Mahabir and Bhim

Former Gurkhas Mahabir Gurung and Bhim Prasad Limbu explain how SSAFA's Gurkha Services have improved their lives with the Digital Inclusion Project.

SSAFA Gurkha Services helps those who have served in the Brigade of Gurkhas, and their families, who are settled in the UK.

Its Digital Inclusion Project gives free computer tablets to senior veterans. Pre-loaded with applications in the Nepali language, the devices help veterans connect to the modern world and communicate with family and friends.

Retired Gurkha Mahabir Gurung, 82, came to the UK from Nepal in 2011, settling in Leeds.

In 2022, Mahabir and wife Bhagawati received one of four computer tablets given to families in the city as part of a SSAFA Gurkha Services project.

The couple have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren around the world, in South Korea, Japan, Iceland and America; some they have never met.

“It would be a dream to go and see them,” says Mahabir. “But because of the tablet, I get to see them every day!”

“Before we only used to talk on the phone,” says Bhagawati. “The difference now is we can see them, and they can talk more easily and see us!”

More than 17,000 Gurkha families live in the UK. Laxmi Bantawa MBE is one of just two SSAFA Gurkha Services Outreach Workers who between them supported nearly 900 individual Gurkhas and their families across England and Wales last year, including many retirees.

Problems are mainly around communication, isolation and transportation.

“Our Gurkha senior citizens’ problems are mainly around communication, isolation and transportation,” says Laxmi.

“Most of the time they are at home. They do have their bus pass, but they are not very confident to go around, and they sometimes can't drive or don't know where they are going. This project has really overcome the isolation, so I'm very pleased what SSAFA did."

So far SSAFA has given tablets – pre-loaded with applications in Nepali – to families in Cwmbran, Brecon, Newcastle, Leeds, Carlisle, Cardiff, Catterick, York, Doncaster, Nottingham, Derby, Liverpool, Bradford, Corby, and Manchester.

A former Major in the Second Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles Laxmi has worked for SSAFA since 2017. As a soldier, he served nearly 29 years in many counties including the first Gulf War of 1990 and the Balkan Wars of 1999.

Since the scheme started, he has distributed a total of 165 tablets among 40 communities.

It has really overcome the isolation.

“This project has really overcome the isolation, so I'm very pleased what SSAFA did.

“This is very effective way to help. People avoid loneliness, it occupies them and helps them communicate,” explains Laxmi. “It brings the family together, the community together and the Gurkha community together which makes them very happy and connected.

“Mahabir is talking with his children in four countries, and now he can see them virtually. It is bringing them together and it is good for morale.

“If you know how to use Zoom, you can connect with people all around the world virtually, just like a face to face. You don't have to worry about finding a car park, you don't have to walk. This is what I'm trying to teach everybody!”

It was the first time I saw a car!

Mahabir, from a remote village in western Nepal, joined the Army in 1959.

“I walked for eight days to the recruiting centre in the city of Pokhara.” he says. “It was the first time I saw a car!”

He was selected, joined the Gurkha Transport Regiment, and learned to drive in Singapore.

“I passed in December 1959,” he says, proudly. “I became a very good, trusted driver, a driving instructor for four years and became a VIP driver for Generals and the Hong Kong Government.”

“Communication is very powerful,” says Laxmi. “We must move with the times, training with technology. It's the 21st century. Mahabir had never seen a vehicle, but he became a driver for the Hong Kong government. He was never taught the computer but now he has computer literacy.”

After 22 years in the Army, serving in Hong Kong, the UK and Borneo, Mahabir retired from the Gurkhas in 1981 with rank of Warrant Officer class 2 and returned to Nepal.

“I became a farmer, and then a road project came very close to my house, so I opened a restaurant business, making bread and sandwiches, then I started a curry restaurant,” he says.

“I came to the UK in 2011 because I was not very well in Nepal and veterans were allowed to come here legally,” he says. “I was supported by SSAFA then. I had no family here and I was very lucky I met Mr Bantawa, who helped me very well. My wife and I appreciate it.

“I was looking for housing. It was very difficult to wait each day for two months. Then when I got a house, the GP got me to the hospital very quickly. I had a heart operation and then a leg operation. They thought I would die and for two days I was in a coma. But the operation was successful, and I am still going strong!”

We just want to say thank you to SSAFA.

When they are not catching up with family, Mahabir and Bhagawati use their tablet to watch YouTube, listen to BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) Gurkha Network radio programmes, keep up to date on news from Nepal and search for recipes online.

“I can learn how to make different foods,” says Bhagawati. “It is never-ending. Everything is there!”

“We just want to say thank you to SSAFA,” says Mahabir.

Bhim Limbu came to Leeds with his wife and son in 2013, to be near friends and family from Nepal already settled in the city.

“I was born and brought up in a small village in the hills of Nepal,” he says. “I enlisted into the British Army in 1969 at the age of 17.”

He served in Hong Kong, where he trained as an engineer. After 12 years of service, Bhim retired in 1981 with the rank of Sapper.

“I did some learning after I returned to Nepal and got a diploma in civil engineering. Then I worked in government departments in road building and construction in Nepal.”

Bhim’s son Prakash followed in his father’s footsteps and is currently serving in 2 Rifles and deployed in Estonia.

Like Mahabir, Bhim received a tablet in 2022 as part of the SSAFA scheme which he uses to keep in touch with his son.

It’s wonderful for communication with friends and family.

“It’s wonderful for communication with friends and family,” he says. “I use it for talking on Zoom with the Gurkha community and keeping in touch with people around the world.”

Now 72, Bhim wanted to become computer literate for many years.

“I practiced on laptops in Leeds Central Library,” he says. “I picked one up and started typing at random and then somebody came and helped me!

“The tablet is very handy. I use it almost daily for YouTube, WhatsApp, Messenger, Zoom, and everything. I have been able to take part in virtual meetings. I couldn’t have done without the tablet.

“It has become my way of life now. Time passes and I don’t know where it has gone. I don’t even get hungry! I am becoming addicted!” he jokes.

“I am very grateful for what SSAFA has done,” says Bhim. “This scheme has been very helpful, especially for people like me who have been a little bit too late to go online to explore the world from your own home. I am very happy.”