Sherpas face challenges of new lives in U.S.


NEW YORK -- In between two windows overlooking the asphalt and concrete of Northern Boulevard in Queens, Nima Nurbu has taped a reminder of the view from the windows of his boyhood home: a picture of a snow-capped Himalayan mountain range against a blue sky.

It's not Mount Everest, the image one might expect to see in the homes of Sherpas, the mountain dwellers of Nepal who have lugged food, luggage and oxygen bottles for climbers and thrill-seekers ascending the world's tallest peak.

"I have no real interest in Everest," Nurbu says. "It's very dirty, like a train station here."

Rather, the focal point of Nurbu's living room is Machhapuchhare, a sacred peak on the Annapurna range that has never been climbed. And Nurbu, who once led trekkers up the Himalayas, hopes it stays that way. In fact, Nurbu hopes Sherpas one day can be rid of the worldwide reputation that they have gained for lugging and leading, carrying and cooking. Instead, he wants them to be known as doctors, lawyers, teachers and bankers.

"Educated Sherpas never go to climb a mountain or lead an expedition," he says. "Now our young generation of Sherpas say it's not very important to go to the mountain. It's more important to go to school."

That philosophy led the 51- year-old Nurbu, who never entered a classroom, his wife and son to New York City last year, to join hundreds of Sherpas living in the city. Over the past decade, their numbers have steadily multiplied in the New York metropolitan area, to nearly 700, fueled by Nepal's ailing economy, a fascination with the West and a hunger for education and opportunity.

Here, Nurbu's feet remain firmly planted on the tile floors of a gourmet grocery store in Manhattan, where he works as a sandwich maker. His earnings, combined with his son's as a store clerk and his wife's as a nanny, are just enough to send $1,200 monthly to two daughters studying medicine in the Philippines. His son, Kaljang Lama, 21, works six days a week at a health-food store, also taking night classes to prepare for a high school equivalency exam.

In so many ways, theirs and other Sherpas' tales are the classic immigrant story. Newly migrated Sherpas often settle into low-wage jobs as taxi drivers, store clerks, construction workers, housekeepers and nannies -- jobs they perform so their children won't have to. They rely on networks created by earlier immigrants, gathering on weekends for the traditional foods, songs and dances that remind them of the mountains they call home.

Even thousands of miles away from the 29,028-foot peak worshiped as the goddess Chomolungma, Sherpas can't fully escape Everest, nor do they want to. Many say they reap the benefits of the Sherpa stereotype: hardworking, sturdy, loyal, the dream of an American employer.

"It's a work-related identity, not an ethnic identity," says Nuru Lama, 27, the first known Sherpa to attend Harvard University. "For such a small population, it gets so much attention."

Historians trace Sherpas' roots to Tibet, a country they fled 500 years ago for the mountains of Nepal. Sherpa literally translates into "people migrated from the east." In Nepal, Sherpas worked mainly as subsistence farmers and herders, traders and blacksmiths. Today, an estimated 25,000 Sherpas live in Nepal.

In 1953, Edmund Hillary, along with the most famous Sherpa of all, Tenzing Norgay, became the first to reach Everest's peak. Their successful ascent led to a thriving tourism industry centered on Everest, a niche Sherpas could readily capitalize on. Westerners became a frequent sight to Sherpas.

Many Sherpas immigrating to the United States arrive on tourist visas sponsored by Americans encountered on trails and treks back home. When the visa expires, the Sherpas sometimes remain illegally in the United States, accepting jobs that often pay less than minimum wage and working more than 40 hours a week.

While most Sherpas in the United States can't say they've stood on Everest's peak, many have witnessed firsthand the perils of such a climb. Karma Sherpa shudders when asked about an expedition up Annapurna, one he attempted as a government liaison in 1981. "We had a big accident and lost four people," says the 45-year-old. "We refused to go on."

Today, Karma Sherpa works as a cab driver, a job he jokingly describes as "social worker." "My kids want to be computer engineers," he says proudly.

Sherpas, one of nearly three dozen ethnic groups in Nepal, say they're often confused with immigrants from neighboring India or China. Many have adopted "Sherpa" as their surname, while first names tend to come from the day of the week they were born.

What Sherpas in the United States have quickly learned is to adapt and adopt, says Tsewang Sherpalama, past president of the United Sherpa Association. It's a role to which Sherpas are accustomed.

"Our culture is all based on Tibetan culture, yet because we live in Nepal, there's a tremendous amount of Hindu culture," says Sherpalama. "Our culture has been modified in many different directions."

Sherpas, who practice Tibetan Buddhism, create shrines in their homes with statues and scriptures, photographs of the deceased and of the reincarnated. Bowls of water grace the front of the altars; water symbolizes the most pure offering a worshiper, rich or poor, can make.

The number of Sherpa immigrants may dramatically increase over the next year if Nepal's political and economic situation worsens, experts say. In June, Nepal's crown prince opened fire during dinner, killing most of the royal family before turning the gun on himself. Meanwhile, a five-year Maoist rebel insurgency has claimed more than 1,700 lives.

Some days behind the deli counter, Nima Nurbu remembers when he was his own boss. His trekking customers generally stayed at a safe 19,000 feet -- an altitude 13 times the height of the Empire State Building.

The reminders of why he now makes sandwiches are plenty: two daughters studying medicine, a son trying to graduate from high school, a homeland where running water and television remain luxuries for many who still live there.

S. Mitra Kalita is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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