Hidden behind the beauty of the area is a bit of sorrow. After the bombing of the world trade center on 9/11, the FBI swarmed the neighborhood, seeking to question natives of the neighborhood. The Department of Homeland Security had instituted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required male citizens age 16 and older from 25, mostly Muslim, countries in Africa and Asia to register with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Community members recall horror stories of homes being torn into, officers claiming to look for one person but apprehending several more. Fear flooded the streets, as immigrants were terrified by what the police, the very people meant to protect them in this new country, could do. Some store owners claim that business dropped as dramatically as by 50%. Several people had moved away, some to other parts of New York City, others to Canada, and others even returned to their homeland of Pakistan.
The registration system became outlawed in 2011.Even before that, however, the community had begun to bounce back from the horrors faced during this post 9/11 frenzy. And not all that came from this was tragedy. The local people’s advocacy group, Council of People’s Organization, COPO, developed as a way for the people to band together and withstand other forms of oppression. In more recent times, the neighborhood has again begun to grow. People who had fled away have begun to return. New businesses are popping up. Families are being raised and expanded. It is a multigenerational neighborhood for sure. And even with a new president posing threats to immigrants from Muslim countries, this little neighborhood is stronger than before and prepared to continue growing, no matter what oppression or other obstacles may face them.
During our time visiting Little Pakistan, we stopped in at various small local businesses and did our best to open dialogue with the owners and customers to get a greater sense of the area. In one encounter, we spoke with a small grocery store owner, who requested not to be named or recorded. He had moved to the neighborhood about six months prior from Atlanta, Georgia. He cited no particular reasons for his move, other than to be near family he had in the area. In regards to the community feel and culture of the area, he said the transition was very smooth from the Pakistani enclave he left behind in Georgia, where he had lived for seven years. He was also pleased that his store found such a large clientele of Pakistani families. In the back of his store, we also spoke to the butcher and a customer at the Halal meat counter. He also asked not to be recorded, citing poor English as the reason, but we found him to be in fact quite fluent. He also told us he was new to the area. Both men had a lot of questions regarding the nature of our assignments and questions, and seemed a bit uneasy about answering questions. It seems as though the recent political climate has influenced the neighborhood and put everyone a bit on edge around being questioned, though understandably so.
Excerpt from interview with restaurant employees (Syed Afaq Bukhari and Syed Tauseef Bukhari), Hadi Halal Restaurant, 683 Coney Island Avenue
It was also during our Monday visit to the area that we had an opportunity to sit down with Syed Afaq Bukhari and Syed Tauseef Bukhari, an employee at the Hadi Halal Restaurant and his cousin, and have a more in-depth discussion about their journeys to New York and Little Pakistan in particular. Syed Afaq detailed to us a story about his grandfather’s wish for all of his children and family to come to the United States in search of economic opportunity, education, and better lives. It was at that time, about five years prior to our interview, that he came with his immediate family directly to Little Pakistan, where he worked for a few months before enrolling at Kingsborough Community College. We had a brief conversation about the college experience, and Syed Afaq said he was exceptionally grateful for the opportunity, and was thinking of pursuing a position in the New York Police Department. His cousin, Syed Tauseef, had moved only a year before our interview, part of a later group of his family to make the transition. While Syed Tauseef’s English skills were not quite up to par with Syed Afaq, he still spoke clearly and with conviction. He still works at the Hadi Halal Restaurant, and didn’t detail any particular plans to pursue an education in the immediate future.
An unexpected note from the two men was that their transition to living in Little Pakistan was almost seamless, except for a few aspects. They had already heard, spoken, and written some forms of English in Pakistan and even said that Coney Island Avenue was remarkably similar in physicality to their home neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan. Another unexpected response was the friendliness and hospitality of everyone at the Hadi Halal Restaurant. They were very patient with our questions, did not seek much further questioning after we requested an interview, and even brought us free bowls of two of their delicious signature dishes, Sweet Rice and Seviyaan (pictured above.) They even commented on how much they enjoyed people in New York being so friendly, if you can imagine that.
The impression we walked away with was one of surprise accompanied by hope and optimism. For these two Pakistani transplants directly from the country itself, the transition to the United States style of life did not seem too harrowing or violent. In fact, it seemed to be nearly seamless. With institutions like the Council of People’s Organization providing so many services to ease integration and help people start their new lives in New York, it seems as though there is still hope for peaceful acceptance of those with different customs and cultures from our own into our society, even with the disappointing direction of the new federal administration’s policies and the support they seemed to amass.