NEW YORK: Little Pakistan, a small stretch of land on the Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn remains true to its name. Clinics are marked with Urdu signs that tell prospective patients that there is a separate “ladies’ doctor” and a “children’s doctor”. Down the street, Makki Grocery is apparently making a killing selling imported Pakistani mangoes.
It is a quiet, lazy afternoon and on the surface, there are no signs of the toll that the events of 9/11 took on this place.
The stories of Little Pakistan are documented in the files that Mohammad Razvi keeps in his office. He has lived in this area for the last 20 years.
One of Razvi’s files details incidents of racism and discrimination reported by Pakistanis in the last decade. In one episode, a victim of racial slurs was barely a teenager. Another file holds visiting cards of numerous Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, which were allegedly dropped in various houses of Pakistani residents after 9/11, in the FBI’s house calls to members of the community.
FBI visits, deportations
“9/11 made life difficult for Muslims and for Pakistanis, but the special registration made life extremely hard,” recalls Razvi. Post 9/11, the US government implemented the INS Special Registration program which required men from 24 Muslim countries including Pakistan to register with the authorities. The Department of Homeland Security officially closed down the program this year.
“People were very worried,” Razvi said, “They were being picked up; federal agents were coming to their house and arresting them. They were scared that they were going to be picked up without any reason.”
In August this year, the Associated Press reported that after 9/11, the New York Police Department had worked with the CIA to create a surveillance unit that was spying on Muslim neighborhoods and “dispatched undercover officers to monitor Muslim businesses and social groups.” Razvi insists that no one who was arrested or deported from this area was involved in terrorism.
Abandoning the neighbourhood
He recounts the tale of the barber, who fled the country out of fear of the possible interrogation by the authorities – leaving behind his entire shop. “Even the scissors were left behind”. In another case, a man didn’t go home for four days after an FBI agent left a card at his door.
Many Pakistanis, he says, migrated to Canada and prospered.
Asghar Choudhri, originally from Lahore, has been living here for almost 30 years. Choudhri says that many illegal immigrants were deported. “When FBI and immigration authorities began conducting raids, they were arrested, put in detention camps, and deported. Their children would be crying … the FBI used to come early in the morning between 3 and 4 am and arrest them and take them away. People came here to end their poverty, and give their children a better life – they were not terrorists.”
September 11, 2001 had an economic impact, which hit the community hard. Some people, he says, could barely scrape together the rent, and earnings went down. As the clientele decreased in the area, many businesses collapsed, leading to a second wave of migration from the area.
Mohammad Razvi also corroborates the economic consequences. As we walk down Coney Island Avenue, Razvi points out the remnants of a once thriving business community. “Our businessmen closed their operations and left. According to our estimates, 30 shops were closed and 20,000 people left. The shops that were here have gone. There was a 99-cent store, an electronic goods store, there was a really nice restaurant, and that’s gone. In their place, you can see a hospital now.” Choudhri seems resigned to the events of the past decade. “Nevertheless, whatever has happened, has happened.”
But Razvi sounds a cautiously optimistic note. “We have established contacts at the Mayor’s office and with the police,” says Razvi. “If there is a problem with our community, we inform them, and they listen to us.”
Ten years later, Little Pakistan has other problems: many are concerned about the recession in the US economy. Some say that people are sending their families back to Pakistan, as they can no longer afford to keep them here. And despite it all, many continue to come to the United States to seek a better life.
However, a decade later, the elephant in the room remains the same: if an event like 9/11 happens again, how will the community suffer?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2011.