Written By: Joshua Bradford Gray | Photography By: Brian Sager

How Dipak Thapaus braved untold hardships to find Nantucket.

Dipak Thapaus is known to many on Nantucket as the smiling face behind the counter at Walter’s Deli on Broad Street, but most of his customers have absolutely no idea of the incredible journey that delivered him to this spot on the island. A native of Nepal, Thapaus was the son of an Indian military officer and grew up in an agrarian village called Simpani, where most of his countrymen worked on farms or in service to the government—but neither was his calling. Instead, for most of his life, Thapaus had one simple goal: move to America.

At a young age he became involved in Nepalese politics and soon his opposition to the government in power put him in grave danger. “I was scared for my life in Nepal,” Thapaus said. As a dissident in his own country, he was denied travel visas but escaped Nepal by working in other countries around Southeast Asia and even Dubai. All the while, he tried to figure out how to reach the United States, where he planned to apply for political asylum. “I was always thinking about America,” he said. “I knew it was where I was supposed to go because I knew I would have more freedom, human rights and a better way of life.”

After years of failed attempts and now in his mid-twenties, Thapaus made one final desperate gambit in 2006 by traveling to Costa Rica. There he joined a half-dozen other would-be asylum seekers headed to the U.S.-Mexico border. The group enlisted a “coyote” (human smuggler) to guide them on foot through a series of Central American countries under the cover of darkness, until they reached the promised land. He demanded their passports along with all their money. With a thirty-day visa and no other options, Thapaus handed everything over.

After seventeen days of trekking through the Costa Rican jungle, Thapaus crossed the border into Nicaragua and then continued through Honduras and Guatemala before reaching the Mexico border four months later—entirely by foot. He entered Mexico with only the filthy clothes on his back. His hair and beard were long and grimy from the grueling and treacherous walk. At each border crossing along the way, the coyote demanded more and more money, which Thapaus’ family was thankfully able to wire him. However, for this last stretch into the United States, the coyote demanded $3,000—a sum Thapaus simply couldn’t pay.

Hungry and alone, he begged for money in the Mexican streets. Due to his disheveled appearance, long beard and dark Asian complexion, some Mexicans suspected that he was affiliated with the Taliban and reported him to the corrupt local police. Before turning him over to the Mexican federal authorities, the police robbed Thapaus of what little he had left. For nearly three weeks, the federal authorities interrogated him day and night. Thapaus kept his composure until they threatened to send him back to Nepal. “Then I just broke down crying and begged them not to send me back,” he recalled. “I told them I was scared for my life, and I needed to get to America.”

Mercifully, the authorities believed him and after about a month, released him back to the streets, saying that he had to leave Mexico immediately. After begging for enough change to call his cousins in America for some money to buy new clothes and to clean himself up, Thapaus made his approach to the U.S. border. He walked over the bridge that led to the United States. The only thing that stood between him and his dream was a handful of border agents. Summoning all the courage he had, Thapaus declared that he was seeking asylum.

“I was so scared,” he recalled. “They told me they had to handcuff me. After everything that had happened, this just made me so sad because I had never been handcuffed in my life.” Those handcuffs would remain fastened, at least figuratively, for the next year of Thapaus’ life as he was held in a border detention facility while an immigration judge weighed his fate. “This was a very dark time for me,” he said. Working in the detention facility’s commissary he earned just a dollar a day, barely enough to keep in touch with his family back in Nepal.

A year to the day that he entered the detention facility, Thapaus left a free man, with a coveted American green card in his hand and a renewed determination in his heart. The immigration judge believed his story and admitted him into the United States as an asylum seeker. “I left there with only two dollars in my pocket and used it to try and reach my cousin in Baltimore,” he said. “I reached him, but the time ran out before we had really talked about anything, and I realized I had nothing left and got really scared.” He then sat down to contemplate his circumstances, knowing he had no money left. Yet out of the silence, the pay phone started to ring. It was his cousin.

Thapaus made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, where after months of searching he found his first job in a Subway sandwich shop and finally began to make a living. Content to work and save what he could, Thapaus was surprised when one day a friend of his sister’s invited him to Nantucket. “I got here and said to myself, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for,’” he recalled of his arrival to the island in 2010. “I knew then that Nantucket would be my home. I never want to leave here.”

Initially working at a landscape company, Thapaus got a new opportunity a couple years later when a new sandwich shop opened its doors and needed someone to run it. Using the skills learned from his time at Subway, Thapaus started down the path that he’s still on to this day, running the corner deli for his boss and mentor Scott Kopp, who also owns two other eateries on the Strip, Stubbys and Island Coffee Roasters. Years after his ordeal, Thapaus now looks back at it with even more appreciation. His endearing smile and dark, knowing eyes speak to a life hard fought and won. Now married to his wife Milan, with whom he shares their son Dylan, he considers his dream fulfilled and fully realized—he became a U.S. citizen in 2016. “This is the place I’ve been looking for all my life.”

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