‘This is a Very Special Gift for Nepal and its People’

Pushpa Basnet is named CNN Hero of the Year during a ceremony in Los Angeles on December 2. (Photo by Christopher Polk, courtesy of CNN)

In the heart of Jackson Heights, Queens, the two floors of the Nepalese restaurant Himalayan Yak are filled with customers and staff overjoyed that CNN’s Hero of the Year award was won by one of their own.

Pushpa Basnet, 29, was recognized on Dec. 2 for an organization she started seven years ago in Kathmandu, Nepal, that gives children, who would have otherwise been born and raised behind bars by their imprisoned parents, a normal childhood.

“I am so proud of Pushpa Basnet. She has made our country proud and proved once again that Nepali women are heroes,” said Glyansten Gurung, 28, the bar manager at Himalayan Yak on Roosevelt Ave. which is decorated with statues of Buddha and diya lamps used for prayer.

“It says a lot about the efforts ordinary people are trying to make. It’s made a difference in society where government has failed us for many years, and it gives hope and inspiration to everyone who has lost hope for their country,” Gurung added last week.

(Photo from Himalayan Yak website)

Mishal Thakali, 26, sipping a glass of the yogurt-based drink lassi while he waits for a friend to join him, is content to have done his part to get Basnet the recognition.

“I went online and voted for her and encouraged all my friends and family to do the same. I am so happy that my vote counted,” said the Queens resident. “Children are the hope of the future and she is helping build a good foundation for unprivileged children. What a novel cause.”

Nepal, best known for the Himalayan mountain range and the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest, is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to UNICEF, 55 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line.

Pushed by political instability and poverty, thousands of Nepalese immigrants and students have fled their native land in search of a better life over the last two decades.  The 2010 U.S. Census counted 59,490 people nationwide who described themselves as Nepalese. And students from Nepal placed 11thfor international students in the United States, in a 2010 report by the Institute of International Education.

In New York City, the Nepalese community grew quickly in the last decade, nearly tripling from fewer than 2,000 people in 2000 to 5,681 in 2010, according to the Department of City Planning. The community settled in Jackson Heights, embracing the area’s South Asian community and the access to stores selling familiar products, as well as proximity to Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries.

But as a relatively new community in the U.S., the Nepalese still maintain strong ties and cultural roots from back home. In fact, Nepalese traditional values teach its people to maintain those family connections, but despite that, for many here, the good work of Basnet was unknown.

Singer Anita Subba (Photo from Himalayan Yak website)

“She is around my age and I am so proud a Nepalese woman so young has made a difference in our constrained society,” said Anita Subba, 29, the singer of a Nepalese band that was playing at Himalayan Yak, during her break. The restaurant had one television set to a football game while five others aired a documentary on the hardships of life for the Nepal ethnic group Sherpas.

“It is so great that CNN recognized her good deed, whereas, our own country and society has not done much to help her,” added Subba, who was enjoying her favorite Nepali dish, momos, a spicy dumpling. “Nobody knew about her until she was nominated.”

Basnet was in college studying social work when she visited a prison as a part of her studies and came across a child inside. The child grabbed a piece of her clothing and gave her a big smile which she has said felt like a call for help. Basnet couldn’t forget the moment and decided to start a day care to get children out of prison. She had no financial resources but managed to collect donations, furniture and get help from friends and family.

Her organization Early Childhood Development Center was established in 2005 and has since helped remove 140 children from a life in prison. She also established the Butterfly Home, where she lives with the children and a few staff members.

“Mamu’s going to take you out from the prison and you’re coming to my place,” Basnet said in her acceptance speech after winning the award, referring to the children she wants to continue helping. “Mamu” means “mom” in Nepali. “This is for my children, and this is for my country Nepal. Thank you so much everybody who voted for me and who believed in my dream.”

Pushpa Basnet, founder of the Early Childhood Development Center, on stage with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. (Photo by Christopher Polk, courtesy of CNN)

Basnet was selected among thousands of entries worldwide. She’ll receive $250,000 to continue her work in addition to $50,000 for being selected for this year’s Top 10 CNN Heroes, along with free training from the Annenberg Foundation, a supporter of nonprofits worldwide.

A few years ago, bartender Gurung was a volunteer for Maiti Nepal, a non-profit organization back home dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking. In 2010, the founder and director of that group, Anuradha Koirala, was also recognized by CNN with the Hero of the Year award.

“After Anuradha Koirala won back in 2010, Nepalese all around the world were ecstatic, and now again this year Pushpa Basnet has refreshed our pride and love for our country,” he said. “This is a very special gift for Nepal and its people.”

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