When Narayan Shrestha left Nepal for New York City in 1977, he says he had $300 in his pocket, spoke almost no English and had only a couple of friends in America — one in Chicago and one in Dallas.
Today, the owner of the Old Tibet store in Boulder says he has poured millions of dollars into health clinics, hospitals and schools in his homeland and four other countries.
In fact, this week, Shrestha was in Nicaragua to purchase a building for a new health clinic in the Boulder sister city of Jalapa, and he says he’s going house-hunting to find a suitable location for the school he plans to open there later this year.
How did he go from being a poor immigrant to a successful businessman and philanthropist who has probably saved scores of lives?
He says it might not have happened if a kindly university registrar hadn’t told him to go to Mexico for a new visa.
There was even one day he woke up with a random phone number in his mind — if you can believe him.
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Shrestha told Boulder Weekly that when he landed in New York 33 years ago, he knew so little about America that he thought his friend from the place they called Chicago would be there to pick him up at the airport. Surely, he thought, Chicago was a village close to New York.
When airport employees finally made him understand how far away Chicago was, he had to spend one-third of his money to fly there to meet his friend. In Chicago, he mistook the word “elevator” for one of the English words he knew, “alligator,” and became afraid when he was told he would be riding one.
Soon, the other friend he had in the U.S., University of Texas at Dallas Professor Peter Skafte, urged him to visit — but by way of Boulder, where Skafte had gone to college. Skafte met him in Boulder, introduced him to some friends, and Shrestha enjoyed the place so much that he ended up staying for two weeks. Then it was on to Skafte’s place in Dallas.
Shrestha had $90 left. He says his professor friend urged him to stay, attend college at UT-Dallas, and get a job. Skafte offered to help him get admitted to the university and pay his $290-per-semester tuition. Shrestha agreed, and got a job as a dishwasher in a cafeteria at the school.
But when he attempted to renew his visa and convert it to a student visa, the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied the request, and Shrestha says he faced deportment.
It was then, he claims, that the UT-Dallas registrar advised him to simply hop on the next bus to Brownsville, cross the border into Matamoros, Mexico, and get a new visa coming back into the U.S. It worked, and thanks to a law that had just been signed by then-President Jimmy Carter, Shrestha’s new student visa was good for as long as he remained a student.
While in Dallas, he periodically paid visits to the place he liked best in America — Boulder. He graduated with a B.S. in finance, got married, had a son, divorced, then moved to Boulder in 1985.
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Once again, he had no money, just credit cards.
He lived in Eldorado Springs, dreaming of opening his own Nepali restaurant. Then one day he was walking through downtown Boulder and saw a small Tibetan store on Walnut Street, so he went in and struck up a conversation with the owners, who were from Nepal as well.
The owners mentioned that they wanted to sell the store. One thing led to another, and Shrestha says he found himself offering them $25,000 for the shop, which held $35,000 worth of merchandise. He offered to pay them about half up front, with the remainder paid out in monthly $1,000 increments. The owners accepted.
The problem was, Shrestha had no money. That night, he had trouble going to sleep, fretting about how he was going to get the funding before the deal was to be closed the next day at 1 p.m. According to Shrestha, when he woke up the next morning, he had a phone number imprinted in his mind, memorized, as if from a dream.
He called the number, he says, and the person who answered was one of his former UT-Dallas instructors, Don Fussell, who had since moved to Austin.
Fussell, who had married a Nepali woman, had taken Shrestha under his wing in Dallas, inviting him over for dinner on several occasions.
Shrestha told Fussell about his situation, that he needed a loan by 1 p.m. that day, and Fussell balked, saying he probably wouldn’t give him the money even if he had it. Shrestha insisted on giving him his First National Bank account number in Boulder anyway.
At noon, Shrestha says, just prior to his meeting with the shop owners, he went to the bank to check the balance in his account, which he knew had only $100 in it.
The balance was $15,100. Fussell had wired the money after all.
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But not everyone believes this part of the tale. Fussell has a different version. He says the loan wasn’t given on the spur of the moment, and that he and Shrestha had talked at length about it.
Fussell told Boulder Weekly that he regrets loaning him the money, because it took about eight years to get repaid, and even then it was not repaid in cash — it was repaid with in-kind gifts, like airline tickets to Nepal.
“One of the worst things in my life was to loan him money,” Fussell says.
He also questions Shrestha’s credibility.
“People believe the stuff he purveys, and they just eat it up,” Fussell says, adding that Shrestha “lives in a fantasy world. … I have nothing positive to say about the guy.”
Still, not even Fussell denies that Shrestha has made a positive impact in his homeland.
For his part, Shrestha maintains that he repaid Fussell within a few years. He says he began to make a profit at his Old Tibet shop and relocated to its current, larger space on Pearl Street.
But before that, just after taking over the store, he says he got an idea. Using a coat hanger and cardboard, he made a sign for his front window that read, “Nepal native leads a trek to the Himalayas, come inside.”
Fourteen people signed up for the trip. Shrestha charged them $2,500 each for the month-long trek, and $1,000 of each payment was profit. He says he used that money to bring in more merchandise for his store. An article about him in The Denver Post prompted calls from many other people wanting to sign up for one of his treks, and before long, Shrestha had started a travel agency.
But it was that first trek in 1986 that spawned his humanitarian efforts, he says.
Shrestha says that on the first day of their trek, a Nepali woman approached the group, asking for a doctor. Turns out, among those in Shrestha’s group were a doctor and nurse who were husband and wife. The Nepali woman showed them her 13-year-old son, who had fallen the week before, had landed on a branch, and still had a stick penetrating his chin and protruding from his mouth. It had been there for seven days, and the wound was so swollen and infected that none of the locals could remove it.
The doctor and nurse agreed to treat the injury.
Shrestha says they boiled a pocketknife to disinfect it, then cut open his cheek to remove the stick, while several trekkers held the squirming boy down.
“He was crying like hell, man,” he recalls. “We didn’t have any anesthetic, but we saved his life somehow.”
Later on the same trip, the group was camping near a school when one of the school’s teachers approached them. The teacher was responsible for all first, second and third graders, and he took Shrestha on a tour of the school. It was a short tour.
“It was one room with no roof,” he remembers, adding that there was no furniture, and the students sat in several inches of dirt. The teacher made the equivalent of $8 a month, and those payments were never made on time.
The group also encountered a Nepali woman carrying her young daughter in a basket on her back. The woman was on her way to the nearest hospital, which was more than a day’s walk, because her daughter had fallen from a tree a month earlier and had not been the same ever since. The woman lowered the basket from her back so that the doctor and nurse could examine her, and the young girl was dead. She had died in the basket, while her mother was making the long walk to the hospital.
“I almost fell down crying,” Shrestha says. “It’s so sad that people have to live that way. … “So I felt I should do something.”