioengineering. He was working as a part-time store clerk at the First Stop Food Store in Missouri City, Texas, where he was shot. The assailant was later identified in close circuit videos as 17-year-old Raymond Whitcher who has been arrested.

Ashok was well liked by residents of Missouri City who frequented the convenience store because of his friendly nature. A following of loyal customers organised a memorial service outside the store on 4 October. The next day, the Nepali Association of Houston had another memorial at a funeral home.

Detective Russell Terry, lead investigator of the case, remembered Ashok, and said: "Every time I walked into the store, he would call me Mister Detective, and made jokes. He knew his customers well and what they wanted."
Young Nepali students who work in similarly vulnerable situations in gas stations and convenience stores attended the memorial. "This isn't just about Ashok, it could have been any of us," said Manish Satyal, who works in a gas station not far from Ashok's shop.

The crime rate in Houston is the 15th highest in American cities with a murder rate of 5.9 per 100,000. Nepali students here are well aware of the statistics but shrug and say that they have no choice. Their families have sold land, homes and taken loans to send them to America for better education and good careers.

Students enter the United States on an F1 visa, which does not allow them to work off campus but because of expectations and financial obligations back home, they often work in high-risk and vulnerable settings. Karki says he has been robbed at gunpoint several times. In 2002, Divesh Malla was stabbed during a robbery in Houston, but survived.

Students don't tell their families back home about the dangers because they don't want them to worry. Most students like Ashok work nearly 100 hours a week for $6 an hour. The money goes to pay rent, food and school tuition. If there is anything left over, they send it home.

"If we don't get scholarships, we end up working in gas stations and stores, it's not legal but its work," Satyal said, "you learn to live with the fear." Nepalis in Houston president, Rajendra Shrestha, shrugs his shoulders and says that there isn't much that can be done except encourage students to work on campus where there is better security.

Many of Ashok's friends across the United States did not celebrate Dasain this year out of respect for him. On 10 October, the day after Tika, Ashok's body reached home in Nepal and was cremated at Pashupati.

Ashok's mother, Lila Bhattarai, was inconsolable. She remembered her son's last phone call on the morning before he was killed. He had told her: "I'll come home soon."

Intersecting lives

Fate had determined that the trajectory of the short life of Nepali student Ashok Bhattarai would fatally intersect with that of a high school junior, Raymond Whitcher (pictured) on 28 September at a shop in Houston.

Bhattarai, 21, was earning money on the side to finance his studies and pay back a loan his family had taken back home in Nepal to send him to the US. Seventeen-year-old Whitcher was a student at Elkins High School, and surveillance footage shows him putting on a red bandana, walking into the store with a rifle and shooting Bhattarai point blank.

He ran away with $5,000 in cash and aroused suspicions when he started showing off the money in school and buying a car. He was involved in an accident with his car, but confessed to the murder when he was questioned by Missouri police last week.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)