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‘Heroes of resiliency’: Shut out from federal funding, an immigrant-owned Montpelier restaurant struggles to return after the floods

Canoeists paddle past the flooded KSherpa Dinner House in Montpelier on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
While he has received some local monies, the owner of KSherpa Dinner House does not qualify for federal disaster funds because of his citizenship status, putting him at a significant disadvantage as he works to bring his business back online.

By Auditi Guha

More than four months since devastating floods swept through Vermont, Kamal Sherpa cannot catch a break. As neighboring businesses open back up in downtown Montpelier, he is struggling to reopen KSherpa Dinner House.

The Main Street restaurant has gained a following in the two years it’s been open, dishing out fresh Himalayan dishes such as Nepali momos, Indian chicken curry and Indo-Chinese noodles.

But, like the rest of downtown Montpelier, it was inundated on July 10. Sherpa, 42, described his flood-ravaged restaurant as “a total loss,” which has left him without an income.  

What’s more, he bought his first home — in nearby Barre — just four months before the floods. Located on Second Street, it, too, was heavily damaged in the flooding. 

Between both places, Sherpa estimates he’s suffered about $400,000 in damages. 

“It’s a huge worry. It’s a lot of work,” he said in Hindi. “We’re fixing it all but money is an issue.”

Two men standing in front of a restaurant.
Jatinder Singh (Sunny) and Kamal Sherpa outside their closed restaurant KSherpa on Aug. 23. Courtesy photo
His close friend and business adviser, Jatinder Singh, 32, who helped Sherpa operate the restaurant and navigate the paperwork needed to buy his home, called the experience “extremely difficult.”

“We are working all day, every day to fix this,” said Singh, who goes by Sunny. “We want to open up so we can have business again.” 

While making repairs to his business, Sherpa, with help from Singh and others, has also been busy cleaning out the mud-strewn basement of his house and redoing the first floor, where the water destroyed walls, floors, stored food equipment, furniture and furnishings.

Both immigrants from South Asia, the two men have worked many odd jobs in the United States, helping each other along the way. “We are brothers from another mother,” Singh said with a laugh.

In this latest challenge, though, they are coming up against a formidable barrier: Sherpa’s immigration status has prevented him from receiving disaster assistance from the federal government, including programs for homes and businesses provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration, respectively.

Sherpa was upset to learn he does not qualify for the same federal funds being distributed to many of his neighbors. It hasn’t stopped him from working to get his restaurant back open — he hopes to do so within two weeks — but it’s made the process longer and more challenging. 

“If I could get some money from the government,” he said, “it would help me greatly.”

Local organizations and individuals are attempting to help to fill the gap. Melissa Bounty, executive director of the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation, described KSherpa’s post-flood recovery as one of the toughest cases her organization has dealt with because they had to navigate complex application processes while contending with limited resources and language barriers.

Bounty said Sherpa and Singh “work to create and provide for others” and have shown “deep concern for everyone in our community,” even amid their current struggle. 

“They will always be in my heart as heroes of resiliency and they will always have my deep sympathy for the incredible challenges that this flood put in front of them on their road to recovery,” she said.

A dream to a nightmare

Singh and Sherpa met in New York City in 2018. Singh had moved there three years earlier from Punjab, a state in northern India.

Sherpa, who had a restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal, came to New York in 2014 from a refugee camp in that country. He moved to Vermont because there was a community of Nepalese people, including a relative. After working in restaurants for several years, Sherpa opened KSherpa in downtown Montpelier at the end of 2021 in the space formerly occupied by Bagitos, becoming the capital’s second South Asian restaurant, according to Katie Trautz, executive director of Montpelier Alive.

Singh, who previously ran several communication franchises and is in the process of securing permanent resident status in the U.S., said he moved to Vermont to help Sherpa open and run the restaurant, often serving as the chef.

For Sherpa, buying the house in downtown Barre was a major achievement — and meant he no longer had to commute from his South Burlington rental. Sherpa, Singh and other restaurant workers lived on the second floor and he rented the two units below. 

“It was good, it was very good,” Sherpa said, switching to Hindi to describe it as a dream come true.

A man standing next to a gas cylinder in front of a house.
Jatinder Singh/Sunny indicates what the water level inside and outside Kamal Sherpa’s Barre house was on Second Street at the height of the July floods. Photo by Auditi Guha/VTDigger
As heavy rains fell on July 10, Sherpa and his workers remained busy at the restaurant. Singh, who had seen his fair share of monsoon rains in Punjab, first thought people were overreacting. 

But by 2:30 p.m., the Winooski River had reached the restaurant’s backyard. By 5:30 p.m. it was inside the restaurant, Singh recalled, but customers were still doing takeout orders.

“Everyone was locking up and leaving. People told us to leave too,” he said.

Less than an hour later, the water, which had risen about 3 feet in the street, prevented them from opening the front door. When they opened the back door, which was three steps up, Singh saw their two propane tanks floating. It was then, he said, that he realized they had to leave.

All four employees packed up everything they could into Sherpa’s SUV and drove out. Trying to avoid the rising flood waters, Singh said they drove around for two hours before they reached the shelter that had opened up in the Barre Auditorium. From there, they hoofed it to their house.

A man standing in the doorway of a room.
Jatinder Singh/Sunny indicates what the water level inside and outside Kamal Sherpa’s Barre house was on Second Street at the height of the July floods. Photo by Auditi Guha/VTDigger
Second Street was among the hardest hit parts of Barre, which suffered some of the worst damage in the state. Singh said the group practically waded to the house where the entire basement and first floor were flooded. The first-floor tenants were in the street as tree limbs, blue bins and trash floated around. They all managed to get into the house and take refuge on the second floor. 

There was mud in his shoes and pockets, Singh recalled. Rescue teams came to get them around 1 or 2 a.m., leading them away on foot. It was terrifying, he said. 

Sherpa recalled his devastation. He thought he was “khatam,” he said in Hindi — finished.

Disproportionately disadvantaged

At first, the catastrophe was bewildering, Sherpa said. But after three days, the residents of the Second Street home began working to clean up the mess. 

“We didn’t stop,” he said with a shrug in Hindi. “My life is always full of ups and downs but we are all trying to help each other. That’s how the world goes around.”

As Vermont similarly transitioned into recovery mode, officials from across government assured residents that aid was on the way, largely in the form of federal relief.

President Joe Biden declared the July flooding in Vermont a major disaster, which opened up the state up to greater federal resources, and in the months that followed, federal and local officials repeatedly urged residents to apply for assistance through FEMA and the Small Business Administration. 

“This (individual) assistance can be for home repairs, or rent support for displaced individuals while repairs are made, and for other disaster-related expenses such as medical, dental, funeral, moving and storage and personal property losses,” said FEMA branch director Chelsey Smith mid-July.

Yet a key caveat went unmentioned: While FEMA doesn’t collect citizenship information, “applicants must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national or a qualified resident” to be eligible to receive its disaster grants, Briana Summer Fenton, a FEMA spokesperson, told VTDigger in response to an inquiry. 

Fenton went on to say that the agency “is committed to ensuring disaster assistance is accomplished equitably, without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency, or economic status.”

Sherpa said he had flood insurance on his house and said he expects to receive a payout of $80,000 to $100,000. Based on his estimates of the damage, that would leave a potential gap in the realm of $300,000. 

But he soon learned that he did not qualify for any financial assistance from the agency because of his immigration status. (He declined to discuss the specifics of his status for fear of jeopardizing the immigration process, which he has been engaged in for about a decade.)

Business owners — and even homeowners and renters — were encouraged to apply for disaster loans from the Small Business Administration, or SBA. 

Volunteers who helped KSherpa seek this loan said they applied perhaps six times. The forms are complex, they said, and sometimes the wrong ink color or a misplaced comma led to applications being sent back to be redone.

Despite their repeated efforts, Sherpa said the application was rejected — also due to his immigration status, he said.

A building with a red door and steps.
KSherpa in Montpelier was boarded up with flood-destroyed equipment strewn in the backyard of the Nepali/Indian restaurant on Oct. 19, 2023. Photo by Auditi Guha/VTDigger
Arleace Green, a spokesperson for the SBA, confirmed that “one of the reasons an application may not be accepted is that the applicant did not meet the citizenship requirements.”

Asked how many applications in Vermont the agency had denied for this reason, Green said, “only one business application has been received that was not accepted for this reason.” Green declined to share the name of the business. 

She said “all survivors” — including “qualified aliens” — “who suffered damage are encouraged to apply and to get a full review of their application and eligibility to apply.”

Bounty, from the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation, has helped many local businesses with the applications, including KSherpa.

“The most difficult part of responding to (KSherpa’s) needs as clients was the significant barriers they faced to accessing capital, resources, information, and guidance,” she said, adding that the whole process has been emotionally draining and humiliating for them.

Sherpa and Sunny have also been reluctant to talk about money — what they have or what they need — which can be a common cultural barrier for many South Asians. 

Singh said they were told that while the landlord would fix the restaurant premises, he would not cover the cost of the damaged kitchen equipment that came with the space. So they have bought their own to reopen the restaurant, including a fridge, cooler, stove and dough mixer. 

KSherpa’s landlord Jesse Jacobs said his team is working tirelessly to restore homes and businesses in downtown Montpelier. He did not respond to a question about funding destroyed kitchen equipment.

‘Unusually difficult’

Immigrant business owners often face unique challenges even under normal circumstances, according to Nicole Killoran, a professor of law and director of the entrepreneurial legal lab at the Vermont Law and Graduate School. They may lack family to lean on, financial support beyond their own jobs and familiarity with the systems for accessing resources, Killoran explained. Language barriers and a disconnect from the community can compound the challenges. 

Add a major disaster to the mix, and the gulf widens.

“The recovery process has been unusually difficult for many BIPOC business owners, particularly those who immigrated recently from another country, compared to the experience of their white counterparts,” said Killoran, who has provided legal support to flood-hit immigrant business owners through the legal lab.

They are “often less likely to apply for relief, financial or otherwise, either because the process is too onerous and they don’t feel supported, or because culturally they take pride in not seeking assistance outside of their community,” she said. 

The inside of a basement that is being remodeled.
A part of the basement of Kamal Sherpa’s Second Street house while it was undergoing repairs on Oct. 19, 2023. Photo by Auditi Guha/VTDigger
Killoran gave several examples of what she has seen post-flood. Among her observations: Immigrant business owners were more likely to report that their commercial landlords are less responsive, less likely to prioritize repairs, and less likely to negotiate rent abatement or lease exit.

She also said that many BIPOC business owners — immigrants or not — have reported feeling ignored and unsupported by the state and federal government, leading them to conclude that the post-disaster support system is designed to help others, not them.

“Common experience for these businesses has been slow response time, and a sense that they are on the back burner compared to white-owned businesses,” she said.

Two such business owners, she said, reported that they were inadequately assisted at the in-person disaster recovery centers that FEMA launched, including trouble getting questions answered, or answers that were “abrupt and unhelpful,” she said. 

About 20% of the flood-affected businesses in Montpelier are owned by people of color, according to Bounty. Most of them are immigrants and they all faced multiple challenges in the flood’s aftermath. For example, 15 of the 45 clients she managed did not speak English fluently and needed translation support that was not readily available, she said. 

Help trickles in

Aware of these systemic barriers, the Barre Community Relief Fund sprang up a month after the flood with an intentionally simple two-page application that had a turnaround time of two weeks, said state Rep. Jonathan Williams, a Democrat who represents Barre City and serves on the relief fund’s board.

As a state legislator, he said, he takes issue with how the state and feds dole out funding.

“It’s not very efficient and it’s not very fair or equitable to my mind, and I think we could do a much better job,” he said.

Unlike the federal forms and processes, the relief fund’s process is transparent with the evaluation rubric published online. Applications are reviewed by a diverse volunteer grants committee including people who were impacted by the flood and BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people.

“These people are located all around Barre, not just in one area and also have different socioeconomic backgrounds as well. So we tried very intentionally to create this very accessible, transparent process so folks know how their applications are being scored and that persons with lived experience are scoring them,” Williams said.

But while the process is more straightforward, the scale of the grants is more modest. Businesses can access up to $5,000 and households can receive up to $1,500. Since September, the fund has received 114 applications and approved 107, according to Williams. Singh said KSherpa is among the recipients. 

In August, the Vermont Department of Commerce and Community Development launched a $20 million grant program for flood-damaged businesses called the Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program. Bounty helped businesses fill out those application forms, too, but she had to find translators to assist non-English speakers.

She also connected affected businesses to local channels such as the Community Capital of Vermont, an alternative lender in Montpelier.

A car is parked in a flooded street.
The scene from Kamal Sherpa’s house on Second Street in Barre after the flood waters receded. Courtesy photo
That organization has made a $50,000 loan available to KSherpa at a 4% interest rate to help them buy the kitchen equipment they need, according to its executive director, Alexander Rob, who is used to working with all kinds of entrepreneurs, particularly women, who are trying to overcome systemic hurdles to accessing capital.

“So I feel like I’ve seen a lot, but this one, this is extra hurdles and it’s all because they’re BIPOC,” he said, referring to KSherpa’s plight. 

He shared the reasons articulated by Bounty and Killoran as to why it’s difficult for a non-white, non-English speaking person to access or even seek support — and added a few more.

“We spent almost three hours on our loan closing just working through the documents, just because it takes them time to understand it. They take it very seriously but they’re not 100 percent trustful, just based on past experiences,” Rob said. “It’s hard for poor people in the first place but when you have all the other factors, it’s almost impossible.”

This includes marginalized people not being able to advocate for themselves, people not calling them back, not taking them seriously, putting them off to the side, in ways more privileged people are rarely treated, he said.

Concerned about KSherpa’s struggles, Rob set up a GoFundMe fundraiser on Aug. 23 to help the restaurant open. As of Nov. 21, it had netted a little over $10,200 of the $25,000 goal.

“They lost everything in the restaurant and are rebuilding from scratch. They need to raise funds to buy new restaurant equipment, restock their inventory of food, and purchase furniture,” he wrote in the appeal.

For many organizations, the flood has been an eye opener about how things need to be done in the future.

“I think that this event has really highlighted the need for more outreach and more programs that specifically support BIPOC-owned businesses and people who have immigrated here or don’t speak English as a first language,” said Trautz of Montpelier Alive. 

“This is a great opportunity to really change our approach in the future to inclusivity and incorporating these very important business owners into community more fully.”

‘Every day is a hope’

On a rainy weekday morning last month, Second Street in Barre was still lined with mud and flood-battered houses. Many had dumpsters outside and crews hard at work.

Colorful Tibetan prayer flags hung listlessly outside Sherpa’s house. Singh came out of the basement bulkhead with a broom. He had been trying to salvage anything that could be saved.  Plastic chairs and flood debris lay in the backyard. Half the basement was dried out with old rusty items lying around but the other half was still damp and caked over with thick gray mud.

Singh peeled off his work gloves and used the broom to point to the water mark left by the flood on the outer siding of the house, higher than 5 feet.

“Every day is a hope that we can get this stuff fixed up,” he said.

The two men have continued to live on the second floor, occasionally visiting the Barre Auditorium shelter in the early days for food and showers. The first-floor tenants went to stay with friends and family and aren’t being charged rent while the units are being fixed, according to Singh, who said they are in the process of moving back.

A short drive away to the restaurant in Montpelier, still-muddied kitchen equipment lay in an unkempt mess — an old refrigerator, a Gatorade cooler, blue tarp-covered furniture — and the back door was boarded up.

The men have remained busy running between the house and restaurant to make or manage repairs. They’ve been working, morning to night, day in and day out, they said, and making trips to New York to score affordable kitchen equipment and furnishings.

A man standing in front of a kitchen in a restaurant.
Kamal Sherpa at his downtown restaurant on Nov. 2 as it was being fixed after the flood damage. Courtesy photo
Sherpa is anxious to reopen the restaurant. Like many immigrants, every month he typically sends some $500-$1,000 home to Kathmandu, where he has a large family including his parents, four brothers and four sisters. But he’s been unable to without an income. 

“Never in my life did I imagine anything like this,” he said in Hindi. “I never thought the flood waters would come into my restaurant, but it did. … I’m very worried, very sad, but we can’t do anything about that now.”

While he is more quiet and conservative in his demeanor, Singh exudes confidence and positivity.

“Everything is possible here. I have had a lot of struggle to reach here and it’s hurt me,” he said, his cheery demeanor briefly fading briefly. “I can tell you stories …”

He quickly recovered. “We all come here to make money, to help family and we all help each other,” he said. “If I get a challenge in life, I have to fight and I’m not afraid to do that.”

He picked up a broom and pointed to the freshly made dirt garden beds in front of the house with wooden beams marking the sidewalk’s end where flood waters have left none on Second Street. 

“I did that,” Singh said. “Good job, no?”