Helping Nepalese Immigrants for 11 Years

Luna Ranjit speaking at her farewell party on Oct. 15 (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Luna Ranjit speaking at her farewell party on Oct. 15 (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

On Oct. 15, at 6:38 p.m., Luna Ranjit entered some heartfelt words on her Facebook page: “Today marks the end of a chapter – my last day at Adhikaar after 11.5 years! I am so, so grateful to so many people…for all the love and support…”

Ranjit, 39, who co-founded Adhikaar (meaning “rights” in Nepali), decided a few months ago to give up leadership of the Queens-based nonprofit, to travel for some months, then pursue new activities, perhaps again promoting social justice, her passion.

Adhikaar’s name was often cited in the wake of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, as the organization pushed for temporary protected status (TPS) to protect Nepalis from deportation. But for the past 11 years, the organization, led by women, has been an advocate for social justice for Nepali-speaking immigrants, to ensure that they are fairly treated by their employers. Adhikaar’s focus has been on preserving the rights of immigrants working in the informal sector as babysitters, housemaids, and in salons, restaurants and stores.

The group’s success is attributable in part to Ranjit’s tireless efforts, and at a farewell party for her in Woodside on Oct. 15, it was clear that she will be missed by many. City Council member Daniel Dromm was among many at the event who lauded her efforts, saying that she “was so dedicated to this organization for so many years.”

Birth of Adhikaar

Thousands of Nepalese fled Nepal during the decade from 1996-2006 when the Maoist rebellion against the government convulsed the nation. Many of those fleeing the country came to the U.S., and many of those immigrants settled in NYC. Safe from the conflict at home, these immigrants faced new challenges here. Many Nepalese workers, uninformed about labor rules and regulations, found themselves cheated or otherwise mistreated by employers.

Four friends who had immigrated during that decade – Luna Ranjit, Rashmi Shrestha, Srijana Shrestha (all from Nepal), and Tafadzwa Pasipanidya (from Zimbabwe) – found themselves talking regularly about the problems they were facing day to day in the workplace. Then, the group started meeting more and more Nepalese to learn about their struggles and stories.

Urgen Dorjee & Phintso Doma- (l. to r.), who studied English at Adhikaar, at the Oct. 15 farewell for Ranjit. (hot by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Urgen Dorjee and Phintso Doma (l. to r.), who studied English at Adhikaar, at the Oct. 15 farewell for Ranjit. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

The friends had encountered Nepalese who had been in the U.S. for several years and been separated from their family members, who had not gone to a doctor for years and were facing challenges with immigration, and who were paid low wages in their jobs.

“We felt an immediate need to help them better their lives. Adhikaar is the result of rounds and rounds of brainstorming of ideas,” said Ranjit.

In 2005, the group decided to register an organization, Adhikaar. Ranjit had just finished her masters in public policy and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, while her friends were still busy with their studies. It fell to Ranjit to become the driving force behind the fledgling organization.

In many ways, she was well suited to the task of arguing for social justice. The product of a marriage between parents of two different castes in Nepal, she has spoken publicly about the discrimination she experienced firsthand as a child, one of which was when a priest refused to offer her a blessing. “The challenges I faced in my upbringing have helped me become strongly committed in my work,” said Ranjit.

In the early days, she worked out of a small basement office on Staten Island – even though the people Adhikaar set out to help were in Queens. “People used to laugh at me,” she said. Everyone said she would be better off with an office in Queens.

Touched by Ranjit’s dedication, Mark Montgomery, her economics professor at Grinnell College, from which she received her undergraduate degree in economics, donated $500 in 2005 to Adhikaar. Said Montgomery: “I knew she would be doing something very useful with the money.”

Receiving the money motivated the team to immediately start their work at full swing. “We partnered with South Asian organizations for a health fair in Jackson Heights. Our English classes in Ridgewood on Sunday nights were our first formal programming,” she said.

A Tibetan couple, Urgen Dorjee and Phintso Doma, are regular attendees of Adhikaar’s weekly free English classes. The wife first joined the class in 2007. The husband has been taking the class since 2012.When he came to the U.S. in 2012, all he knew of English were the letters A-B-C-D. Now, after attending the classes, Dorjee can both read and write.

His wife Doma said, “Taking this class has helped me in a lot of ways. I can figure out which section is the grocery, and which is the pharmacy in a supermarket. I can follow train route directions with confidence.”

As they say, fortune favors the brave. In 2006, Grinnell College awarded Ranjit with the Wall Alumni Award that came with $20,000, to support her work. Grinnell awards this honor to its alumni – to someone who is starting or working on a project for positive social change.

IN Jackson Heights after the April 2015 Nepal earthwquake, passersby write notes and prayers for Nepal. Adhikaar was active in collecting donations and fighting for TPS for Nepalese in the U.S. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

In Jackson Heights after the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, passersby wrote notes and prayers for Nepal. Adhikaar was active in collecting donations and fighting for TPS for Nepalese in the U.S. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Only then did Adhikaar set up its first office in Astoria with three part-time staff. Their first order of business: a comprehensive demographic survey.

In the summer of 2006, Ranjit and her assistants started the project entitled Snapshots of the Nepali-Speaking Community in New York City – Demographics and Challenges.” This was an effort to get an accurate physical count of all Nepali speakers in the city and to collect information on what brought them to the city and understand the challenges they were facing in regards to work and health.

“We gathered the data over a period of about two and a half years, between April 2007 and August 2009,” she said.

Adhikaar uses the broader term “Nepali-speaking community” to encompass Nepali citizens born in Nepal, Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin, Tibetans, and people of Nepali origin from India.

The demographic study provided a strong foundation for Adhikaar’s advocacy work on behalf of Nepali-speaking workers in New York. Over the years, the organization has teamed up with numerous other organizations to secure workers’ rights.

Adhikaar campaigned for six years with organizations such as Unity Housecleaners, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, and Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, to push for passage of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights by the New York State Legislature, which finally happened in 2010.

Following the April and May 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, Adhikaar moved quickly to begin collecting donations to support local organizations in Nepal rebuild.

Adhikaar also successfully campaigned for the approval of temporary protected status (TPS) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; the success of which has protected undocumented Nepalis from deportation and has allowed them the right to work legally, visit family in Nepal and fly back to the U.S. again.

And another milestone was reached in 2015 when Adhikaar joined forces with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health to form the campaign for the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition. New York state passed legislation to protect nail salon workers through a training and licensing program, a healthy work environment, and the authorization to the New York Department of State to shut down salons that disobey the law. Adhikaar was able to campaign successfully to add Nepali and Tibetan languages to the licensing exam.

In more recent years, a number of organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, New York Women’s Foundation, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Alliance for a Greater New York, and NYC Department of Youth and Community Development have supported Adhikaar’s activities. Adhikaar’s current annual budget is $850,000.

“Most of the funds come from private foundations and we have general operating support, which gives us the flexibility to plan work that meets the needs of our community,” said Ranjit.

City Council member Daniel Dromm, with the traditional tika on his forehead and grass behind his ear, worn during the Nepali Hindu festival of Dashain, which coincided with this event. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

City Council member Daniel Dromm, with the traditional tika on his forehead and grass behind his ear. They are worn during the Nepali Hindu festival of Dashain, which coincided with the Oct. 15 event. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

“When there was this sudden increase in the number of Nepalese entering New York, Luna and her team came with the perfect idea of addressing Nepali immigrants’ problems,” says Sirjana Lama, a singer and an active social worker living in the United States for the last 21 years.

Today, there is hardly a Nepali-speaking person who has not heard of Adhikaar. Recognizing the accomplishments it has made in the field of social justice, Grinnell College awarded Luna Ranjit and Adhikaar with the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize 2016 this October. The honor comprises $100,000 of which $50,000 goes to the individual and the other $50,000 is awarded to the organization.

Luna said, “The sum will be used for projects on enhancing leadership skills of youths and women. As for the amount awarded to me, I will be using it in my future projects in the sector of social justice.”

Luna signs off from Adhikaar

Effective Oct. 15, Ranjit is no longer executive director at Adhikaar, although she will serve as a “strategic advisor” to help support the organization during the transition process. Over the next six months, she intends to visit her family in Nepal, and do some traveling.

“I have been working continuously for the last 11 years. I could hardly manage time for my family,” said Ranjit.

Ranjit hasn’t settled on what she’ll do after the half-year hiatus, but says her work could well involve a new social justice project.

For Ranjit, it would be doing what comes naturally. For nearly two years after her graduation from Grinnell College, Ranjit worked at the New Voices National Fellowship Program, a Ford Foundation funded program. The program supported organizations advocating for social justice, and her job was to coordinate its fellows for training programs. Said Ranjit, “It made me realize even a country like America has several incidents of social injustice.”

Adhikaar, with Ranjit at the helm for the past 11 years, has made certain to address those incidents within the growing Nepalese immigrant community.

2 Comments

  1. Bal Bahadur Magar says:

    hey,
    i’m from nepal right now but my family is there at NY. She is working in a hospital but i don’t know the name of the hospital and we have two sons(twins). for a year we are out of contact because of the net problem so i’m facing the problem in such condition how can i contact my wife. can your community help me to be connected with my wife.

  2. Dhan Yonghang says:

    Hi !

    Could I kindly know that, what sort of peoples are you helping? And are you helping for immigration process if someone is out of the united states?

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