The story of Parbati comes from the Case Study “Nepali Immigrants and Their Disproportional Role in Building Livelihoods in New York City” by Krishna Prasad Subedi
Parbati knew she could not survive this pace. As an immigrant from Nepal to the Untied States, she worked 14 hours a day and earned only $300 a week. Rent, food and transportation took all the money back. She knew her employers were taking advantage of her, but what could she do? Without them she would have no income at all.
She thought she might have a better chance in New York City. She also knew that she could meet more Nepalese there, and maybe not feel so isolated. So, she moved into lower Manhattan where she started to build a network of Nepalese friends. But she still struggled to find decent work. She enjoyed the work she did find, but New York City is not a place that part-time babysitters can afford.
At the end of a work day she stopped into a fast food restaurant that served the kind of food she liked. She heard her language, many voices speaking loudly from the corner. She turned and saw a table full of Nepalese discussing money. She moved closer, listened in for a while, then asked what they were doing. They told her it was a dhikuti party.
“Of course,” thought Parbati. She knew friends of her parents who had been part of dhikuti’s back home. They would gather with 20 other friends, and each month when they met, each person would put the same amount of money into a pot. And then one person would take home the full amount, with each person getting a turn month by month.
Parbati remembered what some of these friends had done when they got the payout. One had purchased a sewing machine and started a business. Another had started building a house. She began thinking what she could do if she got the payout. She could afford to put in the security deposit for a decent apartment. She could pay for night school. She could buy some kitchen equipment and start making traditional food for her Nepalese friends.
“Can I join?” she blurted out without thinking. The leader smiled politely and apologized. It was not possible to join in the middle of a round, she told her, but in six months, after everyone had their turn at the full monthly payout, she would be welcome to join.
When Parbati saw her friend Ashok that evening, she told him all about the dhikuti party, as well as her disappointment at having to wait six months to join. Ahsok commiserated with her, not expecting what came next. Parbati proposed that she not wait six months, but than she and Ashok start a dhikuti on their own. Ashok had been to college and studied business, so Parbati knew he would be the perfect partner. Ashok could not refuse.
Parbati and Ashok met with all their Nepalese friends, people they new and trusted, and asked them to join their dhikuti. In a short time, they had signed up 22 members., each saving $300 a month. They quickly learned a painful lesson. One of the first members to receive the $6,600 payout left town, and never paid it back. As organizers of the group, Parbati and Ashok had to make up the difference. After that experience, they now they require that every dhikuti member have three guarantors who will pay for them if the member does not pay.
The two dhikuti leaders kept that first group going and added two more, one with 40 members and the other with 91. Both new groups require the members to save $1,000 each month. This has put a lot of work on Ashok, who collects the money from all the group members. The members put in a little more money each month to pay for his work.
Parbati’s need for a way to save money and change the trajectory of her life has led to the creation of three groups with a total of over 150 members. All of them benefit by getting large lump sums that they can invest in starting and expanding their businesses.
Parbati’s story is not unique. In almost every culture around the world you can find these forms of community saving and social bonding, ways that people living in poverty find to turn their small, irregular incomes into a large enough amount that they can make an investment. In Cambodia, Haiti and West Africa these are called tontines. In Bangladesh – samitis. In Ethiopia – iddir. In Eritrea – equob. In Kenya – chama. In Latin America – tandas. In the Caribbean – meeting-turn, or susu, or partner. In some African countries more than 25% of the population participate in these community savings groups.
Immigrants coming from these countries have brought this tradition with them. This has been true of immigrant groups coming to America since before the creation of the United States. In the late 1600s a group of Jewish people seeking to escape persecution in Europe petitioned Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, to allow them to come to live in the colony. Suyvesant refused, saying that they were too poor, and he was afraid they would become wards of the state. Over the next year the members of this group saved their money into a common fund. They petitioned Stuyvesant again, telling him that they had saved enough to provide for themselves. Stuvesant granted their petition, and the group used this fund to start businesses in their adopted city of New Amsterdam (now New York City). With the profits from their businesses they continued to build the fund and support new immigrants to the country.
Parbati’s story and many others come from a “How to Achieve the American Dream on an Immigrant’s Income,” a publication organized and edited by Jeffery Ashe of the University of New Hampshire and Kim Wilson of Tufts University. They managed graduate students who gathered case studies from different immigrant groups. The fun part of the case studies is that the graduate student doing the interviewing comes from the ethnic group of the people he or she interviews and speaks the same language. Their case studies express their admiration for the creative ways their elders found to save money and build business in a new country.
Have you ever wondered why most of the cab drivers in Washington, DC are Ethiopian, or most of the convenience stores in Chicago are owned by Palestinians, or most women get their nails done at salons owned by Koreans? Or maybe you’ve wondered how, in one generation, immigrants seem to be able to come to our country and go from deep poverty to running their own businesses. These savings groups are the underlying financial tool that makes this transformation possible. They become not only a way to get loans when no one else will provide them, they also serve as a business mentoring program and a social safety network.
Through the groups they manage and the business investments they have made, Parbati and Ashok last year were able to send $20,000 back to Nepal to help their village buy an ambulance. This year they plan to send money to build a school.