Some of Ashis Dhakal’s earliest memories are of living in a refugee camp in Jhapa, Nepal, where he was born. As part of the Lhotshampas minority, his parents were forced to flee ethnic cleansing in Bhutan in 1999. Unable to obtain citizenship in Nepal, they settled at the camp for several years.
“Our house was made from bamboo and hay. It was full of bedbugs,” Dhakal recalls. “We were surrounded by mosquitos and facing poverty. The conditions were very, very tough.”
From Dream to Reality
Dhakal’s family dreamed of coming to America—specifically, Utah. They fell in love with a picture they had seen of Utah, and they had relatives living there. Finally, in 2009, after a two-year immigration journey through the International Organization for Migration, Dhakal, his three older sisters, his parents, and his grandparents, were able to immigrate to the Beehive State.
The family was elated to be on U.S. soil. But coming during an economic recession made building a new life in a new country even harder.
“Jobs were pretty hard to come by,” says Dhakal. “It definitely put a financial burden on my family. It was hard, but luckily, we were able to overcome that obstacle.”
Another obstacle was adapting to a new culture.
“Culture shock was something I had to deal with quite a bit,” says Dhakal. He credits the Cub Scouts with helping him adjust to his new surroundings. But being an ethnic minority in Utah also brought many challenges Dhakal. He was bullied in school and was sometimes called a terrorist. Still, he did his best to maintain a positive attitude. He recently graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City and is now attending the University of Utah, majoring in entrepreneurship.
“I have big goals to own multimillion-dollar businesses and give away millions to those in need,” he says.
Moving from a third-world country to a first-world country, Dhakal is sensitive to poverty and inequity.
At the end of 2018, after meeting a homeless man while working at KFC and learning that clothing was one of the man’s greatest needs, Dhakal was inspired to create his charity organization, Ashis Collects Clothes. Dhakal also credits his Hindu faith as inspiration for his charity work.
“We’re taught to give, to share happiness together, and to have a positive impact in the lives of those who are struggling,” he says.
In 2019, Dhakal became more focused on his charity. He did his first clothing drive, collecting coats, socks, hats, beanies, and shoes. He then took a trip to Nepal, where he spent three months working for a nonprofit called Youthlinc. Youthlinc’s goal is to help create lifelong humanitarians by providing students and mentors with local and international service experiences. During that time, Dhakal helped raised $5,000.
“That $5,000 went toward the people in the village,” he explains. “We taught them skills, and most importantly, we taught them about the health sector, business sector, and water filters. We bought them sewing machines so they could learn how to sew bags, ties, and other items. We bought them water filters and health kits.”
Dhakal also visited the refugee camp where he had lived as a child and was devastated to see the deteriorating conditions.
“Growing up with an extremely poor background, and then going back and seeing that nothing had really changed and that people were suffering really affirmed my ‘why.’ I was in their shoes, and I know how it feels. I want to give back because I don’t want others to suffer in the same way,” he says.
After launching Ashis Collects Clothes, Dhakal heard about the Utah Refugee Connection through others in his community. He reached out to the organization’s executive director, Amy Dott Harmer. The pair got to know one another, and Harmer learned that Dhakal was a high schooler trying to do well in school during the COVID-19 pandemic but was struggling because his computer was not working well.
“In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘I’m sure I could find him a computer,’ but I was worried about what he would do with it,” she says.
Harmer ended up giving Dhakal a computer and made him promise that he would only use it for good. Dhakal agreed.
“Two weeks later, he reached out and told me about his charity and how he was collecting clothes and items for the homeless,” says Harmer. “He told me to let him know if there was anything that we couldn’t take.” Every two weeks, Harmer would drop off items on Dhakal’s porch that the refugee share house couldn’t take.
In the Spotlight
In the fall of 2020, Comcast launched a commercial featuring Dhakal as part of their internet essentials program. The commercial talked about how Dhakal was changing the world from his bedroom and showed him unloading clothes for his charity and teaching English to children in Nepal on his computer.
“Being able to educate and motivate them is a blessing. They want to learn, and that’s the best feeling,” he says.
As a result of the Comcast commercial, Dhakal was then featured on Today as part of the show’s “Tomorrow’s Voices” program, which pairs talented teens with inspiring mentors to help them achieve their goals. “You are leading with a passion that has been buried deep in your soul since you were a baby, and that is going to drive you until your last breath,” host Hoda Kotb told Dhakal during a Today segment in March.
Kotb then told Dhakal that he would have the opportunity to interview and speak to one of his heroes—entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban. “Mark Cuban is going to put the guard rails up and help you out a little bit here and there, but you’re going the distance,” she said.
Dhakal says meeting Cuban was an awesome experience.
“He’s really intelligent and extremely helpful. He gave me a lot of insights about entrepreneurship and being a philanthropist.”
In a March segment of Today, Cuban challenged Dhakal to collect items for a coat drive. “I’d like for you to collect 575 coats that we can then give away to people in need,” Cuban said.
At first, Dhakal really struggled to get donations, so he contacted Harmer to see if she was able to help.
“He reached out to me and asked if I could help. At first, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is he really going to be able to do this?” Harmer recalls. “On Monday, he only had 10 coats.”
Harmer decided to post about Dhakal’s coat drive on the Utah Refugee Connection Facebook page. She asked people to donate coats at Dhakal’s home.
“We have a rather large following on the Utah Refugee Connection page, so I was hoping that people would reach out. I had told him that I couldn’t guarantee people were going to rally, but I really hoped they did,” she says.
People did, in fact, rally. In less than five days, Dhakal ended up collecting 3,018 coats.
“It just went like wildfire,” says Harmer. “People really wanted to support Ashis’s effort of trying help the homeless and help him meet this goal given by Mark Cuban. His entire garage was filled with donated coats.”
When Dhakal met up with Cuban again, Dhakal reported that he had collected more than 3,000 coats. Cuban then told Dhakal that Today’s parent company, Comcast, was going to match Dhakal’s donation.
“You’re setting an example,” Cuban told him. “It’s not about connections. It’s not about who you know. It’s all about effort. It’s all about how hard you’re willing to work to get something done.”
Dhakal credits the power of social media and the generosity of Utahns for his success with Cuban’s philanthropist challenge. “I was speechless. It really touched my heart. I’m not only giving someone a coat but also helping them to get to a better pathway in life,” he says.
Changing the World
Harmer says that the whole experience helped to give refugees a voice. “Public perception about refugees is often that we give them so much and that they drain our communities, or they take our jobs. But that isn’t the case,” she says. “Refugees contribute in remarkable ways and want to give back once they get back up on their feet. Ashis is the perfect example of that. When we invest in human potential, we receive great dividends.”
Dhakal continues to serve both the local and international communities with various projects. In May of this year, he collected 500 pairs of shoes to donate to those in need in the Salt Lake City area. And in August, he raised more than $2,000 so that a sick baby in Nepal could have a life-saving surgery.
“I want to change the world through service,” he says.
As far as future plans, Dhakal will be working to expand his humanitarian efforts both locally and internationally by creating the Namaskar United Foundation. Ashis Collects Clothes will be a program run as part of the foundation.
“Locally, the homeless community is really struggling. I want to be able to help them through my nonprofit foundation,” he says.
Internationally, Dhakal wants to build hospitals and schools in third-world countries.
“I want to give them countless opportunities like scholarships, resources, and mainly education because I know that with education, impossibilities become realities. And with education in their life, I know that they can change the world for the better.”
To support Ashis Dhakal in his humanitarian efforts, follow the Namaskar United Foundation on Facebook.
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