Immigrant Stories: A family split between Nepal and the United States
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
Intro: Sweta Lohani is the daughter of Om and Sarita Lohani, who own and operate the Nepal Restaurant near Glenwood. She survived the initial earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000 people on April 25. Here is her interview with Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories:
Lohani: My mother came to the United States before my dad and my brother and me. She came to work on her master’s degree, but she ran out of money and had to quit school and go to work. She got a job in the Nepali restaurant in Denver. The man who owned it had one in Vail and one in Glenwood. So my mom eventually came to Glenwood to manage the one here.
Gallacher: Was your mom skilled in the kitchen?
Lohani: She was the youngest of three children so she didn’t have to do a lot of kitchen work growing up. But she learned after she got married. My dad’s family is pretty large, and we all used to live together when I was little.
All of my grandparents are still alive but they are very old. My grandmother has been bedridden for the last 12 years, and my grandfather has Alzheimer’s. They live with my uncle, and my dad tries to get home every year to visit. He does a lot to help support them financially, but I know it is hard for him to be so far away.
They still live in the same house that I lived in when I was 6 years old. My dad and mom, my brother and I, my grandparents, my uncle and his wife and their son all used to live there. The houses in Nepal are all very close together.
Gallacher: How long was your mom gone?
Lohani: She left when I was 6 and my brother was 7, and I saw her again when I was 13. So we were six years without her. Dad had to work, so he put us in boarding school to make sure we were getting our studying done.
I hated boarding school at first, but once I realized I had my friends with me all the time I started to have more fun.
Gallacher: That must have been a difficult time for you, having your mom away and then having to adjust to boarding school.
Lohani: Well, Mom tried to prepare us as best she could, but I didn’t know how far America was. I didn’t really have an idea of what was going on. I just knew that she was gone.
We only got to go home once a month for a weekend when we were in boarding school. That’s when we would call Mom and talk to her, and we would write her letters.
I didn’t get to see my brother, Ozus, very often because he was in the boy’s dorm, so I wasn’t very happy at first. But the teachers and staff kept us in a routine.
Dad would visit us as often as he could and bring us homemade food. That was always a special time.
Gallacher: So you knew loneliness.
Lohani: Yes, I think that my brother and I got that extra love from the teachers because they knew we were missing our mom. My mom’s older sister was very sweet, she filled in for my mom. Our grandparents and our cousins and aunts and uncles were all so loving to us. That really helped.
Gallacher: So what prompted you and your dad and brother to leave Nepal?
Lohani: Well, when Mom got her green card in 2003 she came back to visit. Our whole family was very worried because in 2001 Nepal’s royal family was massacred. Nepal was a monarchy country, and these killings took our king and queen and eight other members of the royal family.
The incident sent the country into chaos, schools were closing, roads were blocked, people were having strikes, the whole valley was shutting down. Dad couldn’t open his grocery store some days. It worried my mom and dad a lot. They wanted us to have a good education and live under a better system, and they realized that the United States was our best chance for that.
So a few months after Mom’s visit we applied for our visas, and that’s how we came, and we have been here ever since. My brother has never been back.
Gallacher: What are your first memories of the United States?
Lohani: I started ninth grade here. I spoke English, but it was British English so the accent and some of the words and phrases we used in Nepal didn’t make sense here. So when I tried to talk to the kids in high school they would give me this puzzled look and say. “What are you talking about?”
I got ignored a lot. High school was tough, but I had really good teachers who would do one-on-one sessions with me after school and help me make sense of it.
Gallacher: How did you make your way back to Nepal?
Lohani: I was working as a technician at Valley View Hospital when my dad asked me if I wanted to go back to Nepal and attend med-school. I thought it would be good to go back to my roots because my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were there. I knew the roads around Nepal, and I spoke the language, so it was an easy decision.
I left in August of last year and I wasn’t planning on coming home anytime soon, but due to the earthquake, I wanted to be with my family until my school reopens.
Gallacher: I know that was a traumatic time for you, but would you be willing to talk about the earthquake?
Lohani: It was Saturday around noon, and I had just left the dorms with some friends. We were in a local cafe when everything began to shake, and I had just turned to ask someone if it was an earthquake and before I even said the words everyone was out the door.
Someone actually had to grab me and pull me out because I was thinking it was going to be a short, quick one but it just kept going and going. Windows and bottles were crashing, the room was swaying, it was hard to get the door open because the building had shifted and jammed it shut. I didn’t think we were going to make it, but we finally got the door open. It still kept coming when we got into the street. Houses were falling left and right.
I was on the phone with Dad when the earthquake struck. He heard the whole thing, so we were both terrified. I reassured him that I was safe and promised him I would stay outside. For the next three days my friends and I slept on the ground. We were able to find a few cushions, but it was hard to sleep.
Gallacher: Were people injured near you?
Lohani: Yes, our school was adjacent to the medical hospital, so injured people were coming from all over to get help. The hospital was damaged in the quake, so we were treating a lot of people outside in the open. There weren’t enough doctors and nurses to take care of all the injured and dying, so they came to our school and asked for volunteers.
We were doing whatever we could, splinting broken limbs, cleaning wounds, performing CPR. It was so hard to watch people die and not be able to do anything. I didn’t realize what an impact it had on me until I had time to reflect on what had happened. I think it traumatized me a little bit.
Gallacher: I would say not just a little bit. This experience has impacted you in ways you will be dealing with for years.
Lohani: I will always remember. I think about it all the time, wondering what my friends and family are going through. I feel a little helpless and privileged and guilty that I am here and not there. So I try to do what I can to raise funds and make people aware of the problems Nepal is facing.
Gallacher: You refer to Nepal as home.
Lohani: Nepal is always going to be my home. I have such good memories of my time there. I am a U.S. citizen now, but it is hard not to consider Nepal as home. I so hope it can recover. I know the people are strong, but it is going to take time for them to recover from the devastation. But I have faith that it can be done.
Gallacher: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Lohani: I want to be the person who weaves the two worlds together, my home in the U.S. and my home in Nepal. I hope that I can be a bridge to the two countries, helping here and helping there. I feel like I am meant to be at service. That’s why I chose to be in medicine.
Gallacher: Who in your life has inspired you to devote yourself to a life of service?
Lohani: My mom had ovarian cancer, and that was a tough time. My grandmother came to help us, and as soon as she went back to Nepal she discovered she had breast cancer. Seeing people I love struggle with illness made me want to do what I could to help.
Gallacher: What is your brother doing.
Lohani: He’s finishing his master’s in biomedical engineering at Colorado University in Denver.
Gallacher: So your parents have set the bar pretty high.
Lohani: They have. My mom is the reason we are all here. Glenwood is a beautiful community and we have watched it grow over the last 12 years. We have so many people who have become friends through our restaurant. They are like family to us.
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