As health care professionals transformed his organization's offices into a pop-up vaccination clinic, Ram Upreti hustled from room to room to room, his cellphone on speaker as he made reminder calls to every name in the binder full of appointments he had personally booked.
He stopped to photocopy flyers so that those who came for a COVID-19 vaccine could encourage their friends and neighbors to do the same. He summoned the complex’s maintenance man because on this 92-degree day, the North Side building that houses the Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services (ETSS) — where Upreti is site coordinator —was boiling even before noon, and he needed to check the air conditioning.
Everyday Heroes: Ram Upreti wants to help immigrants stay informed, connected to Columbus
Doral Chenoweth, The Columbus Dispatch
When he finally stopped to take a breather, Upreti patted and rubbed the center of his chest. He had been in a car crash just a few days before this July 5 clinic, and the bruising was still giving him some fits.
More information about clinics: COVID vaccine still widely available
But this event was just one of several that this man who spent more than 18 years living in Bhutanese-Nepali refugee camps — including more than a year detained in a prison after those in power thought he was part of a movement to motivate refugee villagers to demonstrate — had organized, and it was too important for him to slow down now.
“Back home, my grandmother used to give away the food we grew, give it away just like that. My grandparents, my parents, they were so generous. From them, I learned to be generous to others always,” Upreti said. “Our communities, our families, are always our base. We care for each other and together, we are stronger.”
Bhutanese-Nepali refugees likely number as many as 30,000 in Columbus and central Ohio
In 2009, he was part of one of several waves of Bhutanese-Nepali refugees accepted into the United States. After some time spent in Arizona, he arrived in Columbus in 2013. Since then, the 60-year-old has dedicated himself to helping other members of his community get established and thrive in central Ohio, where the Bhutanese-Nepali people now number as many as 30,000.
Since 2014, he had been a site coordinator for the Karl Road offices of ETSS, a Columbus organization that helps immigrants and refugees settle here and become self-sufficient with employment and family care. It also helps them navigate the health care system and personal crises.
“Ram is our hero at ETSS and for many of the immigrant and refugee clients he serves each day. The 'T' in ETSS stands for Tewahedo, which means coming together as one,” ETSS founder, president and CEO Seleshi Ayalew Asfaw wrote when nominating Upreti as an Everyday Hero. “Ram is an example of Tewahedo in how he lives his life to the service of others."
Although Upreti has always worked night and day to help the Bhutanese-Nepali community, it was really during the pandemic that everyone saw just how far his selfless dedication and unbending commitment would go, Asfaw said.
At first, Upreti hit the streets, going door-to-door to make sure that people understood the risks of COVID and what they could do to help protect themselves. He distributed masks, hand sanitizer and information, and explained the importance of social distancing and the need to take the coronavirus seriously.
Once the virus took hold of central Ohio and more and more people fell ill, Upreti switched from mask delivery to care. He went to homes where he knew a family was sick and took them fresh vegetables to eat, as well as paper plates and plastic utensils so that the household wouldn’t cross-contaminate on dishes. He paid for and delivered honey and herbal medicines to help speed recovery.
As people lost their jobs, Upreti helped them untangle the unemployment paperwork.
Then, in June 2020, he contracted COVID himself. It affected his eyesight, with effects that still linger today. And he noticed some changes in his short-term memory.
“Ram sacrificed himself for the care of others,” Asfaw said. “Nothing stops him from helping."
And then the good news spread of a vaccine. Within the immigrant communities, where a mistrust of Western medicine can be very real, there was some hesitancy.
That’s when Upreti really kicked his coronavirus mission into high gear. Relentless in his work, he went to convenience stores, groceries, community centers and shops all over the North Side, looking to help not just his own Bhutanese-Nepali community but the Latino and Somali populations, Black and brown communities, and so many others as well.
“It was so important to me to motivate people to get vaccine,” he said one day, while sitting inside the Hindu temple and community center that houses the nonprofit Vedic Welfare Society of Columbus, of which he is treasurer.
He leafed through that thick binder of names of more than 500 people he had registered through July to be inoculated at a local hospital, doctor’s office or clinic.
“I knocked on doors to tell people this was a must," said the Gahanna man, who along with his wife, Pampha, has three children and six grandchildren, "We have to take care of ourselves, our families and our people."
Franklin County Public Health says volunteers like Upreti were invaluable during COVID pandemic
Olabisi Eddy, the community engagement and health promotion supervisor with Franklin County Public Health, worked closely with him as he helped to get people signed up for vaccinations. But Upreti's work didn’t end there. He drove them to the appointments when they had no transportation and translated for them if no one else could.
More importantly, Eddy said, he just made people comfortable — and, no doubt, saved lives in his community in the process.
Read more about vaccines in the immigrant community: "I'm glad I got the shot."
“For us, initially, we were trying to think of ways we could reduce barriers to immigrant, refugee, migrant communities, and having people like Ram to be able to step in and be a connector — to be able to [be] that trusted resource to get them access to this vaccine — it was pivotal for us,” Eddy said.
“And knowing all that Ram endured in a refugee camp, knowing his background, it doesn’t surprise me at all that he gets so invested. I am so blessed having such a generous and giving person to help us. He is my North Star.”
For Upreti, he thinks back to the years in that refugee camp when he and thousands of others would go hungry, to the nights he spent on that concrete jail floor fearing he would be beaten to death the next day, to the eventual long journey to this country where he and his family dared to dream that perhaps they would find a new life.
And he smiled.
“At night when I go home I am so tired,” he said. “But I have much joy.”
Getting to know Ram Upreti: Four questions
What neighborhood or town do you live in? Gahanna
What inspires you? "ETSS is a great nonprofit organization, which is a focal point to integrations for immigrations and refugees' families. We assist them to improve their quality of lives and facilitate integration through education, jobs, support for self-development opportunities. We support people from more than 25 countries speaking more than 35 different languages, including the Bhutanese population in greater Columbus. I get to serve my Bhutanese community who are settled here with a population of more than 30,000. I love to help my community."
What keeps you engaged? "Organizing events that suit the community like COVID vaccine clinics and mammogram clinics. Visiting/outreach to the community and meeting people in apartments, stores, community centers and making them aware of the COVID vaccine and the day-to-day events."
What is a challenge you have overcome? Upreti spent 18 years in refugee camps. His answer, though, rather than focus on himself, was about obstacles for others: "Eighty percent of our population (Bhutanese) were agriculturists back home and are illiterate even in their own Nepali language. So unless they are communicated with together or individually, they are not aware of the happenings of day-to-day things."