Fleeing America

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

But it's in the less visible, private realm where the desolation runs deepest: Within traditional families, breadwinners are gone. Men who gave up on, ran from, or have been kicked out by America typically bring their wives and children with, or after, them. (One grammar school in the neighborhood saw some 50 Pakistani children disappear early in the winter semester as they joined their fathers in flight from special registration.) But families who have had to stay behind have little systematic support, despite the charitable efforts of small local organizations. COPO is trying to help such families apply for food stamps and other benefits to which at least their U.S.-citizen children are entitled, but, says director Razvi, many are afraid to engage any official state agencies for fear of being turned over to immigration authorities.

Rukhsana Saeed, for one, has been struggling to get by with her three children—13, 12, and 1 1/2—since March 2002, when her husband was nabbed for visa violations in a late-night raid just days after she'd given birth to their youngest child. With support from the Coney Island Avenue Project (CIAP), a local activist group, and from some larger agencies, she managed to cover the $700 monthly rent for her one-bedroom Midwood apartment for a while—but not for long enough to avoid the eviction notice she was served recently. Through an interpreter, she expresses her anxiety and despair as her baby sleeps, curled in her lap. Because of the violence in Pakistan, she says, joining her deported husband is not an option. But in Midwood, she feels isolated and ashamed: Her neighbors have shunned her, fearing both that authorities might regard them as suspicious if they are seen with the wife of a deportee, and more so, perhaps, that Saeed might ask them for assistance they can't afford to give.

Community groups—from grassroots types like COPO and CIAP to old-political ward-style organizations like Asghar Choudhri's Pakistani American Federation of N.Y. Inc.—are assisting people as best they can, albeit with little coordination among them. Still, they're all the immigrants have got. Even the most localized parts of city government appear clueless that there's a crisis in Little Pakistan. "These are uncertain times for everyone," says Terry Rodie, district manager of Community Board 14, dismissing the notion that Pakistani businesses are suffering more than anyone else's. The area's City Council representative, Simcha Felder, did not reply to questions about what could be done for the neighborhood. Borough President Marty Markowitz offered a statement through a press aide asserting that he is "troubled by what is occurring, since the Pakistani community has played such an important role in making Brooklyn what it is today." When asked what the borough office was specifically doing to support Little Pakistan, the aide mentioned Markowitz's appearance at the Pakistani Independence Day festival on Coney Island Avenue last month.

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

Raza, the newlywed whose folks are in Toronto, didn't bother attending the festival himself. He's trying to work extra hours at his job because he's been sending a couple hundred dollars to his parents every month. And besides, he feels nervous about being out too much. "I do have a green card," he says, not to mention, as of two weeks ago, an American-citizen wife. Nonetheless, he adds, "You have to be careful. Over here, anything can happen."

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