NY’s Little Pakistan: still little after post-9/11 devastation

~By Aash Jethra~

Before 9/11, as told by New Yorkers who call Little Pakistan home, their neighborhood in Midwood, Brooklyn was a true microcosm of the old country 7,000 miles away. Today, this enclave, desolate and reclusive, wrestles with population loss and ignorance. And fear.

Residents say the community was thriving with few available parking spots and plenty of jewelry stores, music and DVD outlets, sweet shops, immigration and tax service shops, traditional clothing shops. People would travel from Queens and New Jersey to shop, eat and worship there.

“It was a very lively area,” said Bazah Roohi, 36, a small business owner and long time resident of “Little Pakistan.” “The restaurants [were] busy. Boutiques [were] busy. The grocery store was all the time busy.”

This all changed when the federal Department of Homeland Security created the Special Registration initiative, or Entry-Exit Registration System, a system for registration of non-citizens. It’s primary target is Muslim-majority countries, like Pakistan. Special Registration began in September 2002 in an attempt to remove members of al-Qa’eda and other terrorist organizations from the United States’ borders.

The Council of Peoples Organization (formerly Council of Pakistan Organization) was started in 2002 to respond to the crisis and fear in Little Pakistan that ensued after Special Registration.

According to CoPO, up to 45,000 of the South Asians in Brooklyn left voluntarily or were deported after Special Registration. Those who left voluntarily did so because they were illegal and feared eventual deportation or for other reasons.

They estimate that this cut the immigrant population of Little Pakistan in half.

CoPO also reports that in addition to the closing of 30 major businesses – mostly jewelry stores  – aimed at the Pakistani-American community those businesses left standing incurred losses of between 30 and 70 percent. Restaurants and the remaining jewelry stores were hardest hit.

“Could you imagine a knock on your door and a guy is holding a card like this and you don’t speak English?,” said Mohammed Razvi, the executive director of CoPO. He was holding a tattered, overstuffed album filled with the business cards of FBI and CIA agents with notes handwritten on the back.

“In this school next door to us, 50 students packed-up and left,” said Razvi, seated at his office desk in the heart of “Little Pakistan.” “Fifty students. You’re talking about fifty families.”

Residents have also suffered from post-9/11 discrimination by other locals.

From a worn, heavy, 3 inch thick binder, Razvi read accounts of harassment: A man was stabbed out of retribution for being Muslim, but didn’t tell the police because he was undocumented and feared he deportation. Another account was of an 11-year-old girl walking to school wearing her traditional headscarf. The girl was called a “sand nigger” and spit on by a woman on the street and was told she should be sorry for dropping the Twin Towers.

Where did they go?

“They went to Canada, seeking asylum from the United States, ironically. They went back to Pakistan or Bangladesh,” said Razvi. The residents of Little Pakistan also report that many of those who left went to other states.

According to reports from the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper, Pakistanis represented five percent of people requesting refugee hearings in Canada in November 2002 and 58 percent in February 2003.

The desperation of this community is being felt all the way down to the economic level, and by everyone.

“They don’t want to spend money. If tomorrow they’ll have to leave things and fabric, everything will be [left] here. At least they have cash. They can get to their country. That’s why they are not spending money,” said Mrs. Jilani, 50, and co-owner of Zoque Fashion on Coney Island Avenue. Mrs. Jilani has been living in the area for 30 years and opened her shop, which sells traditional Pakistani women’s clothing, in 1994. She reports that business is still down for her.

The economic situation in Little Pakistan is particularly acute as the majority of residents are employed as cab drivers, or as small business owners, reports Al Jazeera English. In 2000, the per capita income of a Pakistani in New York City was $11,992 with 28 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

And the global recession isn’t helping.

According to Razvi, besides not being able to speak English, many community members did not know their rights after Special Registration began and many still don’t. CoPO also addresses these problems and offers ESL – English as a Second Language – classes and legal workshops in Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali.

According to numbers from the Office of Immigration Statistics, the number of Pakistani-born aliens deported from the U.S. only began to drop to levels similar to those of 2001 during this past year.

“And now what’s happening is it’s starting to come back,” said Razvi about Brooklyn’s South Asian population. “But it’s coming back from all the filings from family members who had filed [for immigration] for their loved ones for all these years because their cases become current.”

And the numbers demonstrate this. While Pakistanis are still coming to the U.S., they are doing so in fewer numbers. Nonimmigrant admissions for Pakistanis is still down: by 20 percent, for 2008, compared to 2001. But as previously filed immigration cases become current, the number of Pakistanis obtaining U.S. legal permanent resident status has actually increased: 40 percent higher than in 2001.

Razvi estimates it will take up to 15 years for the area to return to the way is was before 9/11.

“It’s starting to come back, but it’s still not there,” Razvi said. “Because even the cab driver was prospering at that time, prior to 9/11.”

According to residents, the deportations have not come to an end, either. Community members with citizenship are reportedly being paid by the FBI when they give information about an undocumented immigrant.

“They complain to the FBI and they [say] ‘He is illegal. She is illegal. They are illegal.’,” said Roohi. “They receive $500 from the FBI. They work for the FBI, still they are working for the FBI. And everyone knows who they are. They are very well known persons. I don’t want to mention their names.”

“A lot people, still, they are scared and don’t want to shop around here,” said Roohi.

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