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How a Buddhist temple food pantry is staving hunger in New York

The United Sherpa Association launched the food program from scratch last April and serves everyone who comes for help, including illegal immigrants and the unemployed

Lamas at the United Sherpa Association in the Queens borough of New York
Lamas at the United Sherpa Association in the Queens borough of New York (AP)

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.”

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