Gurkhas fought for the British army – but many veterans have been effectively abandoned by the government they served, with poor pensions and living in sub-standard housing. SAM DAVIES heard about the tragedies that southeast London’s Nepalese community has had to face during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some months ago, an elderly man was found wandering through Lewisham, lost. Passers by spotted him in a backstreet near a park, walking in circles. Anxious and dehydrated, he was offered help and water, but refused, even throwing away the bottles given to him. Worried, someone phoned the police.
Sitting in a police car, the man finally began to calm down. He produced some ID: he was a Gurkha, a Nepalese veteran who had served as a soldier in the British army. He spoke very little English. The police found a Nepalese shop nearby, hoping for an interpreter. The shopkeeper knew what to do: call Gyan Tamang.
“When someone is lost, they call me,” says Gyan, a leader in the Nepalese Gurkha Veterans Community in southeast London. “It’s like I am their 24-hour helpline.” Of course Gyan knew the man. He phoned his next of kin and arranged for him to be taken home.
He sees the man’s behaviour as an early sign of depression or dementia, which he puts down to the isolating effects of the pandemic. The man had been out with his wife that morning, but only the wife had come back. She hadn’t reported him missing. “Even now, our culture is such that they don’t want to lose face in the community,” Gyan explains. Rather than complain, the Gurkha way is to play down problems, even pretending they don’t exist. “That’s the mindset in Nepal. They won’t bring it out in the open.”
For 10 years Gyan has run regular sessions for local Gurkha veterans, offering informal English classes, cooking, advice, and a chance to socialise. With all that ended by the pandemic, many members of the community are struggling.
Gyan was effectively born into the army. When his father — a soldier who fought with the Gurkhas in India — retired in 1965, Gyan was studying at military school in Singapore, where his father was stationed. Gyan had to enlist or be sent home. He trained with the army in Malaya, then went to Hong Kong to join the Royal Engineers at the end of the 1960s.
His greatest skill was teaching. He trained as an education instructor, before teaching young Gurkhas English, maths and map-reading. He also became a proficient sailor, representing the British armed forces of Hong Kong in an international regatta in Malaya. When he retired, he and four Nepalese friends went to Bermuda to teach sailing, canoeing, windsurfing and waterskiing to young and elderly people. Eventually he returned to Nepal to visit his ageing parents. By this time he had two grown children of his own.
In 2007 the British government made a historic ruling which permitted retired Gurkhas to apply for immigration visas to live in the UK. Gyan applied with his wife and in 2010 was granted the right to live in Britain. His children were not allowed to join him.
When he arrived, Gyan lived in Charlton. He got to know many of the 5,000 Gurkhas – by his estimate – who live in southeast London. As it happened, most of them lived in Plumstead, meaning Gyan would have to travel there any time someone needed his help. Eventually he decided to move. “But I’m here now in Plumstead,” he smiles. “And I still love helping people.” He’s now 70.
The community Gyan looks after is not registered in any official way, though he is working to change that. Attracting members largely through word of mouth, it grew to involve get-togethers with up to 200 people every week, including both retired soldiers and their wives and children. With the support of Age UK, Gyan found a home for the community at the YMCA in Woolwich, on Saturdays, and on Sherard Road in Eltham, on Thursdays. He also organised sessions at Barclays Bank, teaching elderly Gurkhas how to open bank accounts and look after their money.
With the pandemic, his job has become much more challenging. Gyan says that between himself and two colleagues, about 70 calls are coming in every day from veterans seeking help, including some from as far away as Hounslow who have heard about his generosity and have nobody else to call. “People are stuck at home, they’re frightened, they haven’t been given the proper information about Covid-19,” says Gyan. “They’re only told that it’s deadly, don’t go out, stay in. They don’t have connections with their friends. Most of them don’t have phones. They don’t do internet.”
Gurkha veterans are not eligible to receive the same pensions received by most British soldiers. As a result, many Gurkhas can only afford shared accommodation, often in cramped, sometimes illegally crowded housing. Gyan has seen instances of nine people living in a two-bedroom house.
Most landlords insist on their tenants leaving their houses in the daytime, wanting the place to themselves. With everything shut, the only option for Gurkhas in the area is walking to Woolwich Common, even when it’s cold and wet. Several incidents have been reported of Gurkhas having their money or possessions stolen. “A lady yesterday was robbed walking to Woolwich Common,” says Gyan.
The current lockdown rules mean Gurkhas now have to stay at home most of the time. Yet Gyan says many of them have been told they can only use their accommodation’s central heating for two hours a day. In recent months, says Gyan, at least eight Gurkha couples have been forced out of their housing. “These landlords don’t have any heart,” he says.
The virus has affected the community directly too. One Gurkha was taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital after a minor stroke. After his condition improved, he was transferred to Lewisham Hospital. But there was a misunderstanding with a carer. When she visited, his wife noticed bruises. She and Gyan were told that he had refused to be undressed in view of other patients, leading to an altercation in which a member of staff was hurt. He was immediately moved to a unit in Sidcup for people with mental health issues.
Gyan visited, finding him alone and unable to use the phone due to speech issues following the stroke. His wife said his health was deteriorating. Then he began having trouble breathing and was diagnosed with Covid-19. Nobody was allowed to visit. Eight days later, he died.
At least nine other members of the local Gurkha community have died with the virus. Is the government doing enough to protect them? “It could be better,” says Gyan. “They could have done a bit more…”
He’s playing it down, reluctant to point the finger. But that’s the Gurkha way.
For more information on the Nepalese Gurkha Veterans Community group, visit Age UK Bromley & Greenwich.
SAM DAVIES is a journalist who has written for Dazed, DJ Mag, the Guardian, the i, Mixmag, Pitchfork, Readers Digest and Vice. He co-hosts the podcast Exit The 36 Chambers.
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people and organisations in SE London have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.
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