Young Nepali Restaurant Owner Embodies Iowa’s Refugee Community

All journeys are different, but when for some reason you are forced to leave your country, then grow up in yet another country and finally find success there, your story becomes one of survival and resiliency. Life has not been easy for Thakur Neupane, 30, yet when you meet him, his smile and personality can light up a room, which was what I felt when I stepped into Thakur’s Nepali restaurant Kathmandu in Windsor Heights.

In 1988, Bhutan (a small country between Tibet and India) evicted many Nepali-speaking residents (Bhutanese reports say about 5,000 and refugee reports say over 100,000) from districts in southern Bhutan. This created a large refugee community that was being detained in seven temporary United Nations refugee camps in Nepal and Sikkim.

Neupane’s family was one of the families kicked out of their country when he was only nine months old.

They went to India with his mother’s relatives, moving to a refugee camp in Nepal two years later, where they spent 18 years. Once Thakur’s family was eligible for resettlement, they came to Des Moines because his brother-in-law lived in the city already.

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The International Organization for Migration introduced Thakur’s family (mom, dad, and three kids) to Lutheran Services of Iowa (LSI). They arrived in January of 2010 and were assigned a LSI social worker. The biggest shock as they arrived was the extreme cold weather. They became part of the Nepalese population that makes up 3.3% of Iowa’s Asian population.

Thakur’s first job was at the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel in housekeeping while he was attending school at DMACC to learn English and to earn a GED.

“It was tough working in housekeeping, so I went to work at a warehouse and later returned to the same hotel as a nighttime receptionist because my English had improved,” he told me.

Neupane wanted to further his English skills, so he applied for the Job Corps program that took him to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and then Utah, where he earned his high school diploma. After graduating he enrolled in an auto mechanic training for 18 months. Two years went by and Thakur began to feel home sick and returned to Iowa.

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That mechanic’s training helped him land a job at Smart Honda as a line technician. He worked there for a year and a half before being hired at Deery Brothers Chevrolet for the same job. His sister suggested he come work with her at the meatpacking plant where he could make more money.

Thakur worked on the meatpacking lines for nine months and was promoted to an administrative job. He was able to save money for the three years with a purpose in mind.

“I always had a dream of opening my own business and becoming my own boss,” he told me.

He then talked to his sister and brother-in-law to partner and open a restaurant. Thakur had experience on this area after working in a fast food truck while living at the refugee camp. After nine months of jumping through hoops and learning the ins and outs of opening a business, he finally opened his restaurant on the south side of Des Moines in 2016. They did not qualify for a loan given their refugee status, and instead used their savings to open the restaurant.

Having his own business came with its set of challenges.

“When I started, I was working more than ten hours a day. We were really busy since we were and still are the only Nepali-Indian restaurant in Iowa. We were so busy that we had to ask other members of our family to come work for us,” he explained.

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Thakur had bigger dreams and wanted to open another restaurant. In 2019, he opened a second location in Windsor Heights.

After a couple of months, the new location was booming, so he decided to focus on this success and closed the south side location. Then COVID-19 came along, but contrary to many other restaurants, the pandemic did not slow his business down.

Orders kept coming online for pick up and carry out.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought that I was going to end up homeless since we took a loan for the second restaurant and had many bills to pay, but we have very loyal clients and we have been very busy,” he said.

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Neupane is not only busy with his restaurant — he has a second job at a warehouse working from 10:30 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. three days a week. I asked him when he saw his girlfriend and two young kids.

“That’s why we never fight, we hardly see each other,” he jokingly responded.

The restaurant is still closed for dining indoors. They fully understand the seriousness of the pandemic — they lost a loved one to the virus and want their family and customers to be safe. Still, business is good for Thakur and his family. His sense of humor, sparkly personality, personable service and resilience are a huge part of the restaurant’s success.

Listening to Neupane reminds me of how much refugees bring to the state of Iowa and the country, from economic contributions to enriching the U.S. with their food, culture, and traditions.

From the moment I stepped foot in Kathmandu and enjoyed their fantastic food, I was grateful this restaurant calls Des Moines home. Everything I experienced was outstanding, and I cannot wait to explore other dishes.

It is admirable what Thakur has accomplished in the ten years since his arrival. He has faced numerous challenges and built a business for himself, for his entire family and for us to enjoy.

Like many of us immigrants, he has experienced the ignorance and insults from individuals telling him he should go back to his country because he is taking other people’s jobs, yet he now provides employment for other Iowans. He contributes to our economy as a tax paying individual and as a business.

Let us all keep immigrants in mind as the general election nears. Make sure to vote.

 

by Claudia Thrane
Posted 8/30/20

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