Suraj Chhetri and his family are building a new business and a new life after spending 20 years in a refugee camp.
It is the beginning of the year 2074 on the Nepalese calendar and Guelph grocer Suraj Chhetri it is not only celebrating a happy new year but the start of a hopeful new future.
“I have seen the dark side of life,” said Chhetri. “Now, what I believe is that I can’t have a life worse than what I already had.”
Chhetri, his wife Nisha Chhetri-Gyawali and their eight-year-old son Aaryan recently moved to Guelph and opened a new store downtown.
Himalayan Grocers, located at the site of the former Vinh Phong Asian Foodmart on Macdonell Street, caters to the Nepalese community but Chhetri is seeking to broaden his customer base.
“I want to continue with the existing products because this store has been here for the last many years,” Chhetri said. “Our idea is to develop this into a specialty grocery store where you can find anything you can’t find outside.”
Apart from offering a growing selection of Asian and international food they carry a pantheon of Hindu and Buddhist icons, religious items and other Nepalese products.
“There are certain products that the people of our community need on a regular basis,” said Chhetri. “When there is a death in the family or a marriage or any other religious rituals, we need some specific products that otherwise we can’t find in the supermarket.”
Chhetri knows all too well what it is like to be denied religious and cultural rights and to go without food and freedom. He was born in Bhutan in 1978, the second oldest of four siblings. His family moved to Bhutan from Nepal in the early 1900s at the invitation of the first king of Bhutan Ugyen Wangchuck to help with the modernization of the country. They prospered for generations until the late 1980s when the fourth king in the dynasty Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced cultural reforms.
“He brought in a policy – one nation, one people – which meant we had to follow everything he does, the clothes he wears, the religion he follows, the food he eats,” said Chhetri. “We have our own food and our own religion. We protested and as a consequence we had to leave the country.”
Their first stop as refugees was India.
“The Indian government said you speak Nepalese you better go to Nepal,” Chhetri said. “They put us in a truck and sent us to Nepal but Nepal is a poor country and the government couldn’t assimilate us.”
The United Nations built seven camps in Nepal to house the refugees.
“Life was not easy in the camp,” said Chhetri. “I was 11 in 1989 when we left Bhutan and we lived as refugees until 2010 when we came to Canada.”
They settled in Quebec where Chhetri worked as a translator and an agent for Desjardin Insurance.
He and his older brother opened a Himalayan Grocers store in Quebec but were looking for a location in Ontario.
“People from my community have moved here and found a good job,” he said. “We are already in love with this city. This is a good community with very good people.”
They took over the store at the beginning of January and in March were among three local businesses nominated for the Immigrant Entrepreneurship Success Award by The Guelph-Wellington Local Immigration Partnership.
“Every day is a new day for me,” said Chhetri. “Moving forward I only see good things happening to me from now on.”
Apr 17, 2017 10:00 AM By: Troy Bridgeman