When Giri Sapkota and his family landed in Cincinnati in August 2008, he experienced every imaginable emotion, from relief and hope to fear and anxiety. A native of Bhutan, Sapkota had lived in exile in Nepal for 20 years, without a home, without a country, in a state of cultural purgatory. The chance to start over, finally, in America was a dream long in the works. It was also a terrifying prospect.
Sheryl Rajbhandari was there to help. Rajbhandari is a co-founder of Heartfelt Tidbits, a volunteer-based organization that provides long term support and services for the Bhutanese refugee community, which currently numbers about 15,000 in Cincinnati. “Sheryl stepped up for me and my family,” recalled Sapkota. “She inspired me. I wanted to help.” So before he himself was settled, Sapkota started volunteering. “People are in need of comfort at this time,” he said. “They don’t speak English, they don’t know where to take their children to school, where to shop. All basic and important things are new.”
Heartfelt Tidbits was formalized in 2011. But from day one, Sapkota anticipated needs and solved problems. “When there was just my husband and I, we ran out of steam after assisting 200 or so people,” recalled Rajbhandari. “It was Giri’s suggestion to engage a core group of the refugees to help, and we discussed how we could logically separate the tasks so that we could serve more. On days where I feel like I could give up, he’s the person that reminds me there are many more to help and we can do it.”
Although modest about his role “Sheryl is the mastermind!” Sapkota has been passionate from day one, anxious to help refugees adapt as well as hold onto their own culture. “Living in exile for five, 10, 20 years, without a home, a nationality. That is so hard,” he said. “We need to help these people, to love them and encourage them. This is my intention for my whole life.”
Whether he’s translating documents, transporting and helping seniors navigate the new system, helping parents access schools and healthcare or coaching refugees as they prepare for American citizenship, Sapkota gives selflessly and from his heart. “I can show them my own life,” he said. “Like them, I came to this country scared and afraid and took baby steps. I am now a US citizen, a homeowner, a father of sons who attend college. I encourage them – if they work hard they can do the same. What brings me joy is making a big difference, having an impact on someone’s life. That gives meaning to my being here beyond simply looking after myself.”