Darjeeling COVID Heroes: Core Team | Dubai to Bagdogra Repatriation Flights
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members: Coretta Scott King
We end our Darjeeling COVID Heroes series with a story of compassion, resilience and upholding the sense of community in the way only Darjeeling folks know how to wherever in the world they may be. Team Darjinc thanks all our true COVID Heroes, even those beyond this series, who selflessly continue to serve our people amid the pandemic.
The Core Team for Repatriation Flights from UAE to North Bengal and Sikkim comprises people from a faraway foreign land with a belief in their mountainous homes. On July 3, as Air Arabia Chartered Flight G9657 from Sharjah landed at Bagdogra for the first time, the passengers on board, and the team involved, created history. What started as a Humanitarian drive for dry ration distribution for people from back home stranded in Dubai, soon converted into a mission to send stranded travellers back home. On August 19, with the help of St. Xavier's Alumni - UAE Chapter and Kolkata Chapter, the second flight was successful. Darjinc was fortunate to interact with a few of the humanitarians from the core team of this historic initiative, namely Steven Gurung, Chogyal Tshering La, Jatin Joy Giri, Aaron Pradhan, Sonam Topden Bhutia and Praveen Tamang. Here is what they had to say:
It began with a desperate appeal on the ‘Darjeeling in UAE’ Facebook page by Satyam Chamling Rai, which Praveen Tamang, Sonam Topden, Steven Gurung, and some more people noticed and started commenting on with the urge and intention to reach out. That is when Steven Da suggested: 'Oi Keta Ho let's make a group and do something'. So, we instructed Satyam (from Kurseong) and Nima Tashi (Sukhia Pokhri) to create a group.
While we were aware that the pandemic had caused many people from Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim, etc. in Dubai to reach dire straits, we were not privy to the overwhelming number of people affected. Unemployment, visa expiration, lack of finance, insufficient ration, layoffs by companies, etc. had rendered so many hopeless. Some, such as Aaron Pradhan, wanting to go home to his newborn daughter, were emotionally disturbed with a longing for their family.
Many of us from the core team, like Sonam Topden and his sister Madhavi Pradhan, were already distributing ration in our capacities. Chogyal Tshering La was also involved in distributing bread via 3C's and Kalimpong Municipality for migrants and feeding stray animals in Darjeeling with his nephew from Chopstix Restaurant. When Steven Gurung suggested the idea of forming a team, all of us agreed.
Chogyal Tshering La, the senior-most member of the core team having spent 20 years in the UAE, can still remember the call from Steven Gurung saying: 'Da, there are a lot of our folks here in the UAE and they need help'.
The number crossed 100+, and soon there were 250+. In the first phase, the team was able to contribute dry ration to at least 250-300 stranded people. During the second phase, we created a food group among our people and were able to contribute more than 1000 kgs of dry ration. It was a daunting task to handle a group of 250+ members.
This was a team effort, and each of the core members had a task assigned.
For Steven, being in Logistics, with his stewardship and level-headedness, the program was up his alley. He was involved in coordinating and communicating with parties in different administrative hierarchies and joining crucial dots between relevant parties.
Sonam Topden and Praveen Tamang were proactive and diligent from the beginning in spreading the word, connecting with people, providing valuable inputs, and personally addressing the questions from the people. They were also approaching well-wishers of Darjeeling and Sikkim, seeking contributions for dry ration.
So many jumped at the opportunity to help, without giving any second thought, they would say: “Please let us know what I should do, shall I transfer money or how do we manage?” The team is not collecting money but requesting people to help with dry ration.
Sonam always with a smile and a MUST-DO attitude would collect and distribute groceries even after office hours or during the weekend. Praveen was responsible for replying to messages and queries in our WhatsApp group. He understood the pulse of the community and shared every relevant information with the team.
He remembers someone asking: “DA YO PAISA KHANU TA HAINA HOLA NEE, FRAUD HAINA NEE HAI DA KASARI BAGDOGRA CHAHI LAND HUNCHA?”
When the numbers started growing, we realized that providing ration wouldn’t be enough. There had to be a way to send the citizens home. The team decided to talk to the Indian Embassy. After the discussion, we came to know that we could charter a flight if the number of people exceeded 250. Data collection was initiated promptly by Aditya and then taken over by Aaron Pradhan.
Soon, Chogyal Tshering agreed to join the core team and lent a 360-degree approach from food contributions, legal guidance, to sponsorship to repatriations! He also maintained an audit of the contribution amount. Being in the Xaverian alumni, he was able to convince the Secretary of Xaverian Alumni - UAE Chapter to grant them 83 seats in the flight to Kolkata in the 2nd phase. Chogyal, for whom the mission was a calling, shared that he was glad to be considered for the part of the core team.
Although it is an unprecedented situation and there is nobody to blame, when no roads seemed to open up for help, Steven shared how he felt that there is no one for our people. Sonam remembers an instance when a stranded citizen said to them, “DA ABHA TAPAI HARU NAI HO LAST HOPE, MAILE VANDE BHARAT MISSION REGISTRATION GARAYKO PANI DHERAI BHAYO, GHAR JANU PAYENA BHANAY CHAHI MA INDIAN EMBASSY MA GAYERA JHUNDEYRA MARDINCHU."
As we were seeking all possibilities, Steven approached Mrs. DL Phinjo, the first person to hear our cry at the least. She said: "I will try but no promises." Soon, the team started getting calls from the Joint Secretary India, Gulf region, and the Embassy in UAE, and Ms. Dechen Wangdi, cousin of Mr. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary India, and a fellow Darjeelingey. After Sir understood our plight and the dire circumstances of our people, there was no looking back.
The reaction of the core team when the first flight got State approval was unbelievable. It was a roller coaster of emotions and challenges. Yet we stood together and faced it along with many others who remained in the background, supporting us morally (like our family). While visiting the airport, the thrill was more than fear. Had we been in any other country, we would have been worried. When the team went to meet the community folk to distribute the ration or otherwise, we took necessary precautions. The way the UAE has systematically addressed the pandemic and has its COVID-19 protocols firmly in place, abided by all helped too. We can proudly say of the 298 citizens, who were flying to India were all COVID negative before the flights. In India, all protocols were abided by passengers, and all of them reached home safely.
Many of us are based out of Dubai itself and were assisting the citizens until they reached home. Even though traveling during a pandemic posed certain risks, we are sure the travelers must have felt happy and relieved to be back with their family. Flying with so many people from back home must have been a joyful experience. Aaron Pradhan shared that his trip back home was successful and worth all the ups and downs of taking care of a large number of people. His family was at ease to hear that the flight had safely landed. Being welcomed home happily and successfully made him proud of himself and the entire team.
Praveen Tamang was excited to travel back home with the 1st group. Due to some circumstances, he flew back home with the second group via Kolkata. For him, it was like music to the ears when the group reached safely.
“One of the passengers who traveled on the first flight shared my voice note to some group who posted on Facebook stating: Episode 1 Steven Gurung threatens the passengers. It made me realize I was dealing with our people after all,” laughed Steven.
In the second phase of the operations, Steven approached Jatin Joy Giri, a Darjeeling lover, and his old friend and fellow band member, to take over from Aaron Pradhan. Jatin is now managing the data collection and entry of the stranded travelers and is also involved in managing the WhatsApp group.
Sonam Topden recalls that during the 2nd phase, the people were in such a condition where some were not able to PURCHASE EVEN A TOOTHBRUSH. Considering the fact, the team discussed among friends and decided to provide sanitation products too.
The mission did witness a few hiccups along the way: Getting the state NOC and approvals, managing WhatsApp groups, collecting complete and correct data of over 300 people, redoing the data in the format accepted by the Embassy, flight proposals getting declined thrice and the lockdown in West Bengal, which resulted in a lot of travelers backing out to name a few.
“Once the state lockdown lifted, there were not enough passengers to book an entire flight to Bagdogra. On August 17, when the two flights got canceled for the second run, it was a trying moment for us,” shared Jatin Joy Giri. Thankfully, the St Xavier’s Alumni bailed us out at the last minute to accommodate them in the Kolkata flight. The unforgettable help provided by St. Xavier’s Alumni - UAE Chapter and Kolkata Chapter, for making the second flight successful is memorable.
In all honesty, we were working with a set of diligent, competent, and committed individuals with no vested interest and clear responsibilities. Together with the external support from the Ministry of External Affairs, Dechen Wangdi and Mrs. DL Phinjo, and having service oriented Travel Agents and well-wishers, we were obstacle-proof. When you have a dedicated and galvanized team, the obstacles, if any, seem minute.
We are indebted to Ms. Dechen Wangdi, Mrs. DL Phinjo, the Foreign Secretary, and MEA India, for all their assistance.
We are also indebted to all the team leaders, contributors, flight teams. Many humanitarians such as Nitesh Pradhan, Suyog Gurung (Kalimpong), who helped Aaron Pradhan in Bagdogra, and Abhisek Lama, who helped Praveen Tamang manage and set up paid quarantine facility in Siliguri for the passengers deserve a shoutout!
The feeling of bringing together an entire community for a common goal was just inexplicable. We had goosebumps when things came together, and it felt good, we were happy. We knew what our vision was, and each one of us played a prominent role in making the flight successful.
The culture of hospitality, humility, and sharing has ingrained in us a feeling of giving back to our community from a young age. Together, the love for our home towns and our people, who had lost all hope and saw the core team as the only ray of hope motivated us to keep pushing.
Several memories and emotions will stay with us. The thankful hearts full of appreciation for what we did and all their 'Thank You' messages mean a lot to the Core Team.
“..tapai haru leh jun guun garreko cha hamrolai, tyesko lai dherai dhanyabad" - A returnee said this when they met us before boarding the flight in the second run. Need I say more?” Chogyal Tshering La recalls fondly.
As the saying goes, there is no gain without pain. Yes, everybody certainly faces rough roads, but with patience and a few wise steps, we can surely overcome any situation. We must stay positive and never give up on humanity because humanitarians do exist. We have compassionate givers in our community who might not be aware of some hardships. We must seek the light at the end of the tunnel for someone will answer our prayers and help us out.
Currently, our focus remains with helping distribute dry ration. We do not collect any cash, and all contributions are in-kind except for people from overseas, who are willing to contribute. We make sure to share our proof of audits with them.
Praveen Tamang, who is back home and quarantined, upon reflecting at the times the team went through, thinks about many others who are currently stranded there. He said, “It brings tears to my eyes, but I am glad that there is still a ray of hope because of the Core Team in Dubai.”
Compiled by Simran Sharma
DARJINC and MAYUKH TEA present Darjeeling COVID Heroes, a series to celebrate the unsung, often unnoticed heroes, who have truly served our community during this pandemic. Keep visiting this space for other such motivational and humane stories from the lockdown.