For generations, Thakur’s people had been denied citizenship in the country of their birth. Now it was time for him to become a citizen at last—of the United States.
It’s mid-afternoon on a Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa. The Kathmandu—the only place to experience Nepalese food in the state—is now prepping for dinner.
“I’m sorry I can’t talk for long,” Thakur Neupane, the restaurant’s owner, apologizes. He has to raise his voice over the din coming from the kitchen. “I have to get back to work.”
The pandemic has hit restaurants hard all over the country. But the Kathmandu is managing, with their loyal and enthusiastic customers now making do with carry-out and delivery instead of dining in. But Thakur is worried. The Kathmandu is the culmination of a goal he set for himself when he was just 7 years old and living as a Bhutanese refugee in Nepal.
“I have always dreamed of opening my own restaurant and becoming my own boss,” he says.
This was his American dream: to be free, to have opportunity, and to belong.
A Refugee in Iowa.
“A long time ago,” explains Thakur, “our ancestors came to Bhutan from Nepal to clear the jungle and to do construction work. We were welcomed by the king and promised citizenship. After so many years, our people began to fight for our civil rights, our own language, our own dress and our own culture. But the king of Bhutan denied all this to us.”
When the inevitable violence began, it was brutal and bloody; by the late 1980s, the Bhutanese government had expelled over 100,000 of the Lhotshampa (Southerners). Many more would flee ethnic and political persecution throughout the early 1990s.
Thakur was just a baby when his family left Bhutan. For the next 18 years, he would live as a refugee in Southern Nepal. And then they were resettled in Iowa.
Thakur worked hard in Iowa, frequently taking on two jobs at once—including a hotel housekeeper, a mechanic, and a meatpacker. He began slowly saving money for his restaurant.
But money wasn’t his only obstacle; there was also his English. “In the beginning, nobody could understand me,” he recalls. “Talking on the phone was especially hard. I took many ESL classes. And it was very difficult to improve when I had to speak Nepalese at home.”
Eventually, Thakur became more comfortable with speaking English and was ready to apply to become a naturalized American.
“I had three primary reasons,” he explains earnestly. “First, you can’t do whatever you want to do if you aren’t a U.S. citizen. I was trying to get a loan for my business, but they wouldn’t process it because I was not a citizen.”
“The second thing,” he says, “is that a citizen can travel anywhere without a problem.”
Finally—and just as importantly—he says, “I wanted to vote.”
Although Thakur had applied for his green card himself, he didn’t want to risk making a mistake on his naturalization application. The stakes were too high. He turned to Jody Mashek from the American Friends Service Committee for help. AFSC works closely with Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors; in fact, the two organizations will soon be officially joining forces to better serve Iowa’s immigrant community.
Jody and Thakur submitted his application over six months ago. Before the pandemic hit, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was already experiencing processing delays—some hopeful candidates found their wait times doubled from previous years. However, with the full onslaught of COVID-19, these delays became enormous and unmanageable.
Thakur is not going to become a citizen in time to vote this year.
“He hasn’t even been fingerprinted yet,” says Jody. “I have to assume we’re months away from his actual interview or his oath ceremony, for that matter.”
“I’m sad and I’m frustrated,” says Thakur, sighing deeply. “It’s going very slowly. But I know it’s the COVID.”
Iowa is experiencing an alarming increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. As of October 16, the state’s data show there are currently a total of 468 patients hospitalized with the virus. A total of 1,521 Iowans have died since the pandemic began.
“We are too far behind to control COVID,” says Thakur, his voice raspy with worry. His girlfriend’s grandfather died from the virus early on in the pandemic, and Thakur is anxious about his own father, who has a chronic disease. “It has gone too far already. When will we have a vaccine?”
There is a shout from the kitchen; somebody needs Thakur’s attention. Customers will be arriving for curbside pickup in a few hours. With another murmured apology, Thakur turns back to work.