Nepalis’ desperate pursuit of the American dream often ends in tragedy

enter the USA illegally

The pursuit of better employment opportunities abroad is not a new phenomenon for Nepalis. However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the trend of Nepalis attempting to enter the USA illegally. In this pursuit to enter the USA illegally, many Nepalis have lost their lives in forests, seas, and roads of South America.

No one knows how many Nepalis have died trying to enter the USA illegally. Due to the secretive nature of these voyages, the families affected receive minimal information, often relying solely on news reports from various sources. Authorised bodies in South America and other areas often remain silent, mentioning the illegal nature of the travels as a reason for withholding information.

What also has not helped is the absence of research based on these incidents. As a result, those who die during this journey are often left unaccounted for, leaving their families in despair.

The American nightmare

When Ramesh Gautam from Musikot in Rukum West was planning to leave for the USA, his wife, Leela Bohara, tried to stop him.

“I reminded him how there were children at home and asked him not to go so far,” says Bohara.

With people from almost every household going to the US, Gautam insisted and quit his job in the Nepal Army to embark on a journey hoping for a better life.

In April 2022, he left home after paying Rs 3.5 million to the agent who was helping him enter the USA illegally. Via a route that included a stop in Dubai, he crossed through various countries to reach Colombia.

During this journey, he remained in contact with his wife, reassuring her not to worry and expressing his anticipation of reaching the USA within a few months.

Around six months after leaving Nepal, Gautam found himself on a boat on his way to Panama. That is where his American dream turned into a night for him and his family as the boat he was on capsised near Capurgana.

Gautam was one of the six individuals among the twelve on board who went missing on October 22, 2022. Over a year has passed yet his family does not know if he is alive or dead of his whereabouts.

Bohara found out about the incident the very next day. Every day, she anxiously waits to hear from him. Tears stream down her face as thoughts of her husband occupy her mind. Occasionally, she stares at her husband’s photo on her mobile phone, reminiscing about the moments they shared.

“This is all I have,” she says.

Pradeep Khatri from Banfikot Rural Municipality in Rukum West was also on the same boat as Gautam. Like Gautam, Khatri also saw how young boys had entered the USA and wanted to go on the voyage hoping the American dream would give him a better shot a providing a better future for his family.

Khatri sought out a loan of Rs 3.6 million and went to an agent who could help him enter the USA illegally.

As he left home in October 2022, his wife was still recovering from giving birth to their one-month-old son. Despite people telling him not to go, Khatri left his wife, Dhanmaya, his one-month-old son and two other children to enter the USA illegally.

Khatri’s American dream, however, remained unfulfilled after he was lost in the Caribbean Sea. His family learnt about the incident two days later. Dhanmaya, who was home with her children was in disbelief. She recalled how her husband had told her how their suffering would end once he reached the US. But with him gone, Dhanmaya does not know where to turn to.

“I feel helpless. How will I take care of my children? Who will repay the debt?” she questions.

The debt trap for families

The deaths of people who try to enter the USA illegally cause more than one trauma to the family members. Having to spend millions to get there, most take substantial loans which will now have to be paid off by their family members. Many also become victims of loan sharks who take advantage of the people.

Take Pradeep Khatri from Banfikot in Rukum West as an example. He took out a loan of Rs 3.6 million to get to the US. That amount has now doubled and reached Rs 7 million in a year. His wife Dhanmaya says people Khatri borrowed money from often frequent their home asking for repayment.

“I barely have enough to feed my children. I cannot pay them back,” she says.

Ramesh Gautam’s wife Leela Bohara has also been facing issues due to the debt taken by her husband who got lost in the Caribbean Sea. Gautam took out a loan at 36 per cent and now his wife has to pay over Rs 5 million.

“The agent only returned half of the money we paid him. I have had to live alone and take care of everything. I don’t know how I will pay back the loan,” she says.

No closure

The family of Sahil Bohara, who died why trying to enter the USA illegally showing his photo.

Traversing the illegal route known as the ‘bottom road’ involves a lengthy journey, requiring individuals to cross the borders of numerous countries. This is not an easy task as security personnel at each border crossing point look at them with scrutiny. The journey involves walking for months and days, crossing countless rivers, forests, and seas on foot.

Furthermore, the route also demands evading bandits in certain areas, making the journey treacherous and not everyone can complete it. This is why only a few manage to enter the USA illegally while others die or get caught on this journey.

The bodies of the deceased are rarely brought back, leaving the families without any closure. They are not even provided any official statement as to what happened to their loved ones on their quest to enter the USA illegally.

The families who lost their relatives have only received the news of their loved one’s death, not their body. Some still hold onto false hope as they have not seen the mortal remains, while others, after waiting for a long time, have conducted the last rituals even without the deceased’s body.

SSP Jeevan Shrestha, head of the Anti Human Trafficking Bureau of Nepal Police, says how a desire to earn money has resulted in the deaths of many Nepalis in South America.

“In the pursuit of earning money, Nepali youth are willing to take significant risks by choosing the illegal path. Unfortunately, some of those who undertake this journey die,” he says.

He says that bringing back the bodies is challenging due to Nepal’s lack of diplomatic ties with the countries where these tragic deaths occur.

“We can’t do anything,” he says.

The motivation for individuals to go abroad, even at the risk of taking such perilous journeys, is rooted in what is termed the ‘pushing factor.’ According to labour and migration expert Rameshwar Nepal, “The main reason is the ‘pushing factor’. They want to leave Nepal and to do that, they are willing to take any step. Most know they can die on this journey, yet they continue to take the risks.”

Despite knowing people have died trying to enter the USA illegally, many young men in the villages of Dang, Rukum, and Rolpa, take the risk. Many young people are enticed with false assurances and misinformation by agents who function as human traffickers in remote villages. Determining the exact number of those who embark on these journeys discreetly is a challenging task.

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Budhathoki is a journalist, based in Dang.

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