Everyday Heroes: Columbus man helps refugees stay safe during the pandemic

Sudarshan Pyakurel's BRAVE project connects Bhutanese Nepali families with nurses and physicians to answer COVID-related questions.

Lily Roby
Columbus Monthly
Sudarshan Pyakurel  and staff members of the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio photographed in the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio offices on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe in early 2020, Sudarshan Pyakurel never once considered putting a halt to his work for the local Bhutanese-Nepali community.

The 39-year-old Reynoldsburg resident is a “super leader,” said Uma Acharya, a longtime friend of his and fellow volunteer for both the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio and Pyakurel’s BRAVE program. After joining BCCO as its director and applying for grants that kept the organization from shutting down in 2016, Pyakurel threw himself into his work to represent Columbus’ Bhutanese-Nepali community and help it flourish. Acharya was instantly moved by Pyakurel’s sheer passion for his work and his community.

“(Pyakurel) has gone beyond, like way beyond, his capacity to make things better,” Acharya said, noting how Pyakurel has travelled to countless schools and small businesses to spread awareness about the Bhutanese-Nepali community. “There’s so many of us … and people need to know that we live here,” she said. “He’s just here for the community.”

Originally from Bhutan, Pyakurel moved to Nepal at a young age due to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. After spending eight years in a refugee camp with his parents, he earned a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in English literature in India before moving to Cleveland in 2010 as a refugee. Pyakurel soon transferred to Ohio State University to earn a second bachelor’s degree, this time in anthropology, before beginning work with BCCO.

Described by Pyakurel as a “small but mighty team,” BCCO served Bhutanese-Nepali community members with basic matters such as everyday case management until the pandemic hit and protecting the community became their primary focus.

BRAVE volunteers answer COVID-related questions and educate community members on the virus

“People in my community didn’t understand much about COVID,” Pyakurel said. “We survived ethnic cleansing. We survived 17 or 20 years in a refugee camp. This flu was not going to kill us.”

But Pyakurel knew that COVID-19 was a deadly disease, and he wasn’t going to let misinformation spread within the community he loved. He began an effort to educate community members on the virus, inviting Nepali-speaking physicians, nurses and others to share information through platforms such as Facebook Live. Pyakurel quickly realized that many more resources were needed, such as PPE and grocery delivery to those quarantining, and in April, the Bhutanese Response Assistance Volunteer Effort — or BRAVE — project was born.

The independent, volunteer-run project connects Bhutanese-Nepali families in need with nurses and physicians to answer COVID-related questions and uses an app to coordinate volunteer deliveries of groceries and PPE to those quarantining. Since its development, the project has grown to 258 volunteers in Columbus and has been adopted by 12 cities in seven different states. While BRAVE began as a Bhutanese Nepali program, Pyakurel’s branch in Columbus now also serves Latino, Arab, Middle Eastern, Somali and other local communities.

“It really became a movement,” Pyakurel said. “Nobody knew, the media didn't know, or I guess didn't cover it so much. But we were doing it not because we wanted to highlight it, but because we wanted to address that immediate issue in our community. And it became very effective.”

Now, Pyakurel is launching phase two of the project, which is intended to get community members vaccinated and prevent the spread of misinformation about the vaccine. Next steps will include offering free transportation for vaccinations and hosting a six-week vaccination clinic with Columbus Public Health at BCCO. Post-pandemic, Pyakurel wants to begin discussing mental health and addiction issues within Bhutanese-Nepali communities.

Pyakurel emphasizes that developing the BRAVE program was just him doing what he felt was necessary, and he wouldn’t have been able to do it without BCCO staff members and BRAVE project volunteers.

“All 258 of us are heroes in this project,” Pyakurel said. “If I’m recognized (as an Everyday Hero), I really wanted to say that there are 258 of us.”