Krishna Kandel was a young lawyer, working in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal and his homeland, when he arrived in New Haven 22 years ago to visit friends. He stayed, but couldn’t practice law, his Nepalese degree virtually worthless. Instead, through circumstance and grit, he got into the restaurant business, his most recent venture, opening Indian Grill on West Hartford’s New Park Avenue last November.
Anu Shrestha left Nepal in 1993 to study computer science at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, where an aunt worked as a nurse. She got her MBA at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Hartford campus, returned for her Nepali wedding, and then resumed life in Connecticut. Twenty-seven years later, she’s an IT manager, raising two children with her husband — a daughter, 16, and son, 14, both students in Windsor, where the family lives.
Rinku Shrestha (no relation — it’s like Smith) is an unofficial community social worker, organizing youth soccer and volleyball games and statewide tournaments for Nepali boys and girls. He has many claims to fame. One is that he was among the first Nepali homeowners in West Hartford. The other, more importantly, is that when his ailing infant son needed a healthy liver five years ago, Rinku gave him part of his.
Visit the growing Nepali community here and these are among the stories you hear, the latest version of the region’s immigrant story of leaving home and creating one anew.
The state’s largest Nepali community is in West Hartford, where Nepali leaders say more than 600 families reside, mostly in the town’s Elmwood section, with more than 80 homeowners. An estimated 200 Nepali families live in the shoreline town of Branford, and another smaller core lives in Storrs, drawn there by the University of Connecticut.
Ten years ago, nearly 900 Nepali-Americans lived in West Hartford, according to the 2010 Census, but many community leaders say that was an undercount. To ensure an accurate count in this year’s 2020 Census, community members have established a complete count committee led by Pramod Pradhan, a point person between the town and Nepali residents, and the town’s first community engagement librarian, a position he’s held for more than three years, helping not just new arrivals from Nepali, but from all over the world.
Pradhan, a former digital programming specialist at Hartford Public Library, moved with his family to West Hartford in 2005, a year after arriving in the U.S.
“The library was the first place we went to seek information,” he says, recalling how he researched the best school districts, housing, how to apply for citizenship, how to get a driver’s license and where to find English classes. He’s still amazed at the number of free resources libraries provide. In Nepal, he says, “I had to pay to enter the library, 10 rupees, about 25 cents.”
Like many other Nepali families, the Pradhans moved to West Hartford because of the school system’s reputation and the opportunities they believe a good education provides. Like Rinku Shrestha, Pradhan too was among the first Nepali families to buy a home, a point of pride and an incentive, he says, towards civic engagement. Many in the Nepali community still come to Pradhan for help in navigating American society, he says.
Many fled 10-year war
To appreciate the community’s immigration story, you need to understand Nepal’s recent history. A violent 10-year war and Maoist insurgency between 1996 and 2006 spurred many Nepali citizens to flee, many of whom also sought better economic conditions and educational opportunities.
“It was the unrest, the social structures that limit opportunities and the fact that a lot of parents were sending their children outside the country for education,” explains Bidya Ranjeet, executive director of UConn’s Center for Academic Programs, which aids first-generation students from underrepresented populations and low-income backgrounds. Ranjeet left Nepal in 1983 to get her master’s degree at UConn, partly because her aunt lived nearby. (She’s related to Anu Shrestha who went to Eastern, comforted by the same aunt’s proximity.)
One common way out was by applying to the U.S. Diversity Immigration Visa program, also known as the diversity lottery.
Deepak Khatiwada, left and Krishna Adhikari talk with West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor at the Nepalese Association of Connecticut's Dashain celebration this past fall in New Britain. Adhikari is a commissioner on the West Hartford Human Rights Commission. The festival included Nepalese food, dancing, singers, dancers, some speeches and more food. The event opened with the Nepalese national anthem followed by the U.S. national anthem. (Jonathan Olson/Hartford Magazine)
One of those who won a visa was Krishna Adhikari, who settled in West Hartford in 2003.
“Everybody’s dream is to send their kids to the U.S. for higher education,” says Adhikari, 60, a former Nepali government employee in Katmandu, now a digital production artist at Data-Mail Inc. in Newington. His wife, Kabita, is an assembly worker at West Hartford’s Legrand Wiremold plant. One of their two sons, 31, is married and working in IT in Florida. The younger son, a 24-year-old UConn graduate, plans to go to medical school.
Like other first-generation immigrants, many Nepali residents are learning how to adapt, discovering their skills and degrees often don’t transfer; in some cases, they’ve taken jobs as gas station cashiers, liquor store clerks or assembly workers to compensate for fledgling English language skills.
Such was the case when Rinku Shrestha, the ad-hoc community social worker, arrived with his wife, Nitu, and their 11-month-old son 15 years ago. He had been studying construction design in Kuwait. Now he works at a liquor store and is studying to become a barber.
Others have started their own businesses. Besides Kandel’s new Indian Grill restaurant, Nepali families own two other Indian restaurants in West Hartford, Taste of India and Bombay Olive, as well as others in Glastonbury, Storrs and Middletown, some of which also feature Nepal cuisine.
Festivals and support, but the call of home
Over the years, as the Nepali population has grown, community organizations, including the Nepalese Association of Connecticut, or NAConn, have helped supply support to new arrivals as well as connection points for more established residents. Last fall, the association sponsored Dashain and Dipali, or Tihar, festivals, popular holidays among both Buddhists and Hindus in Nepal.
Shreejana Rana Magar, of West Hartford, dances at the Nepalese Association of Connecticut's Dashain festival this past fall. The Nepalese celebration lasts 15 days. (Jonathan Olson/Hartford Magazine)
Nepalese Jewelry worn for the festival. Members of the Nepalese Association of Connecticut had their Dashain celebration at the VFW in New Britain this past fall. (Jonathan Olson/Hartford Magazine)
Among the Nepalese community, wearing many bracelets is a symbol of being married. Many members of the Nepalese Association of Connecticut wore traditional clothing at their Dashain celebration in New Britain. (Jonathan Olson/Hartford Magazine)
A detail of a traditional Nepalese outfit worn by dancer Shreejana Rana Magar at the Nepalese Association of Connecticut's Dashain celebration. (Jonathan Olson/Hartford Magazine)
A $1.5-million fundraising drive is underway to build a Nepali community center, likely somewhere in Elmwood, says the association’s president, Jitendra Basnet. It’s a project some in the community say may take time.
Besides soccer and other sports programs for the youth, summer school and Nepali language classes are offered, a sign that the newest generation, raised locally, is also growing more comfortable as fluent English-speaking Americans.
Still the call of home often beckons. The flight to Nepal takes about 28 hours with transfers. It’s more than 7,000 miles from Hartford ,on the northern border with India.
Anu Shrestha, the Windsor woman and IT manager, already is anticipating the ultimate challenge ahead: what to do as her parents grow older. The day will come when her mother no longer can travel so easily, as she now does, between Anu’s and her brother’s American families in the U.S., and her father who remains in Nepal, where Anu says her parents want to retire, among their circle of friends.
“This will be tough for my generation,” says Anu Shrestha, who notes the same discussions are occurring with her husband’s parents. “As they get older, how will we take care of them from here?”
This essay originally appeared in Hartford Magazine.