Border crossings in Brooklyn

The post-9/11 sweeps left many immigrant families without friends or money. A Pakistani Muslim and an Indian Hindu worked together to help them.


Michelle Goldberg
June 22, 2004 8:59PM (UTC)

When fathers and sons started disappearing in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Little Pakistan after Sept. 11, their distraught relatives, not knowing where else to go, appealed to local businessmen. Until then, Mohammed Razvi, a business developer in his early 30s with four children, a trim beard and a Brooklyn accent, hadn't thought much about social work. He wanted to make money, not change lives. But he also couldn't turn away the immigrants, many of them poor, illegal and unable to speak English, who were searching for the men who'd been caught in the FBI's frantic and indiscriminate roundup.

The neighborhood's Business Merchants Association arranged a meeting with the FBI and local politicians, but they were told that if they wanted to find the men who'd been detained, they'd have to fill out Freedom of Information Act requests. Razvi knew the detainees' relatives would never be able to do that alone, so he decided to take time off work to help. He never returned.

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While Muslims were vanishing in Brooklyn, Jagajit Singh, a Hindu who'd been a prominent youth organizer in India's Congress Party, was beginning his master's degree in nonprofit management at New York University. He'd arrived in America on Sept. 2, and, as a political person, immediately wanted to get involved in the city's response to Sept. 11, though he had no idea what to do. Then his roommate told him that a fledgling Pakistani civil rights organization needed help setting itself up. Soon, he and Razvi were partners.

Singh was untroubled by the tradition of fierce mutual antipathy between India and Pakistan. "We are all human beings in an alien land," he says.

The outfit Razvi and Singh created, the Council of Pakistan Organization, operates out of a nondescript storefront on a rundown stretch of Coney Island Avenue, in a part of Brooklyn rarely visited by outsiders. Yet COPO is also a kind of symbol of New York's greatness -- its ability, most of the time, to defy and transcend the sectarian manias ravaging much of the world. At a time when Muslim immigrants felt themselves under siege and their neighbors were suffused with a new sense of suspicion and alarm, Singh and Razvi moved quickly to protect their constituents' civil rights while creating ties between Brooklyn's hitherto isolated ethnic enclaves.

Their first priority was to help the neighborhood people who were arrested without charges, and the families struggling after their breadwinners were deported. But Singh and Razvi also built a special only-in-New York bond between the Muslims of Little Pakistan and the Orthodox Jews of nearby Midwood. They've opened up their free legal clinics and English classes to other immigrants, inviting Bangladeshis, Russians and Mexicans. In fact, next month they're changing COPO's name, but not its acronym: It will become the Council of Peoples Organization.

For Singh, a short, mustachioed 43-year-old with gold-rimmed glasses, working with Pakistanis is a kind of tribute to India's spiritual father, Mohandas Gandhi, who was heartbroken by the subcontinent's partition. "Whatever work Gandhi did, he called it 'My experiments with truth,'" says Singh. "All programs which I try to create, I also call them experiments. The first experiment was me and Moe working together." In 2002, he thought India and Pakistan were about to go to war, and he recalls proudly, "At that time, me and Moe were sitting here trying to create COPO, while our armies were facing each other."

His life in New York has elements of Gandhian austerity. In New Delhi, where Singh formerly served as the treasurer of the youth and student wing of the Congress Party, he and his family had servants and a house with a garden; now they live in a nondescript box of an apartment with little adornment, save a small altar covered with yellow cloth and small statues of the Hindu god Ganesh. It's 45 minutes by bus from his office. For the first few months of COPO's existence, he worked as a volunteer. He remembers being thrilled when the group received its first grant in November 2002 -- a check for $400. Razvi worked without pay for COPO's first two years, and has sold his business to relatives so that he can devote himself to the organization full-time.

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Through COPO, Razvi says that Little Pakistan, an insular community dominated by day laborers and taxi drivers, is getting a lesson in New York's diversity. In addition to Singh, he's hired Pinky Vincent, a Christian from Calcutta, to handle COPO's public relations, and Marc Fallon, a Jew, as the organization's youth coordinator. Getting to know Singh, Vincent and Fallon, says Razvi, has "opened up the community's horizons, that there are good people everywhere."

First, though, COPO had to struggle to keep the community together. Before Sept. 11, Midwood was home to as many as a quarter of the approximately 120,000 Pakistanis in New York. After the attack, when the Justice Department ordered agents to arrest as many Muslim immigrants as possible in the hope of netting terrorism suspects or informants, FBI agents descended on the neighborhood.

More than 1,200 immigrants were swept up after Sept. 11, and 762 were imprisoned. Agents came knocking in the middle of the night. If the person they were looking for wasn't there, they'd take any illegal immigrants who were. As an April 2003 report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General makes clear, the vast majority had no connection to terrorism.

The Pakistani community was hit particularly hard -- 33 percent of Sept. 11 detainees came from Pakistan. Far worse, though, was special registration, a program instituted in November 2002, which required men from most Muslim countries to report to authorities to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. Of the roughly 85,000 who came forward, over 13,000 were put into deportation proceedings, often leaving their wives and American-born children behind.

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Razvi estimates that COPO has helped about 100 families who were split up by post 9/11 deportations. Because Little Pakistan is a traditional neighborhood full of first-generation immigrants, women often don't work, and are thus left without income when their husbands are thrown out of the country. Razvi often visits them himself to see what they need. If the families have children who are American citizens, COPO helps the women get food stamps; if they're ineligible, Razvi gives them grocery money. For some, donations from COPO are their only lifeline.

The families of deportees aren't the only ones facing hardship. Singh says that many in the neighborhood were so shaken by the deportations that about 20,000 left, either returning to Pakistan or seeking asylum in Canada. The sudden decrease in population sank the local economy, leading around 30 local shops to close.

The pressure on the community has made learning English and understanding America's immigration laws all the more crucial. During special registration, COPO held 51 legal clinics, providing free legal help to 617 people. It also offers free English-as-a-second-language classes, free computer classes and free citizenship test preparation classes.

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The English classes function as a subtle kind of female empowerment. Razvi says that Pakistani men are often wary of letting their wives and daughters take classes with strangers, but because he's well known in the community, women from strict families are allowed to go to COPO. "I know women who've lived 14 years within these two blocks, that's all they know," says Razvi. "So many ladies here used to take their kids with them to the hospital for translation. Can you imagine going to a gynecologist and bringing a child with you to translate?" Learning English frees them, he says. "Now women feel like they're back in power."

COPO's Marc Fallon also runs an all-girl photography club that exposes some of the area's sheltered young women to the riches of their city. Its 20 members get free cameras, film and developing, and are encouraged to photograph every corner of New York. "We tell them, before listening to the dogma and orthodoxies of others, try and experiment on your own," Singh says. "We take them to different neighborhoods -- Chinatown, Jackson Heights, Harlem. I say, 'Know your city. Know your neighborhood. Know where you are and try to find a space for yourself.'"

For boys, Singh has organized a basketball league -- with Midwood's Orthodox Jews. So far, there are about 50 kids who play together. Thus even while Muslims and Jews are shooting at each other in the Middle East, they're shooting hoops in Brooklyn. "There's a large Jewish community right next to us, and we've never had even one incident," Razvi says.

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Even as they work to open minds in Midwood, Singh sees a growing religious radicalism in the neighborhood. "On Coney Island Avenue, the kids are dressing more traditionally. They're more inclined toward orthodoxy," he says. Conservative Islam has become a kind of rebellion against a society that marginalizes them. "They think, 'People are negating it, I'm going to do it more,'" Singh says.

He's not naive about people's potential for sectarian brutality. After all, he comes from India, where communities that had been intertwined for centuries slaughtered each other during the partition riots that followed Indian independence. Still, he maintains a defiant optimism that kids who play basketball together will have a harder time hating each other as they grow older. He believes that even though ethnic and religious nationalism seems to be ascendant worldwide, liberalism can prevail among the next generation.

"Young people, they want results that are positive and fast," he says. "They are truthful and they are radical. They want change for the better."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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