Further down on Coney Island Avenue, both sides of the road are lined with restaurants and shops which support bright bilingual sign broads in Urdu and English
New York is a fanatical city, the hustle and bustle can be isolating for immigrants.
But, as they say, birds of a feather flock together, the different minorities found in the city have made up their own communities, be it Korea Town, Little India, Little Italy or our very own Little Pakistan. New York City has the largest concentration of Pakistani Americans compared to the rest of USA, in the Queens and Brooklyn boroughs, of approximately 194,000 (US census bureau 2010).
Right in Flatbush, Brooklyn stretches for a couple of kilometres on Coney Island Avenue between Church Avenue and Avenue H; a place now home to thousands of Pakistani immigrants.
Brooklyn is a much calmer area than Manhattan, the people walk slowly, there are more kids and elderly and ample beautiful signs of Halal food flashing. At the local park, one can spot more brown kids and surprisingly their moms in Shalwar Kameez, running after and tending to their kids. These people speak fluent English and Urdu, with some thick Punjabi, Pashto or Karachi accents.
Further down on Coney Island Avenue, both sides of the road are lined with restaurants and shops which support bright bilingual sign broads in Urdu and English; names like Hamdard Pharmacy and Food, Babu Grill, Ajwa Supermarket, Punjab Grocery, Bahar Kabab House and Zaytoon can be spotted and trusted.
A place they call home
Little Pakistan will tend to your emotions while making you nostalgic. This former white neighbourhood transformed into a Pakistani neighbourhood because of the mosque. “The community centre and Makki Masjid brought Pakistanis here,” says Aziz Ullah Khan, a grocery owner from Buner District who settled here in 1985, while talking to DNA.
The area formerly only consisted of Punjab grocery and Punjab restaurant, “If you spotted a brown person you would rush to them,” he recalls.
Like Aziz, many of the residents of Little Pakistan came to the USA in the 70s, 80s, and 90s but are still welcoming fresh immigrants to the area. “Any Pakistani who comes to the USA for the first time can come directly to Little Pakistan. We give them shelter, jobs, and food. We never say no,” stresses Kanez Fatima, an immigrant who came to the States in 1989.
The locals are now breeding their second generation in the area, some even their third. They came to the USA for a better lifestyle and have been working hard for their American dreams, but their journey was not hassle-free and they still struggle in maintain the reputation of their parent country.
Having faced the consequences of 9/11, things have changed for them.
“Before 9/11 there wasn’t any difference between South Asians, no one cared who was who,” says Waheed Khan, owner of Papa’s Halal fried chicken, one of the first Halal fast food restaurants in Brooklyn.
Another resident who didn’t want to be named says he is constantly monitored by the authorities because he chooses to dress Islamically and supports a beard.
Others differ from the opinion and think that it all depends on how one carries themselves in the society. “I came here when I was 17, I didn’t even know how to read the Quran. I got married here, had children and learned the language of Allah in this country,” says Kanez Fatima. She thinks that the country lets everyone practice their faith. “We just shouldn’t give them a chance to point us out.”
Culture and patriotism
Apart from the religious and racist crisis, the main reason a community of this nature is formed was to keep one’s culture and patriotism alive. Are they able to keep themselves and their offspring’s connected to their former lifestyle? These immigrants make it look quite easy.
Nasir Uddin, owner of Pakiza Restaurant believes that they are still patriotic or Pakistani because they live in a community system, “If I wasn’t living here, I wouldn’t have transformed and could have been more Americanised.” He also thinks that New York is the best place for desi’s “The Desi community is very strong here; you don’t feel you are outside South Asia, in other states the community system isn’t as good.”
They assert a zealous celebration of every Pakistani and American national holiday and events such as Chand Raats, and Bazars.
Bazah Roohi is to be given credit for such events in the community. “When I used to ask kids what they did on Chaand Raat or on Eid, they would say we slept through it”. She recalls her celebrations being very colourful back in Lahore and wanted the same for the kids of Little Pakistan.
Owner of the taxation firm, Bibi Jan, Bazah Roohi came to pursue her masters in Taxation to the USA in 1998. She is the founder of the non-profit American Council of Minority Women and has been awarded for being an Extraordinary Women by the Brooklyn Mayor in 2010. Under her non-profit, she caters to human right issues and keeping traditions alive.
“When I started the Chand Raat bazaar it wasn’t easy. The government gave me permission but some community members weren’t welcoming it. Patriarchy persists everywhere I think,” Bazah shares. “I think we can never change who we are. You will always see me and many women in the area in Shalwar Kameez at events and normally also.” The community believes that the patriotism the children have differs from what the older generation felt, the reason such events are important to never let that spark die.
Another way the community teaches its offspring is by constantly visiting Pakistan. Aziz Ullah Khan, his wife, and four kids visit Pakistan every year, he thinks it is the perfect way to keep them close to their culture and grateful for what they have. “I try to show my kids that the facilities they get here aren’t the same in Pakistan”. His kids visit his village and live with their extended families, “I want to show them the extremes of this world, this is a 200-year-old country and then we have Pakistan a 70-year-old.”
For them, every trip is a learning experience, but this too is a luxury, not every immigrant can afford. “It is a financial strain. I am lucky, many aren’t,” as Aziz puts it.
Because many of the immigrants haven’t visited Pakistan for years, some even decades, they rely solely on the word of mouth and news channels for their information.
“My only issue with Pakistan is that it isn’t going forward, as we see the world progress I don’t see Pakistan progress,” says another resident.
Nasir Uddin visits Pakistan twice a year and blames the media for Pakistan’s bad image abroad. “People who haven’t visited Pakistan believe what’s in the news. The media plays a huge role in ruining Pakistan’s image.”
The locality might also have a solution for this. Kawish, a local channel started by Arshad Awan in 2010 aims to mould Pakistan’s image for the Desi community of New York, “The channel is basically for the South Asian community. My aim was to promote our society. To motivate our young and show them that they matter,” Arshad Awan explains. His team consists of Pakistanis and Indians. “I think Pakistani media has a lot of responsibilities which it is not truly fulfilling. Kawish trying to counter that here,” he adds.
Moving back to Pakistan
The immigrants of Little Pakistan truly believe in the American dream and many seem to have achieved that. They have given the USA a lifetime and now think they have made it, established their business and themselves; going back to Pakistan, may not be an option.
“I wouldn’t want to move anywhere after setting up my business. I would have to start from zero and that’s painful.” Arshad Awan
Bazah Roohi recounts how hard it was to set up her business in NYC as a young girl. “I faced hurdles from my own people. The old desi men in this business would bad mouth me in the market saying that she is young, only 22 at the time, and won’t be able to handle her own business”.
She claims that Pakistan as an investment may not be the best idea. “I would be the first on a flight back to Pakistan as soon as I know I am safe there. I want equal opportunities and be able to establish my business without any big connections or references,” Bazah Roohi clearly states.
On the other hand, the immigrants claim that even if they don’t live in Pakistan anymore their heart belongs there. “I run a number of campaigns for the poor back in Pakistan, actually, we all living here do so. We keep sending money for help, it is not easy but we all do it,” Bazah Roohi says while speaking for the community.
Aziz recalls Pakistan as he had left it many years ago. “We would go to receive my brother at the Swat airport by the river bed. It was a sight to behold,” unfortunately the airport doesn’t exist anymore.
For the majority in Little Pakistan, the solution to all issues in Pakistan is real democracy. “We need pure democracy. We have experimented a lot we need a proper system and we need it now,” they say.