New York's 'Little Pakistan' rises from the ashes of 9/11
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Following the 9/11 attacks of 2001, renewed fears of terrorism turned the New York community of Little Pakistan into a ghost town. But 10 years later, this Brooklyn neighbourhood has learned some important lessons in community activism.
The halal pizza and fried chicken takeout on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn bumps up against a Pakistani grocery store and a money-transfer bureau bearing US and Pakistani flags.
In Little Pakistan, a New York neighbourhood where the store signs are in English and Urdu, the rich smell of freshly fried samsosas entices mothers in hijabs walking their children home from school.
On the corner of Coney Island and Foster avenues, a cheerful, matronly woman roasting corn on a charcoal spit provides a lively commentary on the neighborhood. “This is Little Pakistan, it's going well here,” Kaneez Fatima says, in her native Urdu. “This is my home. I'm the queen of this place,” she adds with a throaty laugh. Around her, a clutch of clients chomping her roasted corn sportingly agree.
Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, commerce is brisk – or as brisk as one could hope for during an economic crisis – along this stretch of Coney Island Avenue.
The area has come a long way since the dark days following the biggest terrorist attacks on US soil. As law enforcement officials began patrolling here and detaining hundreds of Pakistani immigrants – often for minor infractions – in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a climate of fear gripped the community. Numerous wives, mothers and sisters, some of them non-English speakers, had no idea back then where their menfolk were being held.
In the following months, once-thriving stores permanently closed their shutters as thousands of Pakistani immigrants packed up and left, often either for Canada or Pakistan. By May 2003, about 15,000 of the once 120,000-strong community had left, according to Pakistani government estimates.
But things are a lot better now, according to Hasan Raza, program director of the Council of Peoples Organisation (COPO), a local community service group. “There is a revival here, I can see it,” says Raza. “In 2002, Coney Island Avenue was like a ghost town, people were disappearing, businesses were closing. Now we see businesses opening – although there is an overall economic crisis.”
Local leaders turn community ambassadors
Of the estimated 700,000 Pakistani-Americans, roughly two-thirds live in the New York area. Over the past decade, Little Pakistan has periodically turned into a focal point for journalists who swoop down on the area to take the community's temperature with every new black mark on Pakistan's terrorism track record.
And there have been many black marks. In May 2010, a newly nationalised US citizen of Pakistani origin attempted to detonate an explosive device in a car on Times Square. When he was arrested, Faisal Shahzad admitted to receiving bomb-making training in Pakistan’s Waziristan province.
A year later, US Navy SEALS and CIA operatives found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a house in Abbottabad, not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, renewing US suspicions that Pakistan's military establishment is protecting Islamist militants.
With every crisis in US-Pakistani relations, community leaders in Little Pakistan spring into action, taking to the airwaves to reiterate the community's rejection of violence and their history of being patriotic, law-abiding US citizens.
The effectiveness of the community's response is a product of the lessons learned right after 9/11, when the largely disorganised immigrant group scrambled to meet the needs of its community.
COPO, for instance, was founded by a local businessman who turned his fabric store into a temporary community service centre, believing that once the neighbourhood's immediate problems were resolved, he would close down the organisation and get back to business.
Engaging with America
Nearly a decade later, COPO not only survives but has vastly expanded its operations, conducting English-language classes, youth programs and forums where law enforcement officials meet with community members in order to discuss each other's concerns.
Caught unprepared shortly after 9/11, the community is now keenly aware of the importance of empowering its members to engage actively with officials in their new home, rather than fearing and fleeing them.
That, says COPO programme manager Hasiba Rashid, has been the silver lining of the dark cloud of 9/11. “It is a positive spin. Unfortunately it took such a tragic event for people to be educated, to be made aware,” Rashid said. “But we have learned our lessons. Now, we want to be fully engaged with our country, with America.”