In a striking article for The Nation, John Washington sat down with Brenda, a Nepali with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and member of Adhikaar, a social justice organization. The article delves into Brenda’s life here in the United States and her experiences as an activist and leader in her community. Through their conversation, Washington highlights the heart-breaking realities and ongoing panic TPS holders are forced to endure because of the Trump administration’s efforts to terminate their status’.
Brenda beautifully summarizes her sentiments on the U.S. as a beacon of hope despite the Trump administration’s relentless push to cut her and millions of immigrants out of the American narrative: 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…
Washington’s article is excerpted below and available online here.
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.
… 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.
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.
… 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.
… 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!
… 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 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.
… 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.”
… 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.