For his Hofstra University study abroad program, Gurkamal Dadra could have chosen one of the many typically sought-after destinations — bustling cities such as Paris, Madrid or Rome. Instead, he will spend a semester in the Central Asian country Kyrgyzstan.
An anthropology major, Dadra, 19, who graduated from John F. Kennedy High School, is interested in human connections, he said — how large decisions impact real people and create change. To understand those connections, Dadra believes people must immerse themselves in foreign cultures, which makes a visit to Kyrgyzstan perfect for his studies.
Sharryn Kasmir, chair of Hofstra’s anthropology program, said that Dadra’s research abroad, thanks in part to a congressionally funded scholarship, will focus on the practice of Islam in the former Soviet republic. She described him as an exceptional student. “He’s self-motivated and curious about the world,” Kasmir said.
Dadra, a sophomore, and his brother were the first in his family to attend college. His mother’s emigration from India fueled his desire to study and appreciate other cultures, he said. An internship working with several immigrants seeking citizenship or asylum in the United States built on that.
Dadra’s single mother, a Sikh Bellmore resident, raised him and his brother. He grew up surrounded by the Sikh religion, which has a multitude of practices and beliefs, he said. This helped form his appreciation for the complexity of certain cultures — and he often finds himself in St. John Lutheran Church in Bellmore, in Hindu Temples or in masjids for research, he said.
Before choosing to study anthropology, Dadra considered archaeology, a more fact-based look at history and cultures through physical artifacts. He turned to anthropology because of its emphasis on observing the human side of cultures — their practices, languages, family hierarchies and individual stories.
He hopes to spread that humanity-focused worldview to others, while keeping in mind the perspective of people behind politically divisive issues, such as immigration laws. His goal is to become a lawyer for immigrants or a diplomat, perhaps even an ambassador representing the country, he said.
“Most go into political science for a career like that,” Dadra said. “But they’re missing the human connection — they don’t look into the culture of it.”
“I want to learn about the people who are affected by [immigration] laws,” he added. “Laws are human creations — in the end, it comes down to differing views of humanity. It’s important to understand the human aspect.”
Dadra had firsthand experience with immigrants’ struggles as an intern in the New Sanctuary Coalition’s pro se clinic, which offers free guidance to anybody with immigrant detention-based cases. This includes help in completing immigration forms, obtaining work permits, seeking asylum and more.
“I saw terrible cases,” he said. “Cases of violence and heartbreak — beautiful people with horrific stories.” He described situations involving gang violence, sexual abuse and separated family members. Many neglected to report crimes to law enforcement out of fear of deportation.
“Some, even after 20 years, were still seeking citizenship,” Dadra said. The Coalition would, at times, hear from hundreds of these immigrants every week; most were of Central American origin.
He hopes to experience Kyrgyzstan’s culture up close, he said. The country is undergoing a shift from an older generation, holding on to Islamic traditions, to a newer, liberal one that is moving away from the past. Women now have a greater level of autonomy, and festivities that include alcohol are becoming accepted.
“I want to get rid of any bias I have, to think of their culture on their terms,” Dadra said.
Consideration of small-scale effects has the potential to change interactions on both individual and grand scales, he said. He believes countries should understand one another’s complexities — include those of the United States.
“I want to show a different side of America,” he said. “One that shows a hard-working immigrant family.”
Despite the need for change, however, Dadra sees hope. Many of New Sanctuary’s cases ended in success, with immigrants being released from detention centers or granted asylum. One mother, whose son was released from detention, cooked the staff a Mexican feast.
“It warmed my heart,” Dadra said. “That’s why I do it.”
The Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship, a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad, will fund his experience. Additional assistance will come from the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Transformative Learning Grant, which he received on Jan. 31.