Friday, 2 February 2007
Leave One Beer
Owen Powell – 1st February 2007
On the way in to the Chelsea office block where we met our Belarusian (no. 35), our Russian (no. 36) and our Latvian (no. 37), we had signed in at the reception desk, and exchanged a few words with the security guard who worked there. Amazingly, in those few words we had managed to ascertain that he was Nepalese. We’re getting better at this as we go along.
We spent about two hours sitting in the canteen area of the Eventica building. There were vending machines, we both had a cup of vended coffee, and I had a packet of crisps. In the waits in between our interviews, Alex and I would turn to each other and say, “What a bonus! We’ll definitely chat to the guy from Nepal on the way out,” but I think we both secretly feared that we had been there so long that he would have knocked off, or gone on his lunch, by the time we emerged again.
But when we had said goodbye to our Latvian … Hurrah! He was still there! We handed our security passes back in, and showed him the folder we always carry with us, explaining exactly why we had been monopolising the canteen during everyone’s lunch breaks. His face lit up. Devraj said that he would love to be our Nepalese representative.
My notebook came out, but before I’d even asked any questions it was requisitioned, as Dev wrote down his full name, email address, website address for the site he runs (www.nepaluk.com), other useful websites, estimates of the current UK Nepalese population (40,000), the current Nepalese population (25 million), and the number of Nepalese living in other countries around the world (about 1.4 million).
I wasn’t expecting to meet someone from Nepal today. I knew I’d be meeting a Mexican, a Bulgarian, and people from a variety of ex-Soviet states, but Nepal wasn’t somewhere I’d really prepared for. I was all ears. I didn’t really know what questions to ask.
Dev has been in London for four years. He originally came to study, in the hopes of becoming a computer technician, but his English (whilst perfectly serviceable for a quick chat) wasn’t advanced enough to get him the right kind of technical job. He’s been working in the building we’re in for nine months, but I think it’s pretty much a staging post on the way to bigger and better things. He lives with his wife in Hounslow, where there is a vibrant local Nepalese community, about 150 people who come together for community and charity work – Dev acts as their President. He’s been back to Nepal quite recently, last year, and likes to help the charity raise money to help worthy causes back home. My guess is that the charity raises a lot of its money during social evenings out – Dev explained that he has written a slogan for the group: “Leave one beer, and help a poor person”. I think that’s something we could probably all take to heart. At the moment, they’re gathering funds together to help build a school. (Nepalese restaurants, said Dev, are a little like Indian restaurants. His favourite dishes contained fish, and chicken, but no vegetables.)
We also spoke briefly about the Gurkhas, the soldiers who have fought alongside the British Army since the mid-nineteenth century. Their bravery has an almost mythical status – Gurkha regiments have won 26 Victoria Crosses over the years. In fact, of the twelve living recipients of the medal, four are Gurkhas. Dev couldn’t quite get his head around the injustice – UK soldiers get a pension that is three times bigger than that offered to the Gurkhas. And this, believe it or not, is an improvement – Gurkha pensions have more than doubled in recent years, from what was a pitiful sum. I asked Dev whether, if he was still in Nepal, he would have considered becoming a Gurkha. He smiled, and explained that Gurkhas were generally drawn from the lower castes, whereas he, as a higher caste person, had been to university and set out on the road to a better job. It reminded me of something that Rachel often said while working at a refugee charity, that while the popular conception of migrants is of them being poor, downtrodden, victimised people, often the people we see arriving here are the ones who could afford to get away – it’s the people they leave behind who are the great mass of humanity, surviving day to day at the bottom of the pyramid.