‘I Used to Wonder What My Karma Was That I Had to End Up in a Place Like This’

‘I Used to Wonder What My Karma Was That I Had to End Up in a Place Like This’

‘I Used to Wonder What My Karma Was That I Had to End Up in a Place Like This’

A Nepali TPS holder and domestic worker describes what it’s like to live in the US without papers and to fight for workers’ rights.


The borders of our world cut not only across international boundaries but also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.

As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. “Migrant Voices” is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.

This is the fifth installment of this series—follow the series here and read the last installment, of the guestworker who farms Hudson Valley fields to send money back to his family in Mexico.

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On a sweat-stained and overbright summer day, I found my way to Adhikaar, a Nepali community center in Woodside, Queens, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse neighborhoods on the planet. In the main room on the ground floor, seven women were preparing for a field trip to the Rubin Museum of Art, while in the back office, facilitators were going over plans for the trip and discussing syllabi for English for Empowerment classes. These are courses that, as Prarthana Gurung, Adhikaar’s campaigns and communications manager, explained to me, do much more than merely teach English to newly arrived members from Nepal. Following the popular education model developed by Paulo Freire, facilitators at Adhikaar help orient and empower new members of their community, helping them navigate the subways, taking them on “field trips” to the post office (as well as museums), and collaborating with them in know-your-rights workshops.

“We don’t start with ABCs,” Gurung told me, “we start with $7.25”—the federal minimum wage. “We want them to understand practical needs, and learning English is a good medium to help them fight for their rights.” Led by women (and currently with an all-women board) members of Adhikaar, along with other organizations, have successfully pushed the passage of New York State’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and have helped extend protections to nail salon workers. Buoyed by their success in activism, members of Adhikaar are also now party to a class action lawsuit that seeks to prevent the federal government from canceling Temporary Protected Status for Nepalis.

Temporary Protected Status is pretty much what it sounds like: relief from deportation for people already in the United States whose country of origin is suffering through some calamity, war, or natural disaster. It lets folks stay, live, and work in this country for a designated term—usually between six months and a year and a half, but extensions are common. Hondurans were originally granted TPS in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated parts of the country, and Hondurans who were in the United States at the time have had, through a series of extensions, TPS ever since—20 years on. Currently, there are over 300,000 people with TPS in the United States, from 10 different countries.

Nepalis were offered temporary protection through TPS in the spring of 2015 after an earthquake shook parts of the country to pieces, killing almost 9,000 people and rendering over 3 million homeless. In the following months, thanks in part to Adhikaar’s quick mobilization and lobbying, 9,000 Nepalis in the United States became TPS holders. That number has since grown to 15,000.

But their status, along with that of all TPS holders, has been in question ever since Trump stepped into the White House. In the first year of the new administration, the Department of Homeland Security began canceling or not renewing TPS. First Haitians and Nicaraguans were targeted, then Hondurans, Salvadorans, and finally Sudanese and Nepalis. A series of lawsuits pushed back against those cancellations, and TPS holders currently have temporary reprieve as the courts weigh in. Meanwhile, the National TPS Alliance, among other groups, has been pushing the American Dream and Promise Act, which would pave the way for permanent status for qualifying TPS holders.

One of Adhikaar’s members, who has been organizing and advocating with the organization since 2007, is Brinda, who I met in a small upstairs office the first morning I visited. After a few hours of talking, Brinda and Gurung invited me for lunch in the kitchen: white basmati rice, daal, a stew of bitter gourds, mustard greens, and a mushroom and potato curry, with lemon and skinny little hot peppers as condiments. Dessert was thick, homemade yogurt.

A few weeks later—the morning after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton—the three of us met again, at Sumnima Kitchen, Brinda’s favorite Nepali restaurant in Queens. For both meetings, Brinda wore her gray hair in a loose ponytail clasped by a dragonfly clip. She wore large eyeglasses and had bangles and string bracelets on both wrists. After I introduced myself and turned on the recorder, she joked that she was going to recount to me her personal Mahabharata—the ancient Indian epic. (Gurung translated for both of our conversations, though Brinda occasionally broke into English.)

BRINDA, 61 Years Old

My name is Brinda. I’m 61 years old. I lived in Kathmandu, but I’m originally from a place called Bhojpur, a little town in eastern Nepal. It’s all hills over there. I was 21 or 22 when I moved to Kathmandu to live with my husband. I got married when I was really young, just 16, and I had two sons, my first at just 17. I was a child still. I saw all my friends having fun and being teenagers, and I had a kid already. Once my two sons started to grow up, around 2030, I took an exam to get my school certificate. Then, in 2033, I went back to school for 11th and 12th grades. Finally, I went for my bachelor’s in history and political science. Those are Nepali years. [Laughs.] Right now it’s 2076 in Nepali years. [Laughs again.] Sometimes it’s hard to keep it straight.

My husband was a policeman. It was an okay career for him. We had a lot of struggles, but we just had to make do. We weren’t hungry, but my parents had to help us. We lived in an apartment, one room, very small, like this room. [The office is about 12 by 15 feet.] The bathroom was outside, the kitchen indoors.

When I was growing up in Bhojpur, there were no roads, just paths, and you had to walk everywhere. There was no electricity either. We had to sit in the evenings with a lantern. There were a lot of orange trees by our house. And when it was in full bloom, it was so beautiful, and people used to come from all over town and buy oranges from us. We used to eat so, so many oranges.

The politics, well, we had a king back then. I didn’t mind the king. But now the king is gone, it should be better, but it’s not better. To create a better society is exactly why we went through the whole revolution, the struggles, the war. And, especially now, democracy is what works in the world. That’s the idea at least. In 2015 [1959 in Western years] there was the first elected government in Nepal, and my father was involved with the prime minister at the time, BP Koirala. But then the king didn’t want that form of government anymore, and so he had the military take a lot of people to jail, including my father, and instituted this system called Panchayat [roughly: locally elected committees] and my father was put in jail for eight years. I was very young then. Eventually, my father became a minister.

After I got my degree, I worked a little bit, but it was just four or five months at a time. My husband didn’t like me working. I was an office manager at a government office, and I worked at a school for a year, teaching primary school. But my husband wanted me sitting at home. That’s it. [Throws her head back and laughs.] Doing the household work. He passed away two years ago. We had to do what we could to make ends meet. We were eventually able to build a house, but that was a lot later, and only because my mother and brother helped us out. We wouldn’t have been able to do that on our own. I always had the mentality, “Let’s both work together and we can earn more,” but he just wanted me to be at home to do certain things and not do others.

It was many years later, my husband had retired, but he was the same as he was. He still didn’t allow me to work. Things got expensive. And my younger sister was the one who said maybe we should go abroad to find work. People in Nepal look at the US like it’s a dream country. Like gold is on the trees. That’s how people see it. I thought when I came here that the stones, the mud, the trees were going to be completely different, that they would look different. That’s what people say. America this, America that. All in this big way. And so I just imagined… I couldn’t imagine what would happen when I came here.

If I had been able to work in Nepal, from the beginning, I would have been able to build a career there, to stay there. There are many people, women, who still can’t work. It’s getting better, but it’s still not like it is here, with the freedom.

When I first came to America, in 2007, I landed in Detroit. The family I was staying with lived in the suburbs, and the first day here I didn’t see a single soul, and I thought it was so strange. Is this what America is like? And then on the third day we went to the mall. My mom and I were both, like [throws her head back and laughs] is this what America is like? There’s nobody anywhere except at the mall? And then after a week we came to New York. I was so bewildered, because I thought suburban Detroit was America, and then after a week we came here to New York, straight to Jackson Heights, Queens, and I remember she took us to the train station on the first day, and the subway came and as soon as the doors opened all these people came out, and Oh my God! I was immediately [laughs] thinking I’m going to get so lost!

I wasn’t intending to stay so long at first. It seemed so… I didn’t know if I could stay for an entire year, it seemed like such a long time. I didn’t think I had it in me. I was thinking that I would only be here for a little while. But it’s like one-way traffic—to come to America. Everybody comes here, nobody wants to go back. Before I thought that I wanted to go back, but obviously I didn’t. I built a community here. Made friends, people who were like my brothers and sisters.

At the very beginning I did housekeeping at a home in Long Island, for two or three weeks, but then after that I started working as a nanny. I was staying with my sister’s friend. She was the one who taught me everything. She taught me how to use my Metrocard. Then I moved to a live-in job as a nanny in Monroe Township, New Jersey, with an Indian family. They were a good family. The daughter was 3 months old. When I started nannying, I was making $400 a week. It was okay, pretty easy. I sent money back home to my younger son. Five days of work, and then Saturday and Sunday off. I did that for the rest of the time that I was here. After my six-month extension, I went back to Nepal for three months, but I couldn’t find any jobs again, so I came back.

I knew that you weren’t allowed to work in the US [without papers], but there were so many other people in our community who were working like that, so I wasn’t nervous. Because I trust in God, that he would take care of me. And because of my situation I had to work. There was a little pressure I felt sometimes. That’s a given I think, that you feel that way when you’re working. There would be instances where on Friday they would try to get me to do all this work so that it would cover the weekend. They would ask me to cook all this food, I had to cook so much on one day, they would ask me to clean more than normal, and I felt like I couldn’t say no.

I found a different job when I came back, but everywhere I work, my bosses like me. Why wouldn’t they like me? I don’t say anything and I just do the work. [Laughs.]

I started coming to Adhikaar in 2007. I was taking the [English for Empowerment] classes. I remember sitting in trainings on things like health and know your rights workshops. I still go. Just last Sunday I went to a know your rights training about what to do if ICE comes to your house. Basically [laughing], you tell them, Go away! Don’t come here!

It was in 2010 when we first started talking about the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, and I started getting really involved. A lot of the work for Domestic Worker’s rights was learning how we could get something passed, and I remember we went on these trips to Albany. I probably went two or three times, or more, and we met all these elected officials and we told them our stories and why we needed this.

I started understanding what other domestic workers like me were going through. I heard of other sisters who only got one piece of bread to eat for an entire day, or had to work all through the night. There was one sister I know who was trafficked from India, and she didn’t get paid at all for years. There was another sister who was in a similar situation, and Adhikaar went and rescued her. We all went in a car, I remember, there were a bunch of us. We were actually in DC at the time, we were there at a rally, and she was working in a home there, and so we went to go get her. They had kept her passport. Her employers had kept it away from her so she couldn’t leave.

The employers I worked for always paid me, so I didn’t have as many problems as my sisters did. But what we did wasn’t just for myself, because I was suffering, but because there were so many other domestic workers like me who were going through so much worse.

So we started meeting with these officials to tell them our stories. I wasn’t just nervous, I didn’t even know how to say what I needed to say. Even now, even though I’ve had all this experience, even now when I tell my story I get emotional and teary-eyed. It’s also for myself in some ways. Even if I had the best employer, you can imagine how it feels to go work in someone else’s home. In the beginning I used to want to cry a lot. I came from Nepal and I was working for myself, and I was able to support myself in this way, but I think there’s something about coming here and living in someone else’s home that’s not yours, and working for them, that made me feel… I used to wonder what my karma was that I had to end up in a place like this, where I had to work in someone else’s home.

You can’t really find any other kind of work. This is the only option. If you come here and study here, then maybe you can get another job. But for people like us there’s no other option. What else could we do? I think it was in my karma. If it wasn’t written for me to have to migrate to the US, then how would I be here? Now, though, I’m happy. I made friends in the community, found a religious group, and it became more fun. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights passed in 2010. We didn’t get everything we asked for, maybe we got half of the things we asked for, but something passed, which is good.

I got a phone call at 2 am, April 25, 2015. My friend called and said, Did you know that this earthquake happened? This huge earthquake. I was so… I couldn’t feel my hands, or my feet. And I started trembling. I remember calling Nepal. I started calling home and nobody was picking up the phone. It was only maybe two or three days afterwards that I was able to get in touch with anyone. Oh my God, it was so terrible. My family was okay. Their homes were okay. They were lucky. But so many homes were broken, so many people died. People left, they started leaving, they came to the US, they went to Qatar, to Kuwait, to Malaysia. I have a friend who went to Cyprus. There are some villages where there are no men anymore, because they all migrated, they all left.

It was soon, it was in June, that we got TPS here. Not every country that goes through something bad gets TPS, there’s a process. First there was the petition. I got people to sign the petition. I made calls. I called politicians on the phone, I went around to the plaza nearby. We put everything on Facebook. We did outreach to the community to come [to Adhikaar], so they could understand what TPS was. I didn’t really know what it was before that. I think for humanitarian concerns, our country is so small, and also so poor, and so when such a large event like that happens, politicians see that there was a need for people like us who are here, for us to support the country economically.

Once we got TPS designated, we did legal clinics here, and we brought people in to apply. The lawyers would ask us questions and help us fill out the forms. We had to pay for both TPS and a work permit, I think it cost like three or four hundred dollars to get them both. I brought a lot of people and friends I knew who could benefit. I was finally able to get health insurance, which was a big relief for me. I lived for more than seven years without insurance. I could go to Elmhurst Hospital before, and I was able to get a reduced fee, but it was difficult. I could only go when I needed something, like an emergency, not for a regular check-up. God was looking out for me.

The earthquake was such a horrible event, but in some ways it was a small relief to be able to get TPS afterwards. Sometimes good things can come after really bad things, so this was something like that. I think my thoughts changed. I thought I could contribute a lot more if I stayed here. We raised so much money and sent it back. There was a day, in Jackson Heights there’s a plaza, and I remember staying there all day with just a little box to ask for money. We raised lots of money that day. Whoever was walking by, we would say, “Help us help Nepal. Help Nepal with us.”

Now I’m working in New Jersey, nannying for an Indian family. I don’t live with them. I go in the morning and I come home at night. I work seven hours, nine to four. I take care of a small baby, 4 months old. It’s easy. It’s easy to handle a small baby. I don’t cook or clean as much, just take care of the baby. I speak to the family in English and Hindi and make 15 dollars an hour. I have to send money to my son. I send two or three hundred dollars every few months.

We were afraid about what Trump was going to do after he won. We were OK for a year, and then we didn’t know what was going to happen. I think it was natural for us to be afraid. We would read in the paper or see in the news that Trump wants to deport all these people, so we felt afraid. Trump announced that he was going to cancel TPS [for Nepalis] in 2018. It was April 26 of last year that they announced they were terminating it. I was here, at Adhikaar. On the 25th we had had a vigil because of the earthquake, and I remember us talking about how it may not be renewed. As an individual, I wasn’t going to be able to do something alone, so we all rallied behind Adhikaar, and Adhikaar was working with other organizations to see what was possible, and I remember at the time there were discussions about the lawsuit for a few other countries with TPS, and I remember talking about doing something similar for us.

I feel like we’ll win. We’ll get green cards some day. That bill [the American Dream and Promise Act, HR 6] passed in the House. Maybe it will pass the Senate. I would feel free if I got a green card. I could go wherever I wanted. I have a cousin in Canada, or I could visit my sister in England. I don’t think so badly of America now, but if I got it, I would probably just give thanks, give so much thanks, I would bow down and thank this country ten times, over and over again. [Laughs.] There’s a word in Nepali: dhog—when you’re at temple, you bow down in front of God, or in front of your parents. It’s a sign of respect. You do like this, you bow down, or you could do it standing, a full bow, and the person you’re doing dhog to will give you blessings, they’ll accept the dhog, and touch your forehead. That’s what I would do for the USA.

I don’t think there is gold in the streets in America, not anymore. It’s not like that, but it’s still good here. This neighborhood is my home now. There are a lot of Nepalese restaurants on these blocks. Sumnima Kitchen is my favorite, my friend runs it. Everything is good there. Especially the momo.

Before TPS there was always a sense of fear, I remember thinking that if I went on a train, somebody told me I had to have an ID on me, but I didn’t have one. How could I have gotten one? Of course, I was always a little on edge. Now I am ananda. We have a lot of words in Nepali that are hard to translate. I can have fun now, and be free. It is like bindaas: I’m more carefree. It means you’re like a teenager. No worries. Now I’m bindaas. When I was a teenager, I felt so old. Now I feel like a teenager. People used to tell me I was a child who had children. I’m still a little nervous, yes, but whatever happens, happens. It’s not worth it to be depressed now. Plus, we’re still organizing.

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