New York Pakistanis Pray for New Start Seven Years after 9/11
New York: Pakistani-born builder Abdul Sageer is about to complete New York’s newest mosque, seven years after the 9/11 attacks, and wonders who would reconstruct his immigrant community.
“Yes, we’re putting up a building,” says Sageer, 60, adding, “but that won’t help return things to the way they were.” Maybe nothing will. The backlash in the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks hit hard in what New Yorkers call Little Pakistan, running along Brooklyn’s scrappy Coney Island Avenue.
FBI raids, special registration requirements from 2002 for immigrants from a list of mostly Muslim countries, and then a wave of street-level abuse, triggered an exodus. And when thousands departed - many residing illegally, some legally - they took with them the community’s self-confidence. “This was a great place for us, but when the mistrust began, people did not want to take chances. They packed up and left,” said Sageer, his eyes twinkling. “I don’t think they’ll ever come back,” he said.
New York State has almost 45,000 Pakistani-Americans, according to the Census Bureau, but the real number could be five times greater, say community leaders. Estimates for how many have left since late 2001 vary - from thousands to tens of thousands.
’Little Pakistan’ still has the feel of a classic New York enclave. Signs written in Urdu are as common as in English, women wear headscarves, and the shops sport evocative names like Punjab Pharmacy, Bismillah Food and Pakiza Halal Meats.
At the site of the future mosque, Sageer’s construction crew, equipped with a yellow digger, is working hard. But the activity masks a realization that the good days are gone and the bitter feeling of being made to pay endlessly for the crimes of September 11, remains.
Many storefronts are boarded up or marked ‘For Rent’ and in what was once an almost exclusively Asian stronghold, visible inroads are being made by new arrivals - Russians spreading from Brighton Beach.
Sayyed Shah, waiting for customers at his legal services business, sighed hopelessly. “Look at all the free parking spaces,” he said, gesturing at the empty sidewalk outside his silent office, adding, “This place used to be jammed. People double-parked. It was crowded.”
Shah, 36, said he arrived in New York a decade ago from Islamabad. Since 9/11, he hasn’t felt completely at home. “Pakistanis were so comfortable here before 9/11. Then they got this bad name - they were portrayed as endorsing all the bad stuff,” said Shah.
“People moved out because they were scared. They hadn’t done anything wrong and some even had their immigration papers in order, but they knew they could be accused anyway,” he said.
That sense of being made scapegoats for the 2001 atrocities - even for today’s US difficulties in taming the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan - afflicts Muslims of all stripes, say community activists.
A Muslim group has launched a publicity campaign Monday challenging commuters on the New York subway to think beyond stereotypes of extremism.
The advertisements will “encourage people to think for themselves,” says Azeem Khan at the Islamic Circle of North America, adding, “but it’s an uphill battle because people eat up that stuff about extremism.”
Mohammad Razvi, founder of a grassroots community organization in Little Pakistan, said locals now go out of their way to prove their patriotism. And Razvi, whose non-profit Council of Peoples Organization gives immigrants language and legal help, said he was fighting to bridge the post-9/11 gap.