Fleeing America

Post–9-11, Thousands of New York's Pakistanis Leave the U.S. Under Pressure

Donald Rumsfeld will lay a wreath at Arlington Cemetery. Michael Bloomberg and George Pataki will join a ceremony at ground zero. Families for Peaceful Tomorrows—an anti-war group of relatives of victims of the 9-11 attacks—will lead a candlelight procession and silent vigil. In the Pakistani enclave of Midwood, Brooklyn, New Yorkers will also remember the gruesome day when three of their community members lost their lives at the World Trade Center. But for "Little Pakistan," where a hefty portion of the U.S.'s 500,000 immigrants from that country make their homes, the date also marks another, related tragedy: the beginning of their neighborhood's undoing. In two tumultuous years, the once thriving community has become a casualty of the "war on terror."

Since 9-11, according to the Pakistani embassy, the New York area Pakistani community has lost some 10,000 of its estimated 120,000 residents—many of them fleeing America in pursuit of liberty and opportunity elsewhere.

"This country betrayed us," says Syed, who, like most Midwood residents who spoke to the Voice, requested that his last name not be used. "Why did I leave my country, my relatives, my home?" he asks, leaning over the counter of a five-and-dime on the community's main thoroughfare, Coney Island Avenue, where he has been working for 18 years. "Because over there is no freedom, and over here is much more freedom. But not now. Over here is no more freedom." On the eve of the second anniversary of the WTC attacks, Midwood feels like a shtetl bracing for another imminent pogrom.

That empty feeling: eerily calm Coney Island Avenue in Midwood
photo: Shiho Fukada
That empty feeling: eerily calm Coney Island Avenue in Midwood

In a bizarre inversion of the story America likes to tell itself about its splendor as a nation of immigrants, thousands of Pakistanis living in the United States have joined in a mass exodus of business owners, day laborers, students, cabbies, bricklayers, housewives, hairdressers, and peddlers. Historically, notes Nancy Foner, author of From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration, sizable portions of migrants to the U.S. have spent some time working here and then left, having intended all along to return home with their earnings. But the current flight of Pakistanis marks the first time in at least 100 years, she says, when "a group actually feels forced into the decision to leave. It's very alarming."

And those are just the voluntary, though reluctant, departures. Since September 2001, the government has removed five chartered jets' worth of Pakistanis from the U.S. and has sent many more away on commercial flights. And now, this month, immigration hearings are beginning for men who answered last winter's call that they present themselves for interviews, photographs, and fingerprinting as part of the government's "special registration" program. These hearings are likely to result in more forcible deportations, shrinking even further the population of Muslims in Midwood.

Some, who had spent years building businesses only to see them falter as customers vanished into detention or deportation—or just plain feared to venture out of their homes—figured that America was no longer a place where entrepreneurial drive and hard work were enough to make a go of it. They left goods on the shelves, middle-class homes, friends, relatives, and even U.S.-citizen children behind, and they purchased one-way tickets to Lahore or Karachi.

Others, terrified that returning to Pakistan would drop them in the middle of sectarian violence or into the hands of a government they had been punished for opposing—or maybe just into an impossible economy with no chance of eking out a living—headed for Canada, saying they were fleeing persecution in Pakistan and America. Like the family of a 25-year-old security guard named Raza, more than 2,200 Pakistanis residing in the U.S. have sought refuge in Canada between January 1 and March 31 of this year; the vast majority are from the New York area. (Whether Canada will grant them refugee status remains to be seen in most cases; the processing can take as much as a year. But in the meantime, at least—unlike in the U.S.—applicants are authorized to work.)

The dwindling of the local population was evident at the annual Pakistan Independence Day parade down Madison Avenue on August 24. In less anxious times, some 80,000 people turned out for the festivities; this year, says Ghulam Chaudhry, one of the event's organizers, 35,000 would be an optimistic count. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, leaders of the community recently reported, the area's Pakistani population has dropped from a vibrant 2,000 to a weary and wary 1,000. But nowhere is the devastation greater than in Midwood.

Midwood was an obvious target for post-9-11 sweeps, says longtime community advocate Asghar Choudhri. "When a person goes fishing, he wants to go where there are a lot of fish," he explains, noting that in a concentrated immigrant neighborhood like theirs, casting a net wide will easily catch people with expired visas, even if it doesn't trap any terrorists. No surprise, then, that despite Pakistan's official cooperation with the U.S., migrants from that nation made up about a third of the 762 immigrants the U.S. rounded up and held after the attacks—and two-thirds of those were from the New York area. Fear gripped Little Pakistan as FBI and INS agents pounded on doors in the middle of the night and hauled hundreds of people away. Choudhri remembers running errands for his neighbors who, knowing he's a U.S. citizen, figured it would be safer to ask him to pick up their groceries than to venture to the corner themselves. Popular restaurants sat empty.

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