There are times when tragedy reveals a glimpse of what Thanksgiving is all about. Although that season arrives this week, one Seattle family experienced it last month.
It was a typical October afternoon when Nil Tiljia and his wife received a long-distance call from Baltimore and learned that his 49-year-old brother-in-law, Netra Pun, had died unexpectedly.
Netra Pun and Nil were childhood friends who grew up together in Ramche, a remote village high in the Himalayas in western Nepal about 430 miles from the capital of Katmandu.
Netra Pun's death dealt a heavy blow to the Tiljia family. Nil and his wife, Maya Magarati, and Netra Pun's family are Magar, one of several Nepalese ethnic groups in the United States. Like many Nepalese, Netra Pun came to this country in search of opportunity and a means to support his family in Nepal.
A devout Buddhist, Netra Pun's devotion was unstinting as he regularly sent money to his Nepalese family, Nil said. A man of modest means, such dedication exacted a heavy financial sacrifice and a threadbare life in the U.S.
The cause of death at the time was a mystery. At first, the family suspected a heart attack or stroke, but soon learned that Netra Pun had died after choking on some food in a restaurant. Nil's younger sister, Devkeni, Netra Pun's wife, and their two sons and daughter in Nepal were grief-stricken after hearing the news of his death.
Nil Tiljia, a gentle, soft-spoken man who works at the Puget Consumer Cooperative (PCC) at Green Lake, once served as the youngest member of Parliament in his native Nepal. His wife, Maya, is a University of Washington School of Social Work faculty member.
Because they had only a week to raise the funds to send Netra Pun back to Nepal for cremation, Nil and his wife wasted little time and began making phone calls and sending out e-mails. Setting aside their own grief, they turned to their network of Magar friends in the United States.
First they contacted Tika K. Pun, general secretary of the Magar Association USA. Established in New York City in 2004, the association is a nonprofit and secular organization that represents Magar Nepalese in the country. Tika Pun promptly alerted Magars throughout the U.S., United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
The association was Nil and Maya's most valuable contact in reaching out to the broader network of Magar and non-Magar Nepalese worldwide. In addition to fostering cooperation among the Magars living in this country, the association is often called upon to make charitable contributions to assist Magars in Nepal during natural and humanitarian emergencies.
In spite of their tragic loss, Nil and Maya were soon overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from friends and neighbors in the Seattle community.
The cost of sending Netra Pun back to Nepal, $7,000, was a staggering sum for his family. Borrowing money was challenging, Nil explained. "Nepalese have a saying that if one cannot repay a debt in this life, one needs to do so in the next," he said.
As their dire predicament unfolded, help came none too soon. The American Nepalese Association and Magar Association USA set up a Pay Pal account and eventually raised enough money. Padam Pun and his wife, Asha Pun, Nil's friends in Virginia, called Magars throughout the country to raise funds for the funeral home, air transportation to Nepal, and other expenses.
Whatever doubts Nil and his wife might have had were laid to rest by the generosity from friends and random acts of kindness. Everyone gave their time and money, Nil said. Maya turned to her Seattle neighbors for advice about funeral homes. Her UW social work graduate students lent their moral support.
On the other side of the country, social workers at Baltimore's Howard General Hospital, funeral home directors, and Nepalese Embassy officials in Washington D.C. went the extra mile to assist the family.
Netra Pun's friends eventually found a funeral home in New York City. Within a week, Nil and Maya raised more than $29,000. Over half of the donations came from Nepalese of other ethnicities. Netra Pun's supervisor at the pizza restaurant in Baltimore, contributed $5,000.
By the end of their fundraising effort, the Seattle couple had raised enough money for the funeral expenses with funds also set aside for Devkeni and her family in Nepal. The Baltimore Nepalese Association held a memorial service for Netra Pun this week.
Throughout their week-long ordeal, the support of community organizations in Seattle and on the east coast proved to be indispensable. Although they were stunned by the tragedy, Nil, Maya, and their daughter, Esa, found solace in the support of their many friends.
"People who live far away from home know that when something like this happens, family and friends can help one another. Immigrants who come to this country are trying to make a better life for their family back home, but they struggle financially," he said.
Learning how friends, even strangers, can make a difference has transformed Nil's outlook on life. Coming from Ramche, his close-knit home village in Nepal where community and family are ubiquitous, Nil often felt isolation in Seattle. Reflecting on his newfound sense of community here in the U.S., he said recently: "There is hope and kindness in the world." He learned how important community is and now wants to repay that kindness.
An active public servant in his homeland, Nil has often found the transition to a lower-profile life frustrating. The recent tragedy of Netra Pun's death, however, has reawakened his commitment to give back to his new community in the U.S.
"Anything can happen in this life," Maya said. "Death can come at any time, so it's important to be kind and generous to people.”
This story originally appeared on Seattle PostGlobe. Reprinted with permission.