BALTIMORE, M.D. – As aid slowly rolls out for small businesses and families in Maryland, one demographic has been left hanging: international students. In the absence of government help, Baltimore’s Nepalese community came together Saturday morning to distribute groceries to these struggling students.
SAATHI Baltimore is a volunteer-run non-profit dedicated to aiding Nepalese international students in Maryland. Baltimore boasts the fifth-largest Nepalese community in America, with Washington D.C. at third-most.
SAATHI, the Nonresident Nepalese Association (NRNA) and the Nepali American Community Center (NACC) partnered with Mount Everest Grocery LLC Saturday to hand out carts of rice, oil, spices and even Parle-G (a popular Indian biscuit) to students. Most signed up to receive groceries prior to pick-up through SAATHI’s Facebook page.
“We already have 42 students who signed up,” Ramesh Bhatta, a founder of SAATHI Baltimore told The Immigrant’s Bay a day prior to the grocery pickup. By Saturday noon, a member of SAATHI stated they served up to 30 students.
SAATHI will be doing a second grocery pick-up Sunday May 17, from 1pm to 4pm at Swadesh Grocery.
“The jobs are closed, even in our home country,” said Ashish Kandel, a Nepalese international student at Wilmington University, who received a cart of groceries from Mount Everest’s door step. With parents unable to work back home, and he himself unable to work in America, his sources of funding are limited.
Currently, stimulus checks do not extend to foreigners in America without social security numbers, which includes international students.
Additionally, the CARES Act that provides aid to American college students does not extend to foreign students either. The latest HEROES Act succeeded against Republican backlash, to include immigrants of any legal status to receive stimulus paychecks. It still needs to pass the Republican-dominated Senate.
With no federal aid going to international students, SAATHI used funding from the Baltimore Rotary Club and NRNA, which contributed $2000 and $1000 respectively fuel the weekend grocery pick-up program. The Nepalese-run Mt Everest Grocery store gave SAATHI Baltimore a 15% discount.
“Getting groceries right now is really hard,” said Apar Shrestha, son of the owner of Mt Everest Grocery. “The vendors are increasing their prices on us.”
Regardless, they are attempting to keep their prices low–Shrestha stated they are selling rice at almost cost price. The 15% discount is on top of that.
“It’s not about making money you know,” said Shrestha. “It’s about helping the community.”
While some students picked up groceries at the door, several requested deliveries. Volunteers made longer trips around and outside of Baltimore to deliver.
“We really don’t know the situation, how long it is going to be,” said Anjali Lama, a Nepalese international student and recent graduate at Baltimore City Community College. She said her grocery delivery alleviates one of her fears. At the moment, she is applying to transfer to a university.
“Today we met with someone from Towson University,” Bhatta told Lama after dropping off her groceries. “He got some kind of scholarship there.”
“But Towson is really expensive, I guess, for international students,” she replied. International students can never get in-state tuition, as they are considered nonresident aliens by the government and universities. Bhatta and Lama discussed resources she could use to access scholarships and aid.
“I was an F1 student myself,” said Bhatta, as he drove away from Lama’s residence. “So I understand how hard it is.”
The group’s founders and volunteers are either current or previously F1 international students. SAATHI, which means ‘friend’ in Nepali, was founded as a way to bridge the gap between former and current F1 students.
“This started as a soccer program,” said Pravin Khadka, another founder of SAATHI. Soccer is a popular sport for the young and old alike in Nepal, and the founders believed it would be a good way to connect with the growing young Nepalese international student population in Maryland.
SAATHI took two years to conceptualize, founders busy with work and life. It slowly began to evolve into a resource and help group to current Nepalese international students.
COVID-19 was the kicker. Seeing the pandemic’s effects upon the Nepalese Maryland community, Khadka said they began several programs on their Facebook page, streaming immigration law webinars and unemployment filing training videos to its Facebook page.
“We as being graduates from this university system, we know what is right and what is wrong,” said Khadka. “Because we have been there. We have experience.”
SAATHI itself comprises several task forces, one of them being the F-1 Student Task Force, with about 10 to 15 volunteers.
“I didn’t expect all this response,” said Chandani Lama, an F1 Student Task Force member, about the response from grocery stores in helping international student communities. “I thought the federal will be helping us, rather than the local.”
Lama states the next step is to address rent, and to appeal to universities and the government to give aid. SAATHI may provide a resources for international students, but it is still small, she stated, and depends on the pockets of the Nepalese community.
“We really want to survive, and we want to get a degree,” said Lama, who is doing her Bachelor’s in Environmental Science and Policy Making at Wilmington University.
“You know, this time, I thought I would stay away from politics,” Lama said. “But in this environment…it’s just impossible to really ignore it at all.”
*Editor’s note: Anjali Lama was at her home when the picture was taken, and thus did not break the law for not wearing a mask. She and SAATHI volunteers largely kept six feet of distance between her and others around her.