Shattered community of Brooklyn, New York
On December 8, 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union released a new report - , "Worlds Apart: How Deporting Immigrants After September 11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities," - documenting the devastating effects that the Bush administration’s "anti-terrorism" policies have had on immigrant families and communities.
The report also enumerated impact of these policies on the Muslim communities in America. One neighborhood discussed in the report is "Little Pakistan" in Brooklyn, New York:
“Little Pakistan,” Brooklyn, New York Mehrban Khan leaned against an empty bar- ber chair and shook his head. “Oh my God, it’s too slow,” he said. “It’s 3:30 and I’ve earned forty dollars today.”
Khan, whose brush mustache is neatly trimmed, owns a barber shop on Coney Island Avenue. His daily take used to closer to be closer to 400 dollars, he said. The black leather bench that lines one side of his shop would always be full, and people would stand in the doorway next to it — he walks over to demonstrate — just to be inside. There used to be four barber chairs, he said, gesturing to the space where now there are only two, both empty. There were no piles of trimmed hair on the floor, no scent of shav-ing cream or hair tonic in the air.
Like many shopkeepers in the neighborhood, Khan is still suffering the effects of the September 11 attacks and the government’s special registration program, which caused thousands of people to leave the area of Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood known as Little Pakistan.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but community leaders estimate that before September 11, Brooklyn was home to at least 100,000 Pakistanis. By the time special registration ended in 2003, they say, as many as 45,000 had either been deported or left voluntarily. (Other counts are somewhat less dire, putting the exodus at between 15,000 and 20,000 people.) And Pakistanis from other neighborhoods quit coming, too, scared by stories of FBI agents and immigration officials wandering Coney Island Avenue, Little Pakistan’s main drag.
Bobby Khan (no relation to Mehrban) is executive director of the Coney Island Avenue Project, a group formed after the 9/11 attacks to help community members who had been detained. “It’s deserted now,” he said. “It was so crowded, a lot of restaurants, a lot of people on the street, a lot of families, kids.” People abandoned their apartments with the contents intact, he said. Some thought they would be coming back; others were too scared to take the time to move out.
According to a survey done by the Council of Pakistan Organizations, a local community group, more than 30 businesses have been forced to close down in the last three years. In some cases, their owners were part of the exodus; in others, there simply weren’t enough earnings to pay the rent. Store-owners who remained estimate that their business is down by 30 to 40 percent.
The first Pakistani immigrants began to settle around Coney Island Avenue in the 1980s. The community grew quickly. By the mid-1990s, community leaders were calling for bilingual Urdu teachers for the neighborhood public schools.
Like other immigrant neighborhoods, stores carry names brought from home, like the Urdu Bazzar and Punjab Sweets. Businesses cater to the residents’ needs: money transfers, calling cards, halal meat shops, Urdu-speaking doctors, immigration attorneys and translation services. A three-story green and white mosque takes up a large portion of one block. The neighborhood had what one resident described as “hustle bustle.” (Another called it congestion.)
Not any more. It started after the September 11 attacks. FBI agents were questioning Muslims. Many were detained. Some residents were attacked by people “seeking revenge.” Then, just as the neighborhood began getting back to business as usual, the government announced its special registration program, requiring immigrants from 25 Muslim countries, including Pakistan, to register. Many who complied were subsequently arrested on technical registration violations. Others, afraid of what might happen to their husbands, sons or brothers, fled — to Canada, Europe and even back to Pakistan. Today, there is an air of sleepiness about the neighborhood, even at midday. Restaurants are empty. There are empty parking spaces on both sides of the street.
The floors, walls and even ceilings of Future Fabrics are covered in bolts of fabric, salwar kameez, head scarves, and trims. Dressed in a black and tan patterned salwar kameez, dupatta draped across her front, Farooq Ahmed remembered what happened. “People were afraid to dress in our typical clothing,” she said, pulling at her own. “They started to dress like Americans. They stopped wearing head scarves.” There were weeks, she said, when the shop barely saw 25 or 50 dollars. She estimated that business was down 35 percent, and that’s an improvement from the months right after special registration started. “For the last couple of months, we’ve been paying the rent from our pockets,” she said. “We’re just barely making ends meet.” Across the street at Pak Jewelers, Naseem Khan stood over large cases filled with bright yellow gold jewelry — thin bangles, thick bracelets and dangly earrings with match-ing collar necklaces. “You see? There are no people,” he said, gesturing over the counters to the street. “I’m not making any money the last two years.”
Four of his family members used to work in the store. Now he only needs two, he said. He had to take his children out of private school because he couldn’t afford the tuition. And he already sold his other business a grocery store — because he had no customers. “I’m still waiting for the good times,” he said.
During a weekday lunch hour in the Bukhara Restaurant on the next block, Quisar Chaudhry looks at his empty restaurant. Business is down 50 percent. “If we didn’t have the mosque next door, we would be dead,” he said. “It’s very hard to survive.”
Even the mosque is far from the crowded meeting place it used to be. Asghar Choudhri is a member of the mosque’s board, and a neighborhood accountant sometimes referred to, because of his tire-less work in the community, as the mayor of Little Pakistan. “On Fridays, they used to have people on the sidewalk and in the street,” he said. “Now they can’t even fill it.” Sitting in his friend Mehrban Khan’s barber shop, Choudhri watched in amazement. “He was never standing like that — he was always busy.”