From hate crimes to language barriers, South Asian community opens up about key issues at town hall


Valley Stream’s South Asian community — predominantly composed of residents from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — is alive and growing. The community’s dynamic cultural and culinary footprint is hidden in plain sight: Its South Asian restaurants, like King-kabab and Butt Karahi House, feature prominently along North Valley Stream’s busy food corridor. Its religious institutions like Masjid Hamza Islamic Center, have faithfully served their surrounding South Asian community for over 30 years.

And while the South Asian community is not monolithic, dozens of speakers of its various ethnic backgrounds from across Long Island stepped up to the microphone March 2 to talk about common aims and concerns shared among the minority community at the inaugural South Asian Advisory Group Town Hall in Elmont.

It was a night of promoting unity and tackling critical issues such as domestic violence, hate crimes, and minority discrimination. Attendees also learned about economic opportunities, as well as federal and local resources at their disposal.

Abdul Rahman, co-host of the town hall, founder of the Muslim Entrepreneur Association, and director of New York Grows Together, said the purpose of the town hall was to allow attendees to speak openly about matters they believe need to be addressed.

“These things we usually sweep under the rug,” Rahman said. “We don’t talk about domestic violence, we don’t talk about mental health issues — until it becomes a problem; that’s when we talk about it. But we have to talk about prevention.”

Preventing violence against South Asian Americans was a key concern raised by attendees and speakers alike, who pointed to a spate of robberies and attacks on Sikh residents in Richmond, Queens last May. They feared that these “targeted crimes” could spill over into Valley Stream and neighboring communities.

“To fight these targeted crimes, we need to build relationships with law enforcement and elected officials and be able to discuss our problems openly. And you know, bring it to the forefront,” said Abdul. “Until we discuss these things, we can’t find practical solutions.”

Sikh men are increasingly targeted because they are often mistaken as Muslim Americans, organizers said. Their turbans — which religiously symbolize spirituality and holiness and are also a sign of honor in the Punjabi culture — are often associated by people with terrorism and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to the Sikh Coalition.

Domestic violence is also prevalent in the South Asian community, and some women in the audience brought up the need for more culturally sensitive shelters in Nassau County.

Language barriers and a lack of awareness of the resources that are available create more challenges for South Asians, community members said. Particularly vulnerable are the elderly, women, and children in need, they said.

“We have to make sure that the government is working for you. There are so many resources available on the state, even on the federal and local level,” said Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a co-host of the event. “It’s important that we have forums such as this where we can talk it out.”

Members of the Indo-Caribbean community expressed feeling disregarded and isolated from others in the South Asian population. They have Indian ancestry but are from West Caribbean countries such as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, and Grenada.

Local Indo-Caribbean leaders said town halls such as the March 2 gathering create a sense of unity between people with similar struggles who are fighting for the same solutions. Some audience members expressed a strong interest in volunteering for local organizations or government initiatives.

Initiatives that Assemblywoman Solages and Legislator Carrié Solages are working on at the county and state levels include introducing halal food in school meal plans, making Eid al-Adha and Diwali official holidays, implementing a community center in the third legislative district, pushing for more multilingual translators in police departments, and expanding the number of beds in local shelters.

“There’s a power when we come together and just be there for each other,” said Japneet Singh, co-director of New York Grows Together.

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