Fleeing America


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.

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.

Then came special registration. Men with expired visas or those working without authorization had to choose whether to present themselves to authorities and face likely detention and deportation, or break one more immigration law by going further underground. Or, like Raza’s 18-year-old brother and parents, leave the country. Community groups that had sprung up after 9-11 to assist detainees began to organize free legal clinics on registration requirements. In its storefront office on Coney Island Avenue, for instance, the Council of Pakistani Organizations (COPO) handled hundreds of such cases. Harder than drumming up pro bono attorneys to assist, admits director Mohammad Razvi, was knowing what to say when people asked him what they should do. “We explained the law,” he says.

Many of those taking a chance in Canada are breaking their families apart. Raza was married on August 31 and had to implore distant relatives to offer the parental blessings that are part of the traditional ceremony. Missing his mother and father on this momentous day wasn’t something he’d thought about back in February when he drove the family up to Buffalo so they could cross the border into Canada and ask for political asylum as Shiites fearing religious persecution in their homeland. “I feel so bad,” he says. “But they didn’t have any choice.” They had wanted to spare Raza’s younger brother from special registration because they worried that he would be deported to Pakistan. Unlike Raza, who holds a green card, his brother and parents have no valid U.S. documents.

Raza and his family had good reason to worry. Those men who did register and were found to have overstayed their visas or to be otherwise out of status were given “notices to appear” (NTAs)—dates when they would have to attend hearings before an immigration judge. Most will be sent away—even some with good arguments for staying. Ahmed, a 48-year-old grocery store worker, for instance, was sponsored by his employer for a green card more than two years ago. But sluggishness at the U.S. Labor Department, which must first issue work certification, has delayed the application. As a result, Ahmed was still officially undocumented when he showed up for special registration. Now, if his papers don’t come through within a month or so, Ahmed may find himself on a plane to Islamabad for no reason other than bureaucratic lassitude.

As the NTA dates draw near for dozens of Midwood residents, a new wave of anxiety has clutched the community again.

A first-time visitor to the enclave might not notice anything amiss. A handful of stores amid the travel agents, kebab houses, and calling centers along Coney Island Avenue are shut up, but many more are open, and there appears to be plenty of activity: A man wearing traditional shalwar kameez holds forth with a man in an Iverson jersey, shouting over the Pakistani music video blaring out of a buffet restaurant; two women on a stoop argue in Punjabi about which of them spilled garbage in front of the building where they both live; toddlers and teens play on the sidewalks, squealing away the last days of summer. But anyone who lives there will tell you that it used to be so crowded on a late-summer evening that you had to weave like a running back to get down the street. On Fridays, worshipers at Makki mosque used to put prayer rugs down on Coney Island Avenue’s sidewalk because there was no more room inside; nowadays the mosque is barely half full.

And business is on a relentless decline. Cumin seeds and ground coriander have not been moving at all at New Apna Bazaar, whose awning promises “Pako-Hind” provisions as well as Russian and kosher goods. (Midwood drew Pakistanis when they surged into New York in the early 1980s—pushed by martial law and pulled by U.S. immigration policies favorable to South Asian engineers and technicians—because the surrounding Jewish community had plenty of kosher butchers that could serve Muslims observing halal laws.) “We hardly survive here,” says Apna’s owner, Mohammad Iqbal, noting that business fell about 15 percent after 9-11 and then plummeted 40 percent more after the special-registration requirements were announced. Those selling less essential goods have fared even worse. Mahmoud, the owner of Rani Fabrics—one of many such shops that were for years a major draw for South Asians from all over the metropolitan area—has seen a 60 percent drop in sales. As for the once trendy gold jewelry stores on the avenue, several have closed. Those that remain have lost as much as 90 percent of their trade. At Pak Jewelers one day last week, the owner’s teenage daughter Farrah Alizai, filling in for a laid-off clerk, didn’t see her first customer until 6:30 pm.

Beyond the fear and declining population, those who remain in the area have less money to spend. When an undocumented owner of a thriving, 10-year-old Midwood construction business was deported earlier this year (despite a pending sponsor application and an appeal for asylum), 25 local workers were suddenly out of jobs. Such events, repeated on various scales, have affected the local economy all along the food chain. In the face of declining demand, Iqbal no longer keeps his grocery open 24 hours, so his three employees have seen their hours, and thus their incomes, cut.

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.

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.”