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'The need of immigrants is a human rights issue'

February 16, 2010 21:53 IST
When you are standing under the shower, you are also involving yourself in politics, declared Ravi Bhalla, a Hoboken, New Jersey councilor. The amount of taxes you pay for the utilities like water as well as the quality of the water are determined by political operators.
 
Bhalla was addressing a conference, titled 'Empowering South Asians in New Jersey', and stressing the need to be engaged with political and community organistions at all levels.
 
The two-day conference, attended by 100 people representing the local South Asian community, advocates, and service providers, was held at Montclair State University. It was the first regional conference organised by South Asian Americans Leading Together in partnership with 12 local organisations.
 
"But the conference is by no means of interest only to New Jersey residents," said Priya Murthy, a policy director of the Baltimore-based SAALT. "We are seeking to empower one of the largest concentrations of South Asians in America, but what we do here is of inspiration to communities across the country."
 
The conference -- attended by activists in the 20s to people in the 70s like Govinda Rajan, who runs an organisation to help the Indian elderly -- heard about the opportunities for the young and the old to be engaged and let their voices be heard by the government and social service agencies. Participants were urged to covey the seriousness of the forthcoming census and the need to be counted.
 
Shamita Das Dasupta, one of the most effective community organisers and a co-founder of the empowering group for South Asian women called Manavi, bemoaned that the temples were not backing women's causes. But Anju Bhargava, a member of President's Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, said some temples have changed their attitude towards social problems in recent years and have become very proactive.
 
She also said that in offering month-long sewa along with hundreds of faith-based groups that were responding to President Barack Obama's call for national service, the Hindu temples had demonstrated that they could work for greater American community. And their charity drive also involved people of other faiths from South Asia. Professor Balmurli Natrajan, an anthropology professor and campus activist, joined a discussion on where the local South Asian communities are headed in dealing with gender disparity, campus activism, and civic engagement.
 
SAALT Executive Director Deepa Iyer said the conference provided a platform for local community organisations, service providers, and activists to connect and engage about ways to better collaborate on addressing key issues impacting the community.
 
Panels ranged from immigration reform to emerging needs affecting the elderly community, to the census. At the ChangeMakers Awards Reception, Govinda Rajan and Sheheryar Sardar of the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals were honored for working towards improving the conditions of the South Asian and immigrant communities in New Jersey.
 
The organisations that participated in the events included the American Friends Service Committee, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals, the Hindu American Seva Charities, Manavi, the Network of Indian Professionals, the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, the Sikh Coalition, the University of Pennsylvania's South Asia Center, the South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey, SATHI, and the United Sikhs.
Iyer said in a post-conference interview that SAALT wants to continue organising similar empowering events across the country.
 
"We are very keen on helping local organisations be heard loud at policy making events," she said. "We have been hearing often from lawmakers and mainstream community organizations that they did not know that our communities faced specific problems. They tell us often, 'We don't hear from your community'."
 
While some of the offices had taken great measures to address issues affecting immigrant communities in New Jersey, she continued, this was a first time for many local leaders to meet with their South Asian constituents.
 
Knowing who your representative is, writing to the local, state or national representative a letter about an issue, she said, helps change the perception that either South Asians are apathetic or have no problems. Attending the town hall meetings are also of importance, she stressed.
 
SAALT recently received request from a student at Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson in New York state, who said there were dozens of Bangladeshis in her town but they had no organisation, no leader and no means to fight discrimination and the lack of opportunities for advancement.
 
"We will soon conduct a leadership and civic engagement workshop there," Iyer said. SAALT also urges South Asians in other parts of America where the families in a city or region are few and far flung to work with organisations led by African Americans and Latinos, she continued.
 
"There are many issues we face that they face too," she explained. "We learn not only from them but we can also give back to these organisations and also serve as bridge builders."
 
"People with the busiest of careers still make time to be advocates," she said. "It is not going to be easy but it is not as difficult as one might think. A person who has become an accountant, for instance, can spend a few hours a week helping an advocacy group maintain its books. A person who has a degree in psychology, for instance, can help women or men facing problems. There is need for voluntary work from such people at organisations that are dealing with the problems the elderly immigrants face in our communities."
 
One of the most important message SAALT carries to similar-minded organisations across the country is that advocacy work continues regardless of leadership change in a state or a district.
 
"The need of immigrants is not a political issue, remember that," Iyer said. "It is a human issue; it is a human rights issue." 
Arthur J Pais