Resham Bajgain watched his toddler daughter turn 3, then 4, then 5 without her mother, hoping that the distance and the wait would be worth it.
He could have told his wife to stay, to not go to the United States without him and the girl, but he knew what that would have meant: giving up his daughter’s best chance to have more than what life had handed him.
He had grown up in the mountains of Nepal, walking three hours to the closest high school, carrying enough food on his back to last a week. After he graduated, unable to pay for college, he worked one hard-labor job after another, moving between Nepal, India and Qatar based on his economic options. His best position involved working as an “office boy,” fetching lunch and coffee for workers.
But his cousin who had moved to the United States told him about a place where life was different, a place where immigrants felt welcomed and opportunities were abundant. That place was a speck on the map called Fairfax County, Virginia, and Resham and his wife were determined to get there.
The couple applied for U.S. visas through a lottery system operated by the government’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. In 2014, his wife’s chance came, but his name and their daughter’s had been left off her application. The couple decided she should go anyway and that Resham and the girl would wait in Nepal for their visas.
In a life filled with struggles, it seemed just one more – and hopefully the last.
After a three-year separation, in September 2017, Resham and his daughter finally arrived in Virginia. Waiting anxiously for them were his wife and the cousin who had encouraged the family to come.
“That was a really happy day,” that cousin, Thakur Dhakal, recalled recently. Thakur grew up with Resham, making that same long walk to school, but after immigrating through the visa lottery program, he went to graduate school in Maryland. He now works as a civil engineer for Fairfax County.
“When I look back to what things were, tears come to my eyes,” he said of how far he had come. “He was also dreaming like that.”
But Resham’s story is not about the American Dream.
His is about immigrant realities. His is about what life looks like even when people enter the country legally and follow all the rules.
Immigrants fill many of the country’s most dangerous jobs and because of that, many of their lives end far from where they started. Foreign-born workers, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, make up about one-fifth of all fatal work injuries.
On July 4, a day for Americans to celebrate all that is great about this country, Resham went to his second job as a cashier at the Sunoco station on Franklin Farm Road in Herndon and didn’t make it to the end of his shift. Police, responding to a robbery call, found him dead of blunt force trauma. Officers arrested 19-year-old Mohamed A. Abdullahi of Herndon at the scene and charged him in the killing.
Resham was 40 and had been in the country less than a year.
In the days that have followed, Thakur said he has heard from many people in the Nepalese community who work at gas stations and now fear for their safety. They know it could have easily been their shift, their register, their family in mourning.
After the death, it fell to Thakur to notify people locally and overseas, call the insurance company and, the hardest task, explain to a 6-year-old girl why her father wouldn’t be coming home.
Thakur sought advice from counselors, and they told him it was important to tell her the truth – and so he did.
He sat with her and asked if she understood why so many people were suddenly around. She didn’t. He then told her in the simplest, most honest way he could that they were there to honor her father.
“He went to work and he was hurt so badly that he can’t come back,” he recalled saying.
Resham’s funeral, which followed Hindu customs, was attended by nearly 400 people. At one point, each person walked by his casket and dropped a flower inside it.
People have also left flowers on the median in front of the Sunoco. Amid the displays of roses, lilies and sunflowers, in the middle of one bouquet, someone placed a single American flag.
Thakur said the family has been touched by how many people have responded to Resham’s death from within the Nepalese community and from outside it. On a GoFundMe page set up for the family, the last names next to the donations show a Smith followed by a Shrestha and a Jones proceeded by a Parajuli. On Wednesday, the fund had raised more than $69,000.
The money is greatly appreciated, Thakur said. It is also very much needed, he said.
After spending days speaking with insurance representatives, he said he now knows what his cousin’s life was worth and “it’s not enough” for a job that carries such risk. When all the calculations are done, he said, his cousin’s family will receive less than $100,000.
Resham was working full time at Wegmans and part-time at the Sunoco, while taking his daughter to and from school. Without him, Thakur said he wonders how long will his wife be able to pay rent? How will she afford child care?
Will that 6-year-old one day ask to go to college but, like her father, find no funds there?
Thakur said the girl looks like her dad and is mature beyond her years. On a recent morning, he said, she walked up to her mother and tried to comfort her.
“Daddy came in the night and said to tell you, ‘You don’t cry anymore and I won’t cry anymore,’ ” she said. “You have to be strong.”