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Meet Dr Shilpa Naveen Chandra

Shilpa with her son Tanay.

Just a year back Dr. Shilpa NaveenChandra had to plan ahead even to spend some time with her son.

Shilpa is a gynecologist from Bangalore, India. Working six days a week and every alternate Sunday left her with no time for her family or herself. While working at St. John’s Hospital in Bangalore she also taught undergraduate students at the hospital. Coupled with that was the once a week 24-hour duty she had, which left her exhausted.

But it was the support from her family that kept her going she said. Both her parents and in-laws would take turns to take care of her son.

“Things are very different now. I have a lot of time now and all of it is centered around my two-year-old son Tanay,” she said.

Shilpa moved to the United States in May last year. She is currently not practicing for she is on F2 dependent visa. She recalled the feeling of confusion she dealt with when her husband told her for the first time about his decision to move to the United States to pursue an academic degree from the MIT.

“I supported his decision. Moving to the US would be a new experience for me. I thought it would provide me with some respite from my work pressure and also I will get to spend quality time with my son. The decision to leave my job was painful but I was mentally prepared to take up the challenge,” she said.

It has been almost a year now and her son has always kept her on her toes, she said. But what she began to crave for was the company of friends and people whom she could talk to.

“My husband is always busy with school and the only one around is my son,” she said.

So when Shilpa heard about the Westgate Culinary Club, it was not the thought of culinary adventures that drew her to the club, she said, but the fact that it would provide her with a chance to socialize with others.

“Cooking never interested me and one of the reasons was the time constraint I had. But now that I have time, I thought I could learn. At the club’s sessions the members always try to teach quick and easy recipes, which has helped me develop an interest in cooking. And the most important thing is I get to socialize with other people,” she added.

Apart from being a member of the Westgate Culinary Club, Shilpa also actively participates in workshops and programs conducted by the MIT Spouses and Partners Club. “It’s a good place to learn new things,” she said.

The different club related activities and her son are things that have kept Shilpa busy, she said.

Bound by the dependent visa restrictions Shilpa cannot practice in the United States in spite of her postgraduate degree in Obstetrics and Gynecology. “The visa restrictions are so stringent that my hands are tied. I feel bad at times. But I am preparing to take exams for the residency program. I am planning to take the exam this year,” Shilpa said.

Enrolling in a residency program will re-open doors for her and after the four year training she will get the required license to practice in the United States, she said.

“The challenges I had to face have made me stronger. Coming to the United States was a decision that my husband had made but whether to stay back or not is for me to decide once I complete the residency,” said Shilpa.

The Welcome Project

Just a couple of days back I got in touch with a community-based organization called The Welcome Project, which caters to the immigrant community in Somerville.

The mission of the organization as stated on their website is to build “the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.”

The organization achieves their mission via various programs “that strengthen the capacity of immigrant youth, adults and families to advocate for themselves and influence schools, government, and other institutions.”

It began operating in 1987 and continues to serve the growing immigrant population of Somerville.

Among the various programs they organize to empower the immigrant community ‘YUM: A taste of Immigrant City’ is one.

I had to write an article about the YUM event and it provided me with the chance to speak with Warren Goldstein-Gelb, the executive director of the project.

“We try to have a range of [immigrant-run] restaurants: some are earlier generation of immigrants like Italian restaurants and also newer immigrant groups such as Brazilian or Mexican,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “Some of these businesses are struggling. One thing that the YUM card does is to help these people directly when they shop there. It also brings people from outside the city to the restaurants.”

“Another reason we wanted to this was to point out to very one in the city to highlight the role and the contributions that immigrant families are making,” he added.

He hopes that the April 25 event — where all the participating restaurants will come together — at the Armory on Highland Avenue will make the people of Somerville appreciate the rich cultural diversity of the city.

“It’s about creating an understanding and appreciation among every one in the city about some of the values of the multi-cultural diversity of the city,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

Students from the Tufts University have also contributed to the YUM project. As part of an undergraduate course called Urban Borderlands, 10 students interviewed about 40 immigrant-run restaurants in Somerville and wrote blog posts about their survey.

There are about 100 immigrant-run restaurants in Somerville.

“It is an Anthropology class where students learn to design and conduct field work in the community,” said Prof. Deborah Pacini Hernandez. “I have always wanted the student research to contribute to a community need. This is where I have connected with a community partner; one this [academic] year was with The Welcome Project.”

“Last year I have worked with Somerville Community Corporation around the issue of the coming of the green line and the potential impact of the green line on immigrant businesses,” she said.

Numerous students from the university have worked as interns and summer fellows at the Welcome Project, she added.

Talking about some of the problems faced by these immigrant-run restaurants Hernandez said: “The downside of the diversity is that it makes it harder for business owners to organize into a business community…there are language and cultural differences.”

It is hard for them to get a liquor license; get adequate parking and also difficult for them to spread the word about their business outside their own community, Hernandez added.

Read the student blog posts, now up on The Welcome Project website, to learn more about these immigrant-run restaurants.

What members say about the club sessions

The last three sessions of the Westgate Culinary Club were a huge hit. Members learned how to make healthy soups, crispy falafel and fluffy buñelos. They embarked on a gastronomical journey — a taste of China, Middle East and Colombia — that left the them craving for more.

The club members were all charged up after a brief hiatus, due to the renovation work at the lounge where the club’s sessions are usually held.

“We have been eagerly waiting for these sessions. Learning new cuisines is always an interesting thing. It adds a new dimension to your culinary skills,” Debasmita Dutta, an active member of the club, said.

After moving to the United States last year, to accompany her husband who is pursuing a PhD degree from MIT, Debasmita said it’s the loneliness that she often finds hard to battle with.

Her work as a research assistant at Calcutta University had always kept her occupied back in her hometown Kolkata. Debasmita holds a Masters degree in clinical psychology.

Today the ample time she has at her disposal is no less than daunting at times, she said. “I am bound by the visa regulations. I cannot engage in paid employment or pursue a full-time academic course,” Debasmita said ruefully.

But it is the culinary club that has helped her cope by coming in contact with people who are in the same boat.

“Cooking is something I have always found interest in. The club has helped me to whet my passion and also helped in building my own social circle. I have made a lot of friends through the club. The club activities keep me occupied and now I have something to look forward to every week,” Debasmita said.

The club’s first in-house session this year was held on February 2. Li Theng, the club founder, hosted the session.

It was a session on soups. “Soup forms an integral part of Chinese cuisine and is a part of every meal,” she informed the eager audience.

In the hour-and-half-long session, Li dished out four soups:

Airy Pea Soup with Sliced Almonds, Curried Carrot and Cilantro Soup, Minced Meat in Egg Soup and Lotus Root Soup.

The session also triggered conversation about cuisines and cultures from various parts of the world.

Li hails from Singapore where she was employed as an elementary school teacher. Her 12-hour a day work schedule had always kept her busy.

But things look different now. After moving to Cambridge in August last year, she keeps herself occupied by volunteering at different organizations like the Cambridge Farmer’s Market and local soup kitchens.

“I came up with the idea of the Westgate Culinary Club to socialize with other people and to engage in community based activities,” Li said.

The club provides the members with the opportunity to learn about different cultures through their cuisines, Li said.

While visa restrictions do bother Li, she tries to keep an open mind and make the best of the situation she is currently dealing with, Li said.

Boston houses thousands of well-qualified immigrants like Debasmita and Li. While a recent study has shown that immigrants create jobs for American workers, dependent visa holders continue to be tethered by regulations.

Visa regulations need to be eased and that’s the only way to provide some respite to dependent visa holders like them.

Mapping the members

The most interesting thing about the Westgate Culinary Club is it brings together members from around the globe. While the club’s Facebook page has 40 members, I have only highlighted some of the active members in the club.

Some relief for ‘some’ H4 visa holders

While the news hit the stands that Employment Authorization Document will be issued to H4 visa holders, there’s not much to rejoice because the proposition comes with a catch.

Not all H4 visa holders will receive an EAD. It is only for those

  • whose spouses have completed at least six years as H1B  visa holder, and
  • for those whose PERM labor certification has already been filed

But nonetheless this step forward will come to the rescue of many highly qualified immigrants who had been unable to work due to visa restrictions.

 

While browsing through the ordeals of H4 visa holders I stumbled across a very interesting video yesterday. Meghna Damani in her debut film Hearts Suspended portrays some of the challenges she had faced as an H4 visa holder and interviews other women who shared the same ordeal.

A part of the video was featured at the PBS show To the Contrary and some of the comments given by experts are really surprising. Take a look at it.


 

 

 

A quick look through pictures

Founding member:  Li Theng Lee

Li is from Singapore and decided to start the culinary club to meet with other people residing at the MIT Westgate graduate building. She is very passionate about food and blogs about her culinary adventures regularly.

Club logo designed by Daria Shipilina.

First session:  13 Oct., 2011

The club members met for the first time on this date, embarking on their culinary adventure driven by the urge to learn about different cultures from around the globe.

The first session - fried apples

Club meetings: once-a-week, on Thursdays

The group meets on Thursdays at the MIT Westgate housing community lounge, located at the basement of the building.Each week club members learn about a new cuisine, with members volunteering to host an interactive cooking session.

An ongoing session at the lounge.

Session duration: one-hour

The sessions are mostly an hour-long. Apart from tasting food from around the world, they eagerly help out the host during the cooking or baking sessions. At the end of each session, members sit down to enjoy the food. 

Chocolate cake for a potluck session.

Membership: closed-group

Membership is open to residents of the Westgate housing complex, with some exceptions. The spouses of the members are graduate or Ph.D. students at the MIT.

A box of assorted cookies.

Session ideas: decided by online voting

Members are often asked to vote for recipes they would like to learn, on the club’s Facebook page. Details about upcoming sessions are also posted. 

Making peanut butter cupcakes.

Number of members: 44

The club’s Facebook page boasts of 44 members. Anywhere between 10-20 people show up for the club sessions.

Vietnamese spring rolls.

Agenda: cuisine and culture

While food forms the epicenter of the club sessions, members also learn something new each week about a different culture. During the cooking sessions members usually demonstrates a recipe accompanied by stories related to the ingredients or the dish in their country.

Making of Chinese stir fry

Common theme: Potluck

Various potluck sessions are arranged to learn about new cuisines, like the “Taste the World Potluck” held on Oct. 27, 2011.During the session each member of the club were asked to bring a dish that best represents her country.

Taste the World potluck event

Pic Courtesy: Westgate Culinary Club.

What’s unique about the Westgate Culinary Club?

Just like any other culinary club, members of the Westgate Culinary Club share a passion for food.

But what distinguishes them from others is that the idea of connecting with people brought them together. They use food as a medium to connect with people from different cultures. Yes, the club’s members come form different parts of the globe.

The decision to surrender themselves in the adventure of exploring the unknown has brought them face-to-face with their current phase in life. Moving to the US to accompany their spouses, who are pursuing academic programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has changed their lives in many ways.

Let me point out it takes courage to make the conscious decision to leave behind well-established careers and embark on the journey of traversing the unknown.

While adjusting to the new environs took some time there came a moment in their lives when they began to miss the busy schedule they were so used to. Some had busy days at school, others working 12-hour days at software firms and even others who were juggling multiple patients at a time in a hospital.

With their spouses spending hours at school and after school hours at labs, loneliness and boredom slowly began to strengthen their grip over them. Knowing that their visa (F2 visa in their case) doesn’t permit them to work or study in the US, the search began for looking for avenues that would allow them to battle their sudden isolation and change.

The F2 and H4 dependent visas doesn’t allow an immigrant to engage in full-time study or paid employment and sometimes both.

So the idea first hit Li Theng, the founder of the group. As an elementary school teacher in Singapore she was accustomed to a busy schedule. But after moving to the US she suddenly found ample time at her disposal, which she wanted to use constructively. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to engage in full-time study or take up a job.

She was struck by the idea of creating a club which would provide room for socializing. Food and the art of cooking had always fascinated Li. So the idea of starting a culinary club came in handy. The club would be a place to socialize, learn and grow and with that thought in mind she sent in a written request to the MIT Westgate Housing Committee. Once the approval came in, she promptly started spreading the word and within a few days the club was bustling with eager members.

The members of the club met during its first session held in October 2011.