Find and follow us
Get our most popular stories once a week!
For the Muslim youth of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a South Asian community organization nestled on the fourth floor of a building above two glittering sari shops and an Islamic book store in Jackson Heights, Queens, these six years since 9/11 easily constitute a third of their lives. They were school kids of 10 or 12 years of age when the planes hit the towers, instantly changing what it means to be Muslim and an immigrant in this country. Now, entering college and starting their adult lives, they share one common goal in coming to DRUM, regardless of their background or immigration status -- exercising citizenship through political engagement.
Asking questions, getting answers
Romy Chowdhury was born in Bangladesh and has been living in New York for seven years. He has been a member of DRUM for a year. He just started college this fall at Hunter College and hopes to pursue a career in medicine. Before coming to DRUM, he said, "I didn't care about anything. I took things for granted." He heard about Youth Program through his brother, and it was an appealing option because it beat "sitting at home." The two-week internship curriculum is designed to acquaint youth with topics such as their rights as immigrants, media advocacy skills and current events in South Asia and the Middle East, and for Chowdhury it was an introduction to the plight of his community.
"All of a sudden, my mind opened up a lot more. I could see how other people were being treated badly. I felt responsible to do something about it if I could," Chowdhury said. In particular, Chowdhury, who became an American citizen earlier this year, realized the everyday challenges facing fellow DRUM members who lacked status or had family members in precarious immigration positions.
Then, he began to see how some of the changes that were taking place at school were connected to the policies he was learning about through DRUM. For example, Chowdhury became concerned about the atmosphere of fear that was introduced with scanners and metal detectors, the type used at airports, which security guards would use on the students before permitting them to enter the building.
"At first I was scared. What is this, is this a high school? What's the point of all this security?" he asked. He said he became convinced that the security measures were designed to create a culture of fear rather than to deter any real crime. Chowdhury's experience in the New York City school system is typical for DRUM youth.
Another DRUM youth member, Shazia, said that "terrorism drills" had been commonplace at her high school. These drills took place two or three times a month. When she asked her principal what the purpose was of so many drills, she said she was told, "To protect students from terrorists."
In fact, so many youth brought complaints forth to DRUM staff that the organization collaborated with the Urban Justice Center to put out a report in June 2006, called "Education Not Deportation," (PDF) and the campaign is still one of Youth Power's main initiatives.
For many DRUM members, 9/11 marks that shift in history when America steered its course in immigration policy. In the nascent world of U.S.-based South Asian organizations, DRUM is among one of the best-known in New York City. Started just a few months before 9/11 by Monami Maulik, a Cornell graduate, its initial aim was to address problems facing lower income South Asian workers in New York City. However, DRUM couldn't have come into existence at a more timely moment. A few months into its founding, DRUM was situated in the trenches of Bush administration's "war on terror," waged through the Immigration and Naturalization Services, now the Department of Homeland Security. "We just came up at a crazy moment in history really, beginning an organization from scratch under those conditions," Maulik said.
America's tough stance on immigration dates back even further to 1996, when then President Clinton signed into law Congress' Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act in response to the Oklahoma City bombings, which of course, as it turns out had nothing to do with immigration. However, this act has made deportation much easier and left immigrants in removal proceedings virtually no avenues to defend their cases.
According to a study (PDF) conducted by the Data Center in collaboration with the Asian and Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL), a youth organization based in Oakland, Calif., of the hundreds and thousands of deportation cases, an overwhelming majority of criminal removals are for "nonviolent crimes." The act also removed any opportunity for relief by showing good behavior or the need to support a family, and the report raised concerns that many deportees were leaving behind families who no longer had a means of support.
In addition, the other notable policy change instituted by Clinton was welfare reform, which included provisions for barring undocumented individuals from eligibility for most forms of government aid other than emergency Medicaid. The provisions also bar lawful permanent residents in their first five years in the country. In addition to exercising caution about their status, many DRUM youth also mentioned worrying about their families' access to medical care.
On the move
In the months following 9/11, DRUM acquired a burgeoning client base facing increasingly complex problems, including deportation proceedings, special registrations of males from predominantly Muslim countries in South Asia and the Middle East (with North Korea being the one striking exception), and detentions of members of the South Asian community. Some of DRUM's youth members are still at the receiving end of these policies.
For example, Samina*, who is 13 years old, came to the United States in 2001 from Pakistan. Shortly after 9/11, her family was among hundreds of others who fled to Canada hoping for better immigration prospects there. In 2004, as Samina's family waited for their case to be heard in Montreal, the United States and Canada signed a bilateral agreement that asylum seekers would have to apply for status in the first country they entered, whether that was the United States or Canada, regardless of their final destination. Accordingly, the two countries agreed to mutually deport individuals at the border who were in violation of this rule.
"It's pretty hard moving around all the time," Samina said. She recalled the long wait at the border in their car with all of their belongings, and the feeling of uncertainty that awaited them in New York. Samina is still waiting for a decision on her asylum application and the possibility that her family could be deported to Pakistan, even though she has spent half her life here.
Aaliyah* has lived in New York City for 15 years as an undocumented immigrant from Bangladesh. While the Department of Education's Chancellor's Regulation A-830 allowed her to receive an education in the public schools without any questions about her immigration status, the challenges have only just begun as she progresses in her education.
As an undocumented immigrant, Aaliyah was ineligible for financial aid programs, so she was forced to attend the only institution where she could afford to pay the tuition upfront, Baruch College. She recognizes the burden that the cost of her education puts on her family, which survives on her father's income as a fruit vendor.
"It hurts when you don't qualify for those things," she said.
Aaliyah's mother brought her to DRUM, and there, Aaliyah found an instant outlet to vocalize the issues she had been experiencing as an immigrant. Aaliyah said she feels very engaged in political discourse and hopes to attend law school one day, but she worries about that her job prospects will be no better at that point than they are now, without papers.
"I'm getting all the grades. What do I do at the end?" she asked. For Aaliyah, 9/11 marked the closest she ever got to obtaining status. Coincidentally, her father had been scheduled for a hearing that day on his pending asylum case. They arrived at the courthouse that day and found out about the attacks, and then dejectedly walked home to Brooklyn, Aaliyah recalls. His case was finally heard a few weeks later and denied. "I know that 9/11 had a big impact on my father's status," Aaliyah said.
Muslims as citizens
Shamima Rahman is 15 years old and in the 11th grade. She lives in the housing projects in Long Island City, where for a long time after 9/11, she feared for her safety as an easily identifiable Muslim on account of the black scarf she wears. She was born in the United States, and she also identifies as Bangladeshi/Bengali and Muslim. In addition, she is a spoken word poet.
"Personally, I may not be an immigrant, but I sympathize ... people wouldn't consider me American. I feel the way my parents raised me, I have a lot of traditional issues," she said.
One of the biggest obstacles to being Muslim in America for Shamima is that America seems to be at war with her faith.
"When they talk about this war -- it's America, you're fighting my country," she said. "This war is against Islam. It conflicts with who I am."
A recent report put out by the Pew Center for Research came up with the statistic that 60 percent of younger Muslim Americans think of themselves first as Muslims rather than primarily as Americans, compared to 41 percent of Muslim Americans, ages 30 and older.
Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of California at Irvine, states in her article "Youth Culture, Citizenship, Globalization: South Asian Muslim Youth in the United States after 9/11," "Cultural citizenship becomes an important construct to examine because legal citizenship is clearly no longer enough to guarantee protection under the law with the state's War on Terror, as is clear from the profiling, surveillance, and detention of Muslim Americans who are U.S. citizens.
"The perspective of Muslim youth is very much rooted in their identities as Muslims who are targeted as such by the state, and also sheds light on the links between U.S. policies at home and abroad," she writes.
Maira calls the "dissenting citizenship," where "expression of dissenting citizenship is based on a critique and affirmation of human rights that means they stand apart at some moments, even as they stand together with others outside the borders of the nation."
Sound the DRUM
One rainy late Friday afternoon, Youth Power hosted an open mic at the Queens Community Center. The event brought together youth from other organizations from the boroughs of New York City, including the Global Action Network, a media organization, Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAV) and the Asian American Legal Defense Education Fund, to name a few. Samina shared her personal story with the audience. Shazia performed a dance she had choreographed from a popular Bollywood film. Shamina read a spoken-word piece that she had written called "Irritated Fury," a piece that built rhythmically to a conclusion encouraging activism.
DRUM members in red T-shirts emblazoned with DRUM's logo, a proud and defiant fist up in the air, diligently handed out green cards that guests could fill and send to Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Hillary Clinton, urging them to pass a version of the DREAM act that would do more than offer immigrant youth their status for the price of being shipped to Iraq. If this is dissent, it is also the basis for citizenry.
*[Editor's Note: Names of some subjects have been changed to protect their safety.]
Beena Ahmad is a first year law student at CUNY School of Law and a contributing writer and member of the SAMAR Collective (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection). She can be contacted at beena DOT ahmad AT gmail DOT com.