Local Nepalese deal with double whammy of unrest and earthquake

City Paper

A steady stream of customers rolls through the Medfield Mini Mart at Falls Road and Roland Heights Avenue on a humid Friday afternoon. One elderly man asks the store’s new owners, Nepali husband and wife Chandra and Chunne Bishwokarma, if they’ll have sno-balls for summer. They say yes, as soon as the ice machine comes in. “You’ve got a customer! Wonderful!” The couple chats up another customer, his hand wrapped in gauze. Chandra playfully asks him if he broke it boxing.

These are customers who shopped regularly at this corner stone in its previous incarnation as JT’s Market & Deli. The Bishwokarmas still sell corner-store staples—chips, soda, cigarettes, and beer—for them. But the couple also wants to serve the 150 Nepali and Indian families that call Medfield home. Joining the old staples on the shelves are cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, masala, naan, and fresh vegetables.

“It’s been good now,” Chandra says. “My customers are from the neighborhood. Usually, it’s the Nepali community. They’re doing their grocery shopping once a week. They come and buy our spices, the lentils and rice and flour.” 

Baltimore’s Nepalese community has grown dramatically in the last 15 years, as people have been pushed out of their home country by a poor economy and a violent civil war. In the 2010 census, Maryland had the fifth-biggest Nepalese population in the U.S., with 3,412 residents. Medfield, in particular, has been popular with the Nepalese community, who are attracted to the area in part by Medfield Heights Elementary, a perennial No. 1 contender in Maryland Assessment Testing.

But recent weeks have been tense for Baltimore’s Nepalese community, marked by both national disaster and urban conflict.

On April 25, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near the village of Barpak in Gorkha district in north-central Nepal. The quake, and the dozens of powerful aftershocks that followed, killed more than 8,000 people, left thousands more homeless, and brought the country’s capital, Kathmandu, to a standstill. 

The Bishwokarmas’ extended family live in Tanahun, a region located west of Kathmandu and away from the earthquake’s epicenter. “We called our relatives and friends, and everyone was OK,” Chandra says. “Some of the houses, the walls are broken, they’ve shifted. Some of our customers have family who are injured, but many say that they are fine mostly. A lot of people lost their house. They just totally collapsed. People can’t live in them.”

Medfield—through the elementary school— came together to help earthquake victims that week, raising $982 plus more in online donations for Nepal.

That same day, April 25, peaceful protests at Baltimore’s City Hall over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody ended in a confrontation between marchers and police outside of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Two days later, on April 27, riots broke out near Sandtown-Winchester following another confrontation between police and a group of mostly high school students at Mondawmin Mall.

The Baltimore Uprising was broadcast internationally, including in Nepal. That day it was the Bishwokarmas who were receiving calls from their family back home, concerned for their safety. “My mother called me,’” Chandra said. “She had been here in 2008, she stayed here more than 10 months. She saw some familiar places, and asked, was it near your house? Are you OK? I said, yes, we are OK.”

The Bishwokarmas were forced to close their store early for a week in order to obey a city-imposed curfew.  Balancing the two situations has also been tough for the Bishwokarmas’ children. Their 14-year-old daughter Shiwani, a freshman at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said it’s been “hectic” balancing relief efforts—she’s working on a fundraising initiative for Nepal at school—while also working through the aftermath of the Baltimore riots.

“The riots covered up a lot of what happened in Nepal,” Shiwani says. “[In Baltimore] the atmosphere has been unstable. Many kids at Poly do live near where the riots occurred. People have been absent, and many of my friends are from there so I’ve been concerned for them too.”

In Mount Vernon, the riots hit another Nepalese establishment, Lumbini, located at 322 N. Charles St., where a glass door and five windows were broken. The restaurant was forced to close for four days to repair the damages and to serve a lunch menu only that weekend. 

Owner Narayan Thapa learned about the damage that evening from friends who lived nearby. “Some customers called my wife that Monday. ‘Hey, your glass is broken.’ But I couldn’t come that night,” he says. 

Thapa, and his wife Rabina, have been active members of the region’s Nepalese community since moving to Maryland in 2002. They’ve owned and operated the restaurant for eight years, and have also served in local organizations like the Baltimore Association of Nepalese in America (BANA), helping their compatriots acclimate to their new home. BANA held a candlelight vigil at the Baltimore County Historic Courthouse April 26 to honor the earthquake victims.

Thapa hails from Pokhara, a couple hours north of Tanahun, so friends and family back home weren’t as affected by the earthquake as those living near Kathmandu. Rabina, though, left for Nepal a week following the earthquake, leading a group of 10 doctors and five nurses helping with relief efforts as a vice president of the Non-Resident Nepali Association, an organization that connects the country’s diaspora on an economic level.

Narayan, meanwhile, is in Baltimore, working to reinvigorate Lumbini and rebuild his base. He says business is terrible, and that he’s seen a drop in both locals and tourists since the uprising. “Baltimore City has to do something, a new plan, to bring back the customers to the city,” Narayan says. “We’re trying, but a lot of businesses were affected on this street. All business has been really slow. We’re losing every day, dollars and dollars. If business is like this in six months, I can’t handle it. ”

 

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