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Archive of Memory: Bangladeshi Seniors Document Their Stories in a Memoir Writing Workshop

By Ashwak Fardoush

Ashwak Fardoush is a writer, writing coach and teaching artist, who recently facilitated the Writing Workshop for older adults at India Home’s Desi Senior Center. 


The room buzzed with anticipation. The smell of cooked chickpeas and onion lentil fritters served to the guests still lingered in the air. Children’s cries rang out in the background. Amidst the noise, Salema Khatun took the stage. She recited her poem, “Shadhinota” (translated as “Independence”), alluding to the Liberation War of 1971 in Bangladesh. I felt proud as I watched her read her poem to the audience.

On the evening of May 19, 2017, we were at the Culminating Event for a Writing Workshop organized by India Home for its members at the Desi Senior Center. The event was also a Pre-Ramadan Celebration and a happy and proud occasion for our members. This was the open mic portion of the event

Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center

Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center

“I had put away my writing for twenty years. …. But I have written four poems in your class.”

Salema Khatun crafted that poem over the course of a few weeks. She had attended a writing workshop that I facilitated at the Desi Senior Center. Inspired by a prompt at a workshop session, she wrote a poem that she finished at home, writing a few lines at a time in between her household chores, showing me the progress along the way, and adding the final two lines because she wanted the poem to be a sonnet. Just the day before the event, Salema Khatun told me, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”

Seniors tell their stories through poems and memoir

Salema Khatun was one of the eight participants who were part of a bilingual memoir writing workshop* at the Desi Senior Center. This workshop was designed to help seniors tell their stories. This pilot program was a collaborative effort, making the phrase “it takes a village” truer than ever. The staff from India Home and the Desi Senior Center—especially Lakshman Kalasapudi, Nargis Ahmed and Meera Venugopal—worked tirelessly to make sure the seniors had a great writing experience.

As I heard Salema Khatun’s voice rise and fall, I remembered the first day of the writing workshop. It was a Thursday morning. I was setting up the classroom in one corner of the prayer room. Some were still praying on the other side of the room. I arranged the chairs in a circle and laid out the attendance sheet and the writing supplies on a chair. I had thought about the content and the structure of the workshop for the past two weeks. I even had a bare-boned lesson plan for the first session. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t plan out all the sessions. I was not teaching these participants. Instead, I was holding the space for the participants to tell their stories—stories that danced inside their bodies, that rested inside their eyes, that settled on their skin. I simply needed to let these stories surface on the page. While facilitating the workshop was not like any other teaching experience I had in the past—the participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali—the advice I gave myself remained the same: I must keep my heart open, stay present and be curious.

Writing prompts and stories that unfolded against the backdrop of history

Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017

Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017

There were eight participants who made up the core group: Md. Hoque, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Rafiqul Islam, Salema Khatun, Haque Mohammad, Quamrun Nahar, Md. Abu Sayeed, and Farida Talukdar. I did not know what to expect each session. By the second session, I stopped bringing a thorough plan. The participants were vivacious, creative, mischievous, intelligent, wise, and in awe of life. We would always begin with a writing prompt from my plan, but then the session would unfold in ways I could never predict. We would write spontaneously. Soon, I became adept at reading what the group wanted in that moment in order to serve them and their writing.
Each session the participants excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays. When I closed my eyes, I could see the writers leaning over their marble notebooks, and scribbling away. Sometimes we would travel to far-flung places or go deep within ourselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history.

At times, the participants tried to write out a decade of their life during a session. Sometimes, I would ask the participants to scrawl a word on an index card, fold it and put it inside a mason jar. Then, I would ask a participant to pick a word out of the jar randomly and the group would write about that word. The first word picked out of the jar was “baba” (translated as “father”). Writers wrote about their love stories, their childhood friendships, and their son’s letters back home.

Participants eager to share their writing 

Every session was memorable in some way. Once, I remembered seeing Md. Hoque writing in his notebook a few steps away from the class. Since the session was about to start, I gently asked him to come inside. He nodded, but his head was still buried in the notebook. A few minutes later, he entered the classroom and announced that he had just finished writing a poem. He not only addressed this poem to another participant, Md. Mokbul Hossain, but he also challenged his peer to respond back in the form of a poem. Md. Mukbul Hossain was deemed as the poet of the group. Even before the workshop, he had a moleskin notebook with poems written in his beautiful penmanship. He once showed me a poem he wrote in his notebook. The first line was a question a stranger posed him on his walk. He told me that he carried his notebook with him so that he could write down any detail, mundane or not, that can turn into a poem someday. Needless to say, Md. Mukbul Hossain managed to cobble together words to pen a poem to respond to Md. Hoque’s friendly challenge in class that day.

Md. Mokbul Hossain's Poem, "Potichhobi"

Md. Mokbul Hossain’s Poem, “Potichhobi”

Abu Sayeed was another participant in the workshop. He took two trains and a bus to travel from Brooklyn to the senior center in Queens. Before the first day of class, he told me of his interest in the writing workshop. He shared that his life was full of “korun” (tragic) stories and wondered if it was okay for him to write about those stories in the workshop. “Yes,” I said. “Life is full of joy and sorrow. Sounds like you have lived and have stories to tell! Please come and write with us.” So, he did. Md. Abu Sayeed would read his stories out loud in a voice that would tremble and crack at times. We would all listen, understanding the gravity of the moment and our role in it.

I was surprised by how eager everyone was to share their writing with each other. The ink would still be fresh on the page, our head would still reel from the memories we had dredged up on the page. Yet, the participants were ready to share their writing immediately. Quamrun Nahar read about scaling a tree as a child and falling down from it one day when she was stung by bees. She was carried to the kitchen where her grandmother rubbed garam masala paste all over her body. In a similar vein, Farida Talukdar often shared her anecdotes. We rarely made past the first writing prompt. The pieces people shared after the first prompt would inspire others to share their personal stories or debate passionately about a topic that surfaced in someone’s writing. We found ourselves discussing how in-laws’ relationship should be toward their children’s spouses, the struggles with upholding the Bengali language and culture in the United States, and the political climate in Bangladesh.

Teacher as Witness
Nancy Agabian, an author and founder of Heightening Stories, told me that the participants were “lucky to have [me] as their teacher and a witness.” That word, “witness” was the summation of my role. These participants contain a lifetime of memories and the workshop became a space where these writers got to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams and despair—and were witnessed with respect and camaraderie. Md. Hoque wrote so poignantly on the last day of the workshop: “will we remember the stories of the three sisters and five brothers, a family meeting for a literature class lasting but for a short while?”

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Council Member Daneek Miller and his wife, were among the guests of honor at the celebration. CM Miller handed out certificates to seniors who participated in the workshop

At the event, I looked to the stage once more. Salema Khatun had finished reading her poem. She paused for a moment and looked out at the audience. The crowd broke out into applause. Salema Khatun walked off stage. I smiled and then closed my eyes: I imagined the participants pulling out their marble notebooks and writing away with their ball point pens, putting one word after the next word after the next to tell all the stories they held inside of them until they were spent, until they were empty, until they were fully satisfied.

*This Writing Workshop was funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

 

You can read the full publication of the writings by clicking here.

Putul Chanda: The Journey Before Jamaica – Part 2

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Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled our member, Putul Chanda, a senior from Bangladesh and our center in Jamaica, known as the Desi Senior Center. In the article she tells the history, not just of our senior’s life, but that of Bangladesh’s protracted and traumatic fight for freedom. Putul Chanda is not the only one of our seniors who has been through the travails of war and displacement – several of the elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The second and last installment of Bakshi’s article is reproduced. To read Part 1, click here. Both installments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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Putul Chanda, a senior at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, recounted her story of resistance and escape during the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971

Putul Chanda once told me that she was the only Hindu at the Desi Senior Center, and everyone else was Muslim. Aunty’s assertion of her Hindu identity made sense. She had come so close to forsaking her religious beliefs in order to protect her life that it was natural for her, so many decades later, to feel proud of the fact that she had managed to retain the faith she had grown up with.

“You Hindu or Muslim?”, she asked me. On learning that I too was a Hindu, her eyes lit up and she happily agreed to let me take a picture of her.

I never noticed any animosity between her and the other members of the Center. On the contrary, it seemed that Putul Aunty was very well liked and respected among her peers at the Center, and she treated them with equal respect. None of them could forget the genocide of ’71, but forty-five years later in a different country, their common Bengali identity united them more than their different religious identities divided them.

Putul felt relieved leaving her ancestral village. Once again, the journey proved treacherous. As they waded through the Ichchamati river, the river that, in Bengali literature, is said to grant wishes to passersby, Putul’s wish was to make it safely into India. The route was notorious for bandits and murderers who would rob not just money and jewelry, but also abduct women. The family was wealthy, so they were traveling with a darwan, a bodyguard, who swore that as long as he was alive, nothing would happen to any of them. They hardly slept, but on the rare occasions when they did, they had to sleep wherever they found open space; on a verandah, in a jungle, even in the marshes, always keeping an ear open for gunshots that would cause them to scatter.

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Refugees from Bangladesh riding in a bullock cart. Photograph (c) by Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only

They survived on the fruits and wild berries they picked from the fields and forests they crossed along their journey. Sometimes, while crossing towns, they would manage to procure roti, dal, and vegetables, but towns also meant that there would be more soldiers. On these rare instances when they sat down to eat a proper meal, they would be interrupted by sounds of soldiers approaching, accompanied by gunshots and screams. Putul would discard her uneaten meal, and run as fast as she could to find a hiding spot.
By surviving off of the land this way, they managed to make it to Jessore, a town that bordered India on the west. India would only be a few days now, Putul told herself. From Jessore they afforded themselves the small luxury of setting out again in a bullock cart. Riding in the cart did not do any favors to Putul’s back, which had developed a constant pain. Traveling through rocky inner routes and rickety passageways to avoid the highway which would have considerable army presence, they soon had to abandon the cart and set off on foot once again.

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Family members carrying an elder as they walk across the border from Bangladesh to India during the 1971 war. Photograph (c) Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only

As she made her way towards India, Putul, her stomach churning, saw the discarded babies and children that had died due to starvation and exhaustion, their bodies reeking of death, flies and vultures preying upon them. Old women and men that had been abandoned by their families because they were too weak to complete the grueling journey sat on the edges of paths, hoping for and awaiting their own deaths. “There is no Bangladeshi family in which at least one or two people didn’t go missing”, Putul said.

Mr. Hussain, who had been listening intently, nodded vigorously. He once told me that the reason he couldn’t talk freely at the Center was because he believed a particular staff member to be hailing from Pakistan. On being told that the staff member in question was actually from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, he opened up a great deal. He had been the Agricultural Secretary of the district of Dinaspur in Bangladesh, and considered himself an expert on the topic of the ’71 War, having fought in it himself.
Putul continued. She was thankful that dada’s (her elder brother) resolve to get the entire family across the border was firmer than a rock. Her mother was too old and feeble to carry out the exhausting journey on her own, so dada and Putul’s uncle broke off a branch from a bamboo tree, tore their clothes to create strips that they used to bind Putul’s mother’s arms and legs onto it, and then carried one side of the pole on each of their shoulders.
The exhausted family finally reached a small canal, that was, as they found out, close to the Indian border. Any glimmer of hope they had preserved instantly vanished when they were told that there were no boats to take them across. Hundreds of fleeing Bangladeshis had crossed that canal, and once the army found out, they stole all the boats that were being used to transport people across the water.
The banks of the small canal were not safe by nightfall because the soldiers would plunder camps and kidnap girls to rape and then kill them. Dada’s legs were painfully swollen and he, like Putul, was developing a painful and consistent back pain, but he vowed that he would only rest after reaching India.Putul had reached a stage of utter exhaustion and hopelessness, and was beginning to give up her inner resolve. Then they noticed the banana trees that lined the shores. Desperate to finish their trek to safe shores, Putul, dada, and the rest of their family feverishly broke off branches of banana trees and tied them together to make a raft.

They used any energy they had left to row to the opposite bank, but once they reached, they found that their struggle wasn’t over yet. Disembarking from the raft, Putul put her feet on the ground. As she tried to take the next step, she found her foot stuck; the more she would try to free it, the more it would sink. She was stuck in five feet of quicksand, and all she could see for miles and miles was more of the sucking mud. Putul wondered if the gods were playing with them, using them as mere pawns in a sadistic game.

At her vivid description, Shakhwat Hussain gasped, his eyes enlarged. Leaning in slightly, he admitted that his struggle was nowhere close to being as arduous as Putul’s, simply because he hailed from Dinaspur, a district very close to the Indian border. So, when the time came for him to flee Bangladesh, he simply crossed over into India, aided by his status as a student muktijhhoda.

Putul Aunty continued. They battled the kalamatti (black mud) for what seemed like a lifetime, Putul’s mother still being carried on a pole. Dehydrated and ravenous, they were all looking death in the eye, using their desperation to will themselves forward. Their bodies gave up, but their minds didn’t.

It was 10 PM when the kalamatti finally lessened. Putul no longer felt anything after overcoming an obstacle except an anticipation of the next hurdle. She could see little huts scattered around. She approached one of the huts and asked the man inside for a glass of water, the first she would have in days. She asked him, “India kauto door? How far is India?” The man waved his arms, demonstrating, “My kitchen is in Bangladesh, but the rest of the house is in India.” Pointing to a pillar that ran across his living room, he said, “That’s the border demarcation pillar right there. You’re safe now.”

Putul had never been more elated in her life.

She noticed a muktijhhoda camp nearby, and knew that she would be safe now. They reached the camp where they changed their damp clothes, and collapsed onto the bare ground, devoid of meals or mattress. When they woke up after what felt like days, they were greeted by sunshine and the beaming face of Putul’s younger brother, her chhotu dada.Chhotu dada had fled to India during the partition of ’47. He had met no one in the family since then, but they had been in correspondence through occasional letters and rare phone calls. When he heard that the rest of his family were trying to flee Bangladesh, he had searched all the mukti bahini camps in the area, until he saw the sleeping shapes of his family members in the camp at Boira, recognizable to him even after 25 years.
Gasping at this positive turn of events, Putul Aunty’s enthralled little audience cheered. Beaming, she rushed through the rest of her story.

Putul’s family went with chhotu dada to Krishnanagar in the Indian state of West Bengal, where the stashes of cash they had somehow managed to travel with were declared invalid. However, the Indian government gave them rations. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had decided that India would intervene in Pakistan’s civil war, supporting the Bangladeshi mukti bahini’s demands to create a new nation-state comprising of ethnic Bengalis.

Putul Aunty paused, and looked at me. “Thanks god to India, to Indira Gandhi. Because of India’s kindness so many people are alive today. Indira Gandhi’s name will be chiseled onto my heart till the day I die.”

Shakhwat affirmed this dramatic statement, “If it wasn’t for the alliance with India, with Indira Gandhi, we wouldn’t have gotten independence so fast, and crores more people would have died.” Like Putul, he said he would always be eternally grateful to India.

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The Liberation Times announces the news of Pakistani surrender to Indian forces in Dacca on 15th December, 1972

The Pakistani forces had two territories to defend; West Pakistan from the Indian forces, and East Pakistan from Bengali rebels. Unable to match up to the combined forces of the Indians and the Bangladeshi rebels, on December 16, 1971, Pakistan officially surrendered, making East Pakistan the country that is now called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Putul stayed with her family in Krishnanagar until the war was over. After the war, dada decided that it was time for her to finally finish her education. So, he went back to Bangladesh with her, and after she finished her education, arranged a marriage for her to a Hindu Bangladeshi freedom fighter. Her husband, like Hussain, was recognized by the Government of Bangladesh as a freedom fighter. After his death in 2004, the pension he received annually for his services to the country went to Putul, who will continue receiving it her entire life.

Having finished her story, Putul became silent, a satisfied look on her face, the cup beside her conspicuous due to the lack of tea inside it. Putul Aunty had gone through more life threatening adventures in the course of a few months than most people I knew had encountered in their entire lives. I felt humbled by her complete lack of self-awareness – she didn’t seem to think that what she had gone through was unusual in any way- as well as honored that she had decided to share her story with me.

I felt like I had to say something. “So, what made you shift to New York?”, I asked both Shakhwat and Putul. Hussain, currently residing with his son and his family in Queens, is here with his wife for lung therapy. He had severe lung and kidney problems, and was told that the best treatment would be available in New York. He might go back once he has fully recovered, but he loves New York and the lifestyle it affords, so he might stay on here with his family. Putul Aunty came to New York in 2012, to live with her daughter.

Currently, she is considered a refugee in India, a muktijhhoda in Bangladesh, and an immigrant in New York. She likes it here, but it’s just not like home.

Practical Skills for Healthful Aging: On our Two-year Partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Since July 2015, India Home has been partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK)’s Geriatric Resource Interprofessional Program (GRIP) to provide evidence-based and culturally responsive education to South Asian older adults in Queens, NY. This education aims to increase community awareness of geriatric syndromes – problems that usually have more than one cause and involve many parts of the body – and promote methods that aid healthy aging.

“What can I do next? : Teaching Practical skills for better Aging

Starting with needs assessments conducted at India Home sites, the GRIP team and staff from India Home developed a core lesson plan that India Home members were interested in learning about.

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Manpreet of MSKCC explains medication management at India Home

These topics include: falls prevention, how to modify one’s home for safety, memory loss,and medication management. Clinical experts like occupational and physical therapists, geriatric pharmacists, physicians and nurse practitioners developed the lessons. All presentations and educational materials were designed with the adult learner in mind, providing practical skills and always trying to answer, “what can I do next?”. Educational sessions are continuously scheduled at all India Home sites and are repeated on rotation, so that our seniors understand and remember the content.

India Home and MSKCC’s GRIP team collaborates with other South Asian community organizations, like the South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) to review content for understanding and the ability to take action with specific cultural considerations in mind. We are always thinking about what works in the South Asian context.

With cultural relevance in mind, MSK translates written materials into South Asian languages and uses live interpreters at presentations. We also evaluate our results by asking small groups of seniors about their understanding and effectiveness of the educational programs.

Over 700 seniors educated

Since November 2015, the partnership has educated approximately 700 seniors at four different India Home sites. MSK, India Home and SACSS staff circulate pre-and post-education surveys to measure how much our seniors have learned and retained, and how they have changed their behavior. The surveys use open ended questions and one-month follow up questions. Take home messages and resource sheets are also provided to our seniors to refer in the future.

Overall, the partnership is aimed at improving the quality of life and health of older adults by educating them.

These efforts attempt to make changes in their behavior – for instance walking carefully or improving safety in the home by installing shower rails – that will positively impact their aging and improve their quality of life. 

 Content contributed by Natalie Gangain of MSKCC (edited for context and clarity by India Home)

India Home participates in the 2017 South Asians Leading Together (SAALT) Summit

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India Home’s panel at the SAALT “United for Action” Summit in Washington D.C.

Washington D.C –  On April 21, 22, and 23, India Home participated in the 2017 South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Summit in Washington D.C.  Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi and Afroditi Shah Panna, Case Manager, joined over 300 activists, organizations, students, and community members from across the country who had come together to raise their voices on a range of issues important to South Asian communities.

Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT, explained the thinking behind the Summit: “Our communities continue to live in various states of shock as a panorama of hate violence, civil rights violations, and anti-immigrant policies continue to impact South Asian Americans nationwide.”  At this challenging moment, she said, South Asians were engaged in a “critical struggle for justice and full inclusion for all.”

“Disrupting Silos: Combating Ageism and Xenophobia”

The panel organized by India Home was one of 40 sessions at Trinity Washington University on urgent issues facing the South Asian community. The panel, titled,  “Disrupting Silos: Combating Ageism and Xenophobia,”  brought together community groups and advocates from New York City, the Bay Area, and Texas to discuss how they had organized and championed programs and services for South Asian older adults.IMG_1169

The community groups – spanning different nationalities, ethnicities, faiths, languages, and income levels – presented information on best practices gleaned from working in the trenches with their respective communities. They used the forum to share perspectives; discuss strategies for and partnerships that led to successful aging programs; tools to fight xenophobia and ageism and methods to address the unique challenges they and the communities they serve are facing with a new administration in place in Washington.

The panelists were:

Vega Subramaniam, Moderator (Contributor, Diverse Elders Coalition)
Shubhada Saxena (South Asians’ International Volunteer Association (SAIVA)
Asha Chandra (City of Fremont Human Services Department)
Kashmir Singh Shahi (Gurdwara Sahib Fremont)
Shah Afroditi Panna (India Home, Inc.)
Vishnu Mahadeo (Richmond Hill Economic Development Corporation (RHEDC)
Shaista Kazmi (Apna Ghar, LLC)

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India Home’s Afroditi Shah Panna spoke about the difficulties facing Bangladeshi immigrant elders in NYC

Valuable perspectives on aging South Asians

They brought valuable perspectives on aging South Asian communities across the US, from Punjabi Sikhs in California to Indo-Carribeans in New York’s Richmond Hill. They told stories and related experiences. Afroditi Panna, a Case Manager with India Home, discussed the needs of aging adults in the Bangladeshi community. For example, many elders suffer from a lack of space and privacy because they live with adult children who cannot afford big apartments. Armed with this real life understanding and stories of the conditions these elders live in, India Home finds itself in a better position to advocate for more affordable housing, she said.

Shaista Kazmi, of Apna Ghar, an organization that provides caregiving facilities for South Asian seniors, spoke about the stresses on the so-called “sandwich generation” – second generation South Asians, many of whom lack extended family networks in America–who end up taking care of their own kids, as well as aging parents. The need for culturally competent caregivers is on the rise and it was important that these caregivers and home health aides not only be made aware of the fact that elder abuse exists in all communities, but that they are also trained to become “advocates for victims of elder abuse.”

Vishnu Mahadeo, who works closely with the Indo-Carribean community in New York city, spoke about the reliance among aging Indo-Caribbeans on over-the-counter drugs because they lack proper health insurance.

Kashmir Singh Shahi of Fremont Gurdwara Sahib urged  South Asian communities to pay attention to senior issues and make them part of the conversation. The fact that sometimes older adults are neglected or their problems go unaddressed is also elder abuse, he said.

The panel strongly felt that community members needed to become part of the civic process in their cities, as a step toward drawing attention to the needs of South Asian seniors. Advocating for culturally appropriate services, getting more direct services, and casting a wide net to reaching South Asian elders  in places beyond temples and gurdwaras was becoming more urgent with the increases in the population of elderly South Asians. “In order to build a system, we have to be part of the system,” Kashmir Singh Shahi said. Asha Chandra, who is a manager in the City of Fremont Human Services Department, brought another perspective when she described the volunteer efforts of older South Asians in Fremont.  “It’s a win, win, win,” she said, “when seniors step up to work with city services.”

Lakshman Kalasapudi and Afroditi Panna of India Home march in DC as part of the SAALT rally to conclude the United For Action Summit 2017

On the evening of April 22, Afroditi Panna and Lakshman Kalasapudi of India Home participated in the South Asian Americans Marching For Justice event, a rally that began at Freedom Plaza and concluded with a march to the White House. They joined hundreds of other activists who marched for “a socially just country,” and demanded the support of policymakers towards that vision.

“Bringing aging issues to the forefront of the policy and advocacy agendas of our community is crucial to advance our communities equitably,” says Lakshman Kalasapudi of India Home’s participation in the SAALT summit.

Local Advocacy: On halal home delivered meals, the Mayor’s budget, and coordinating better services for immigrant seniors

Lakshman Kalasapudi, Deputy Director, India Home and Nargis Ahmed, Program Director, Desi Senior Center, were both called on to testify at separate New York City Council hearings.

Halal Home Delivered Meals

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Ms. Nargis Ahmed, Program Director of India Home’s Desi Senior Center, testifies on the need for Halal home delivered meals for seniors at City Hall

IMG_1182Nargis Ahmed, in her position as Program Director of India Home’s Desi Senior Center, the largest Muslim Senior Center in New York City, testified on April 26, 2017 before the Committee on Aging in support of Resolution 0262-2014.

The Resolution calls on the Department for the Aging (DFTA) to ensure halal meals are available as a part of the home delivered meal program for seniors.

Ms. Ahmed testified that India Home runs the largest halal senior center congregate meal program in the city, with over 100 seniors who attend the program, access case assistance services, recreational activities, health and wellness programs three days a week.

Halal food is an integral part of Islam and a subset of one of the five main pillars of the religion. Muslims seniors eat only halal food in order to continue their faith and religious practices. India Home’s ability to offer culturally appropriate meals, has allowed the organization to serve an underserved and ignored segment of seniors in New York City.

Availability of halal home delivered meals would help India Home and other Community Based Organizations to reach homebound Muslim seniors who desperately need culturally appropriate home delivered meals, as well as case management services, friendly visiting programs, and other aging related services.

Halal meat is readily available. Many New York city schools now serve halal lunches, as a result of advocacy efforts–in which Ms. Ahmed participated. “There should be no reason why Muslim seniors cannot get halal home delivered meals in this day and age. We at India Home are ready to partner with DFTA to deliver these meals,” she said.

Expanding the scope of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA)

On April 25, 2017,  Lakshman Kalasapudi testified his support of  Introductions 1566-2017 and 1578-2017, sponsored by CM Danny Dromm, which expand the scope and work of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and their ability to work with other entities. Kalasapudi recommended:

1. Targeted outreach to Immigrants

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As a community based organization we recommended that the Mayor’s Office of Immigration(MOIA) collect and disaggregate data on immigrants

Almost 50% of New York City’s older adults are immigrants. Many immigrants, including those we serve, have unique needs which require targeted outreach and extra attention. Many older immigrants do not have income support such as Social Security, and experience barriers accessing city agencies and services because they cannot speak proper English. As a result of their unfamiliarity with American ways, they face hardships in navigating the city’s transportation and healthcare systems . Many of them also have culturally mandated dietary restrictions that make attending a senior center or a hospital stay difficult for them. Kalasapudi recommended explicit and intentional interagency coordination and communication between the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) the Department for the Aging (DFTA) to ensure that vulnerable older adults are brought more fully into the aging services infrastructure so that they may access SNAP benefits, city services, and community activities.

 2. MOIA-DFTA Partnership for data collection and disaggregation 

A partnership between MOIA and DFTA could also give rise to increased data collection that would help quantify the needs of our seniors. An entity like MOIA has the sophisticated resources necessary to compile and deliver the accurate data required how immigrant older adults access or face barriers accessing city services, social services, legal services, housing, and adult education. Further, Kalasapudi recommended that MOIA should disaggregate the date to reflect the diverse needs of immigrant communities. Immigrant elders are of different cultures and ethnicities, speak different languages, and practice diverse cultures and religions. We need data along all these variables to better serve individual communities.  He suggested that MOIA pay added attention to homebound immigrant older adults who, because of their physical or cognitive limitations, are even more isolated and vulnerable.

Question at NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Town Hall 

Mayor de Blasio, right, and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer answer some questions during a town hall in Sunnyside, Queens. Photo by Anthony Riley

Mayor de Blasio, right, and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer answer some questions during a town hall in Sunnyside, Queens
Photo credit: Anthony O’Rilley, Queens Chronicle

On April 27, 2017, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio held a Town Hall in Queens which Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi attended. He asked the Mayor why New York City was allotting no new funding to senior services in the Executive Budget, even as the country was celebrating the “Year of the Senior?”

He said that immigrant seniors have limited English speaking skills, have little income support, are unfamiliar with the healthcare and transportation systems here, and desperately need affordable housing to alleviate the overcrowded situations they are living in at present.

Mayor de Blasio answered that NYC has invested in affordable senior housing and mentioned the ThriveNYC Mental Health Initiative. He then referred the question to Donna Corrado, Commissioner, NYCs Department for the Aging, who had some very nice things to say about India Home’s services. As for the questions: “We intend to keep asking them!” Kalasapudi said.

Seniors advocate at City Hall for increased services

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India Home joins the crowd for Advocacy Day!

South Asian seniors, such as the one’s we serve at India Home, are among the fastest growing groups of older adults in New York City.  For example, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, from 2000-2010, the number of Indian seniors in NYC grew by 135%. However, in a counterintuitive move,  city funding for senior services dropped by 20 percent, going from approximately $181 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to $145 million in Fiscal Year 2012.

Mayor De Blasio’s Executive Budget for 2018 adds no new funding to Department for the Aging (DFTA), which allocates money for senior services. DFTA receives less than ½ of 1% of the city budget – and less than 2% of all human services funding, even as the share of seniors in NYC has grown to 18% of the population. It has been widely documented that immigrant seniors also have unique needs. Many have Limited English Proficiency and large numbers live under the poverty line. For example, 27 percent of Bangladeshi seniors are below poverty, while the numbers for Indian seniors stand at 15 percent and Pakistani seniors at 22 percent.

As Bobbie Sackman, Associate Executive Director of Public Policy, LiveOn NY, said: “On behalf of the 300,000 older New Yorkers served by LiveOn NY’s members, we find it deeply disturbing that Mayor Bill de Blasio, once again, has refused to add any new money to fund vital services through the Department for the Aging (DFTA).”

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India Home’s seniors meet with CM Jimmy Van Bramer

Given the situation–growing numbers of seniors and a lack of funding–India Home’s seniors felt it was even more important this year to join advocates from LiveOn NY and other senior-serving organizations to make their case directly to elected Council Members.

About 10 seniors from our Sunnyside Center and Desi Senior Center participated in Advocacy Day organized by LiveOn NY at City Hall on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The day started with a rally on the steps of the famous building, where seniors holding India Home banners chanted, “No seniors, no budget,” along with the crowd. The fact that the budget for DFTA hadn’t increased was highlighted by various Councilmembers who spoke at the rally.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bremer who’s District includes Sunnyside, where India Home runs a center on Mondays, said, that “every year should be the year of the senior,” not just 2017. Danny Dromm, Councilman for Jackson Heights, and a longtime supporter of India Home, reiterated that “we need to be sure that seniors get their fair share of the budget.”

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Councilman Danny Dromm speaks to the crowd on Advocacy Day 2017

Seniors and long time members of India Home’s Sunnyside Center, Usha Mehta, Bharat Patel, Dinesh Patel, Bharat Shah and Narendra Butala met with both CMs Van Bramar and Dromm and presented their demands for an additional day at the Sunnyside Center and better transportation. They urged the elected officials to approve India Home’s capital project citing the huge demand for India Home’s services and the lack of space that we are facing currently.

Seniors from India Home’s  Desi Senior Center in Jamaica,  Md. Abu Taher, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Mahbubul Latif and Mouirul Islam, met with CM Eric Ulrich’s office and CM Donovan Richards office. Desi Senior Center member, Md. Abu Taher spoke as a representative of all the seniors who couldn’t be there in person when he said: “We need more funds for Halal meals to give to people who cannot come to our center.We need more space; when we do exercise, it is very crowded.”

One of India Home’s stated missions is to create opportunities for seniors to lead and advocate for themselves. We were proud to see our members making their case with confidence with elected officials and their staff and their grasp of the important issues.

Cherry Blossom time at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

 

On the first truly warm day of the year, we took 45 seniors from our centers on a trip to the 100-year old Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. With the cherry blossoms in full gorgeous bloom,  our seniors were eager to to view the flowers. They began their tour at the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, which was the first Japanese Garden developed in the United States, and is the most visited Japanese Garden in the world outside Japan. After the Japanese Garden, the  seniors set off to see other sights such as the acclaimed Bonsai conservatory, and ended their trip after enjoying a picnic lunch under the flowering trees.

 

Movie Night in Jackson Heights!

On April 19, 2017, India Home invited its members as well as residents of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens to a movie night at the PS 69Q auditorium. The film that was shown was Bollywood tear-jerker “Neerja,” an award-winning film about the bravery and sacrifice of a young air hostess on board a Pan-Am flight that was hijacked in 1984. Our members enjoyed free samosas and chai before settling in to watch the film. Later, there was avid discussion about the film and the heroism of the young air hostess.

A few early birds waiting for the movie to start

A few early birds waiting for the movie to start

This initiative to extend our programming to the evening, is part of our on-going efforts to combat the social isolation that seniors often endure. This is also a first step in doing more activities in Jackson Heights, an area with a large South Asian community.
Film Night at PS69

Everyone is Divine: India Home partners with the Rubin Museum to celebrate Vaisakhi

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India Home’s program at the Rubin Museum was featured on the Museum’s blog.

Creative aging…

India Home believes in providing creative aging programs that offer opportunities for our seniors to actively express themselves creatively, socialize with their peers while learning new skills,  and engage in cultural performances.

…and a partnership with the Rubin Museum.

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Sharan Bir Kaur led the crowd in a Kundalini chant

 

As part of this creative aging effort we have forged a partnership with the prestigious Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Manhattan. In our role as Community Partner, we’ve presented programs related to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Mahavir Jayanthi.

This is our third event

On April 15, 2017, we presented our third program at the Museum: a celebration of the Sikh festival, Vaisakhi, traditionally a rite that marks the end of the harvest season in India. We hosted the event along  the Sikh Cultural Center, one of the biggest Gurudwaras, or Sikh place of worship, in New York City.

This is how our program was described on the Rubin Museum’s blog.

Sikhs believe that every individual is filled with divine potential. At a time when racial and religious tension is high, New York Sikhs continue to celebrate their faith and values of equality, even when occasionally faced with senseless discrimination. At the Museum, Sikh and non-Sikh community members came together to celebrate Sikh culture and participate in the OM Lab.

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Usha Mehta, a senior from India Home, enjoyed recording her voice in the OM Lab.

Twenty seniors from India Home attended and some of them enjoyed the opportunity to make use of the OM lab’s recording booth and “offer their OMs and join thousands of others in the chant that will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition.

Our elders enthusiastically participated  in a new experience, when Sharan Bir Kaur, a Kundalini yoga expert, led them and the rest of the audience in a short chanting meditation using the mantra “Wahe Guru” which is the Gurumantra or seed mantra in Sikhism.

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Seniors from India Home enjoyed being part the sold out event

 

 

 

Jagir Singh Bains, an elder from the Sikh Cultural Center, further enlightened the audience with  a short presentation about the basic tenets of Sikhism and the meaning behind the symbols of the faith, like the turban, the beard, and the kada (the steel bangle).

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Manpreet Kaur taught the crowd to bhangra!

The night ended on a happy note with everyone dancing the bhangra! To read more click this link to go to the Rubin Muesum’s blog

 

Putul Chanda, The Journey Before Jamaica Part 1


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Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled two things: our member, Putul Chanda, a senior from Bangladesh; and our center in Jamaica, known as the Desi Senior Center. In the article she tells the history, not just of our senior’s life, but that of a nation’s trauma and Bangladesh’s fight for freedom. Putul Chanda is not the only one of our seniors who has been through the travails of war and displacement – several of our elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The article is reproduced here in installments, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Putul Chanda: The Journey Before Jamaica 26333389412_4539b956af_z

It was my first day at the Jamaica Muslim Center, one of the centers under India Home, the non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of the South Asian senior citizen immigrant community in New York. I stood outside, in the verandah of the Center, apprehensive, waiting for Sohom, the India Home volunteer who had kindly offered to help me interview the Bangladeshi freedom fighters that frequented it. My skin soaked in the sunshine, uninterrupted, for a change, due to the lack of high rise buildings. The Center was definitely larger than the unimposing two storied houses that lined the quiet, serene street. Sohom would later tell me that it wasn’t always like this; this part of Jamaica, Queens used to be a dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood until the Bengali community from India and Bangladesh started moving here. Gradually, it gentrified, and it has kept its gentrified appeal because, as Sohom said, “The Bangladeshis are house-proud.”

As I paced up and down the verandah, the front door opened. A middle-aged Bengali man shuffled out, mop and pail in hand, looking curiously at me. I absentmindedly stared back, less out of curiosity than out of my surprise that the South Asian habit of mopping the area outdoors as well as indoors was being continued in Jamaica. Now ignoring me, he squatted on the ground, dipped the mop into the pail of water, and began to scrub the ground. I quickly jumped out of his way. I hadn’t seen the inconveniently painful but highly effective mop-and-pail method being utilized since I had left New Delhi. This felt like home, I thought to myself. I realized it had taken just a few seconds for the feeling of apprehension to vanish.

As my visits to the Center increased, I found myself feeling more at home every time. The Jamaica Muslim Center is delightfully and determinedly grounded in the widespread South Asian belief that change of any kind is bad. 8000 miles couldn’t change the fact that this branch of India Home felt exactly like that- a home in India.

Every time I would enter the Center, I would be led inside by Sohom, who was always late, through a prayer room with shoes neatly arranged outside, past a kitchen that always had the distinct aromas of tadka dal and mustard fish, down a winding staircase into a basement. Here, we would be greeted by the sight of over a hundred senior citizens exercising to the count of the yoga instructor, the men in shirts and pants and the women in salwar-kameez. Sometimes, instead of yoga, they would be practicing spoken English, chanting “Good morning! How you today?” to the cue provided by a South Asian English-language coach.

Long wooden tables lined every wall of this room: some had attendance registers, registration forms, and scraps of handwritten notes; most tables supported the weight of the snacks and drinks that would supply the next tea break, or remnants of biscuits and samosas from the previous chai-time. I soon discovered that at the Center, everything operated on the basis of gastronomy. Bengalis certainly take their food very seriously. The first day, I had arrived before lunchtime, and no one had wanted to talk to me. It was only after they had finished their portions of mustard marinated spicy fish, dal- roti, and rice-curd that Putul Chanda and Shakhwat Hussain, two of the Center’s freedom fighters, agreed to speak with me.

It was only later that I realized that the senior citizens at the Center would have felt apprehensive at the idea of sharing their stories with me. “It was the most traumatic experience of my life, I won’t talk about it”, said one senior citizen, seemingly angered at the mere mention of Partition.

The Partition of ’47 was so traumatic that most of the people who had experienced it and were still alive refused to talk about it. A study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 14 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were displaced during the ’47 Partition, making it the largest mass migration in human history.

The freedom fighters at the Jamaica Muslim Center were Bangladeshis that had undergone a double Partition- that of India and Pakistan in 1947, and then again, in 1971, when East Pakistan became the independent country Bangladesh. Approximately 1.2 million Bangladeshis are estimated to have migrated to India between 1959-71, and another 10 million entered India as refugees during the war months of ’71.

Besides, would they feel comfortable talking to me, when I wasn’t a Muslim of Bengali origin, but a Hindu of Punjabi-Pakistani descent, the very region they had struggled decades ago to gain independence from? But, as I soon realized, this was a misconceived doubt. In South Asia, religious and micro-ethnic identities might have mattered, but here in Jamaica, New York, the greater South Asian identity trumped the smaller, fragmented ones.

The War Comes to Putul’s Village

I can speak Hindi, English, and can only understand bits of Bangla. The freedom fighters I interviewed could speak mostly Bangla, a little Hindi, and scattered English thrown in here and there. This is where Sohom would be a great help – he spoke all three languages.

Mrs. Chanda was referred to as Putul Aunty by the staff and volunteers of the Center, to denote the non-familial familiarity that she exuded, with her bright salwar-kameez outfits, matching dupattas covering her head, and a twinkle in her eyes. It was in the organized chaos of this room that Putul Aunty, over several cups of chai, shared the very disorganized chaos of her own life with me. Mr. Hussain, who was a student freedom fighter back in the day, was trained in secret by the Bangladeshi rebel forces. Currently serving the Government of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Agriculture and well versed in the historical events that transpired in the years leading up to the ’71 Bangladesh War of Liberation, he provided much needed context and background information that Putul could not.

With her very first sentence, Putul clarified her religious affiliation to me. “My name Putul Chanda, I’m Hindu”, she said, in heavily accented English. “What do you want to know?” Her voice was kind, but extremely matter-of-fact, as if she was teaching a history class to lazy high school students.

No, unlike Mr. Hussain she hadn’t fought with weapons herself in the ’71 War of Liberation, but was a nurse along with her sister in a mukti bahini camp. Mukti bahini refers to the guerrilla resistance movement that had formed in East Pakistan. Comprising of the Bangladeshi military, paramilitary, and civilians, it was the main opposing force to West Pakistan, now just Pakistan. In 1947, the British colonizers, before leaving India, had split it into three parts, but two countries. There was the separate nation of India in the center; bordering it on the west was West Pakistan, on the east was East Pakistan. Bizarrely, both West and East Pakistan were governed by the same government. The 1971 War was fought with the intention of liberating East Pakistan and making it into a separate state.

Putul’s dada, or eldest brother, the acting head of the family, had known the leaders of the camp and had asked Putul and her sister to volunteer as nurses. They hailed from an educated, wealthy family that owned many plots of land, that were to be ravaged later by the destruction of the war. When the muktijoddhas, or freedom fighters, would return to the camp injured, Putul and her sister would nurse them back to health. “What more do you want to know?”

Muktijodha or liberation fighters of the Bangladeshi resistance army. Putul Chanda and her sister used to be nurses who helped to take care of the soldiers when they were wounded in Bangladesh's War of Liberation in 1971. (Photograph from Commons)

Muktijodha or liberation fighters of the Bangladeshi resistance army. Putul Chanda and her sister used to be nurses who helped to take care of the soldiers when they were wounded in Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971. (Photograph from Commons)

“If you had to explain to my generation the hardship that your generation went through, what would you say?”, I asked.
“Ooh baba”, she replied. “Then it’s not a five-minute story. This will take time.” Her tone changed. Sipping on her tea, she leaned in, and spoke in a hushed, conspiratorial manner.

Putul’s house in Bangladesh was in Barisal district, governed by Pakistani commander Major Jaleel. After a violent bombing in Barisal, Putul’s dada decided that it wasn’t safe for them to stay there any longer.

According to surveys conducted by the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, during the nine-month long war and the genocide that ensued, Pakistani forces and Islamic extremists were estimated to have killed between 300,000 to 3,000,000 people, and raped between 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women.

They decided to escape to the village they originally hailed from. For seven days, the family trekked through forests, trudged along dangerous terrains, and braved the strong currents of the two rivers they had to cross. Putul arrived at the village famished, her clothes drenched in water and sweat. This was the pastoral playground of her childhood, she would be safe here. After all, the rest of their family still resided here.

She sprinted into the village ahead of the rest of her family, eagerly searching for familiar faces, known sights. Where was everyone? There were no children running about playing make-belief games, no women outside haggling with vendors, and worst of all, no cousins running to greet them. The unburdening feeling of relief was dissipating rapidly. She felt more unwelcome with each unfamiliar face she crossed. She looked around, searching for dada or her mother, and spotted an elderly lady hurriedly walking towards the party. As Putul walked back to where the rest of her family had gathered, she saw her fear reflected in each of their faces. The lady was speaking in hushed tones with her mother. Whatever she had said had caused Putul’s mother to turn pale. The old lady took her by the arm and led her inside her house, as the rest of the family followed.

With sweeping arm gestures and protruding eyes, the old lady narrated the incidents of the past months that shaken up the village, Putul continued, her gestures matching those of the old lady she had just described.

The imam of the local madarsa had issued a fatwa against Hindus. Pakistani Special Force Officer Sarsinath Peer Shah was conducting officially sanctioned operations to either convert or kill; if Hindus refused to change their religion to Islam, he would have them murdered. Putul was devastated to find out that both her maternal and paternal cousins had been killed by Pakistani forces.
“I want to speak a little about why there was a problem between Pakistan and Bangladesh.”, said Hussain, chiming into the conversation. He explained that West Pakistan did a terrible job of governing its territory on the other side of India. They would tax the people of East Pakistan, and rob it of its wealth and resources, but never give anything back. The people of Bangladesh were always discriminated against in any governmental scheme and were rarely appointed official positions. In short, the Pakistani government treated Bangladesh like its colony. The tipping point, according to Hussain, was when the Pakistani government carried out Operation Searchlight in March of ‘71, hunting down and killing nationalist Bengali students, civilians, and religious minorities. “It was clear that Operation Searchlight was unconstitutional, but Bhutto (then the President of Pakistan) kept it going. It caused the deaths of millions of Bangladeshis.” It came as no surprise that the people of Bangladesh wanted independence.

War exposes the best and the worst of people; while on one side religious extremism was at its peak, on the other side Muslim civilians were putting their own lives in danger to help Hindus.

Refugees in their own country

With their world spinning out of control, Putul and her family lived out the next few days at the mercy of the few friendly neighbors they had left, eternally grateful to these friends who took an even greater risk by providing them with food and shelter. A family with vast lands and wealth, they were reduced to unimaginable penury. They slept wherever they could- on the cold floors of the houses of warm neighbors, on grassy verandahs, and muddy grounds; and devoured whatever little morsels their friends could provide.

With each passing day they felt more and more disconnected from their own village, and Putul increasingly started realizing that their only chance at escaping death was to convert to Islam.

The local Pakistani forces were aware of the family’s arrival in the village. Putul, then in her teenage years, had already received an offer to marry one of the top local officers of the local Pakistani forces. Of course, there was a catch. A Muslim man can marry a woman of any faith as long as the woman has converted to Islam prior to the ceremony. The family was well known in the village and if Putul married the officer, it would send out a strong message of obedience to the people.

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Bangladeshi families crossing the border between India and Pakistan to join the refugee camps in India. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Putul considered the offer. It would save her life, but who knew what kind of man he was? Would he let her see her family? Probably not, unless they also converted. Besides, her education had hit a standstill due to the past few turbulent months, and there would be no chance of her finishing her education if she married him. Fortunately for Putul, dada made the decision for her. He decided to go against the odds and trek to India.

 

 

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