They danced on the stage, they danced in the street, they danced in front of our table. They were India Home’s wonderful senior ladies and nothing was going to stop them. Not the heat or the crowds or their sore feet. Our wonderful seniors had come prepared to be the life and soul of the Annual Rubin Block Party and they gave it their all.
Our seniors taught everyone, from the littlest guests to seniors like them, how to use the dandiya sticks. They demonstrated garba dance steps. They let people admire their beautiful chaniya choli (skirts and blouses) or saris. They also got the entire crowd to join in the dancing at one point.
We were thrilled to be one of the 6 community groups invited by the Rubin Museum’s Dawn Eshleman, Jane Hsu and Tashi Chodron to be part of the renowned Rubin Museum’s Annual Block Party that is held every summer. What we didn’t realize through all the planning and meetings was that it would offer so much fun for all concerned.
On a more serious note, our immigrant seniors who are also people of color, are sending a a very important message by participating in giant public events like the Rubin Block Party. Their very presence in these spaces demonstrates that older people of color are active and engaged in public life, that aging is what you make it to be. Their visibility helps to break down prejudices and benign ignorance around aging and seniors of color, and forces people to change their perspectives. Our mission is to challenge the stereotypes around aging, and we are grateful to the Rubin Museum for helping us realize it.
India Home’s Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed has won AARP’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community Hero Award. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) created the award in 2016 to acknowledge the hard-working staff and volunteers of nonprofit organizations serving AAPIs age 50-plus. AARP is the largest membership organization in the United States with over 38 million members across the country.
Nargis Ahmed, or Nargis Apa, as she is known to the seniors and staff, is the Center Director at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, the largest Muslim senior center in New York City. A staff member since 2014, Nargis has worked tirelessly to make the Desi Senior Center a warm and welcoming place for new immigrant Bangladeshi Muslim seniors, helping them to access social services, feel comfortable in their new country and integrate into American society. As Center Director, she oversees the programming that improves the well being of her seniors and provides a safe haven for the over 150 Muslim seniors who visit the center every program day. She also advocates for our seniors, providing valuable culturally relevant testimony and perspective to elected officials and city and state authorities on issues as varied as halal home delivered meals and transportation.
Talk to our seniors about Nargis, and they say that they look forward to coming to the center every day because of her warm and generous nature. She knows each one of them and their problems and always has the time to stop and listen. She has been their hero all along.
AARP garnered 61 nominations for the award and their judges chose 10 outstanding finalists. A popular vote competition on Facebook helped involve the AAPI communities and choose the top three winners. The top three finalists will each be awarded with $1,000 dollars and another $1,000 dollars will go to the non-profit organizations they represent.
Congratulations to them all — and especially to Nargis for her hard work and dedication to her community and India Home’s mission.
Manhattan’s best kept secret is Roosevelt Island. Once host to insane asylums, prisons, hospital outpatients, and uniform Soviet style blocks, the island is now dotted with shiny new condos, swathes of grassy playing fields and gardens, and the brand new Four Freedoms Park. A famed tram (which had a star turn on “Spiderman”), runs between Manhattan’s 59th street and the island and anchors what is surely one of the most unique commutes in NYC.
Our elders loved the spectacular views of Manhattan’s Upper East Side
We took our seniors on a day trip to Roosevelt Island recently. They enjoyed the spectacular views of Manhattan’s iconic buildings on the Upper East Side, walked along the riverside under the spindly beauty that is the Queensboro Bridge.
Elders pose In the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge on Roosevelt Island
Since most of our elders are active and healthy, they decided not to take the golf carts we had arranged, and walked over to the new FDR Four Freedoms Park. Located at the southern most tip of Roosevelt Island, it is the only memorial dedicated to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his home state. We had boxed lunches delivered which they ate in the picnic areas.
FDR’s face graces the new FDR Four Freedom’s Park on Roosevelt Island
Then it was picture time, and picture time, and…well…picture time. The tram ride was the highlight – the quick swing up into the skies over Manhattan transforms the city into a lego set for a fleeting, spectacular instant, before the ground come rushing back up as the tram descends. Quick trips like this one, help us vary the routine for our elders and help combat social isolation and build community. Plus, they give our members a chance to have fun and experience something new and exciting.
Our active seniors walked many over the riverside paths at Roosevelt island
India Home marked the beginning of Ramadan by celebrating our members’ achievements
The elders were dressed in fancy saris and kurtas. Their grandchildren played catch in the back of the room and were shushed by their mothers. The aroma of fried snacks was everywhere.
It was the beginning of Ramadan and India Home’s Desi Senior Center hosted a night of poetry, songs, and a meal to celebrate before the elders entered a period of fasting in Jamaica. The venue and dinner were generously donated by Exit Alliance Realty, a well known real estate company in New York. Mr. Azahar Haque and his colleagues were gracious hosts for the entire night.
India Home published an anthology of poetry written by our elders
The elders from the center were also celebrating the completion of a successful writing workshop. We wrote about it here. One by one they went up on stage and recited their poems. Some others, sang songs about their beloved Bangladesh. Some told jokes or spoke on a favorite topic.
Council Member Daneek Miller was the Guest of Honor at the Ramadan Celebration at India Home’s Desi Senior Center
Councilmember I. Daneek Miller was the Guest of Honor and he gave away certificates marking the completion of the Writing Workshop to the elders. He said he was happy to see how well the elders were doing. He also officially released the booklet of elders writings that India Home had printed.
Nargis Ahmed, the Center Director of Desi Senior Center, who had expertly managed the ceremonies then introduced a professional singer who took the stage and sang popular songs late into the night.
Elders at the celebration marking the beginning of Ramadan at the Desi Senior Center
The elders left late after a hearty dinner of favorite Bengali dishes, some carrying their sleeping grandchildren and the book with their poetry. A month of fasting, austerity and prayer lay ahead, but the night’s celebration had been a feast in every way.
Until eight weeks ago, Rabeya Khanom had never used the internet. “I didn’t know anything about it,” she told me. She had just said goodbye to her computer teacher at India Home’s Desi Senior Center and was feeling a mix of emotions. Sadness because the free 8-week long computer class was ending. But also happiness because, as she pointed out, she could now, “email, and send photographs, buy ticket from travel sites, book hotel.”
Muslim elders at India Home’s Desi Senior Center use a manual in Bengali to learn computers
Rabeya Khanom, 72, is a student with eight other Bangladeshi seniors in the free computer classes offered by India Home, in partnership with OATS, an award winning New York City nonprofit (the acronym stands for Older Adults Technology Services). OATS provides free tech training for seniors.
The class at India Home was the first and only computer training especially geared toward Bengali older adults in New York city.
“We wanted to be responsive to the unique needs of each site we partner with,” Alex Glazebrook told me. He is the Director of Technology and Training at OATS. Most of the seniors at the Desi Senior Center are immigrants from Bangladesh, hence OATS hired a Bengali speaking computer teacher, Umme Mahmud, to teach the classes.
Council Member Rory Lancman’s Grant Helps Teach Computers in Bengali
A grant from Council Member Rory Lancman, who represents New York’s District 24, helped to pay for the teacher. “In today’s interconnected world, we need to empower as many people as possible with the skills needed to use modern technology, especially senior citizens. I am incredibly proud to provide OATS funding to the Desi Senior Center to enable local seniors to take part in computer classes this year.” Lancman emailed.
Thanks to Council Member Lancman’s grant, OATS was also able to translate the manual used in the classes into Bengali. An effort, Glazebrook acknowledged, “was not an easy undertaking.” Still, everyone involved felt that a manual in Bengali was necessary for this demographic since, as Glazebrook noted “Language is a huge barrier to getting online.”
Computer classes at India Home’s Desi Senior Center teach Muslim elders practical skills
Barriers to learning
When it comes to older adults and technology though, language is only one of the barriers.
In 2016, Pew Research Center reported that while fully 87% of seniors living in households earning $75,000 or more a year say they have home broadband, just 27% of seniors whose annual household income is below $30,000 are online. Many of the seniors at the Desi Senior Center are immigrant seniors, below poverty, and Low English Proficient. For them, the free computer training offered by Desi Senior Center and OATS opens up a world that they would not have access to otherwise.
Household income, education, language abilities, computer anxiety, lack of confidence in their skills, also prevent older adults from going online.
When I visited the class, the seniors were seated around rectangular tables in a red-carpeted room. The women were on one side and the men on another, in keeping with Muslim customs. As the elders stared intently at the screens of their laptops, Umme Mahmud, the instructor, helped the seniors to look for travel sites on the internet. She was teaching them how to find cheap tickets, something that would come in useful to find flights in the future, for instance, to Bangladesh.
Learning Practical Skills
The computer training manual was translated into Bengali thanks to a grant from Council Member Rory Lancman of District 24 in NYC.
The OATS curriculum aims to help seniors harness the power of technology toward achieving practical outcomes. “ I teach them how to research medical insurance, find answers to medical questions, email, read the news,” Ms. Mahmud said. They learn the basic technological skills that could be applied to their daily lives. A majority of the seniors around the table were highly educated, and many had college degrees from Bangladesh. But they felt left out of modern methods of communication. Some seniors didn’t even know how to retrieve text messages. But, Ms. Mahmud said, because they are eager to learn, they learn quickly. “It is my hope that the seniors who participated in these classes will now be able to access the digital world right at their fingertips,” CM Lancman wrote.
The seniors at the Desi Senior Center sure seemed headed that way. Sukhtar Begum had recently started to read the Koran on line. Another student, Mohammad Haque, 70, rattled off the names of his favorite newspapers in Bengali, “Jugaltok, Probash, Aajkal.” “Also Google news,” he said. Abdul Mannan, 62, has gone a step farther : “I never used email, but yesterday I sent an email by myself.” He smiled and shrugged. “To the teacher, but I sent email,” he said.
Increased confidence and self-worth
The classes are doing more than just teaching these elders practical skills; their attempt at mastering technology was making an enormous difference in their lives in other profound ways. Ask Ms. Khanum, the 72 year old OATS alumuna. “If I need something,” she said, referring to searching the internet. “I don’t have to bother no one at home.” The confidence in her abilities had clearly increased as a result of the classes.
Ms. Mahmud pointed out an even more valuable benefit of the classes. “All their connections are back home in Bangladesh. Their past, their entertainment, everything is in Bangladesh. Older people get depressed so easily, sometimes they feel that they have no value.” But with these classes things had changed, she said.
“Now they feel connected with the world.”
Computers for the computer classes were generously funded through the New York City Department of the Aging (DFTA) at the discretion of DFTA Commissioner Dr. Donna Corrado.
Written with contributions from Anita Konaje and Meeta Patel
A group of eight LGBTQ South Asians gathered around platters of mushroom kababs and Chicken Methi Malai at Sahib restaurant in Manhattan, NY, one evening in May, and worried that they would have nothing to say to each other. Okay, so they didn’t actually know each other, but it’s not as if strangers don’t get together at dinner all the time. What made this dinner different was that they were were all of wildly varying ages. Anita was 29, Meeta was 40ish, Per was 70, Pradip was in his 80s, Babu was in his 60’s, and then there was the baby of the group, 23 year old Rahim. The age difference was…shall we say, pretty wide, hence the worry. Still, they had been brought together to try a SAGE Table, and so here they were. Created by SAGE (Services &Advocacy for GLBT Elders) with support from AARP, the SAGE Table was a one day event that brought together different generations of LGBTQ+ people across America to share a meal. This particular SAGE Table was brought together by SALGA NYC, New York City’s community organization for LGBTQ+ South Asians.
SAGE had built the concept around a simple idea – namely, the generation gap. In America, older people are usually segregated from young people. Interests, music, spaces, trends, a relentless focus on youth – all tend to keep us stolidly fixed in our silos. For LGBTQ+ people the gap can sometimes be a chasm. Many older gay people are afraid to reveal their sexual orientation. Some LGBTQ+ people don’t have kids or a family that supports their choices. Hence the SAGE Table wanted LGBTQ+ people of all ages to get together. Share their experiences. Find out what it felt like to care for each other if age didn’t matter. Break bread (or in this case, naan).
It sounded great in theory, but Pradip was skeptical. He didn’t really like going to group events he confessed. They were always crowded with young people and no one talked to them. Often they were left to their own devices and after a while it got boring to hang around, he said. But his friend, Babu, had persuaded him to come to this particular SAGE Table, which was hosted by SALGA NYC. Anita, who was representing SALGA, had worried about the exact same thing. What would they talk about?
Over the tomato soup and pakoras, someone started talking about the resistance. Not the one now, but the one that had started in the ’60s and the ’70s, another time in history when social justice issues were boiling up. Pradip and Babu had both come to America at that time of fervent. They had participated in the movement for equal rights as college students. Meeta, who is also from SALGA, was intrigued by the fact that Pradip had arrived in America, even before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that brought so many South Asians to the US. But the ’60s were also a time when Westerners were going to India to find themselves. Per, another diner, had gone to Varanasi, lived in India for a while, and that had been another kind of revolution altogether.
The conversation moved on to books.
Pradip was a writer and had published a book of short stories in Bengali. Per had published a self-help book called “Gay Money,” that tells aging gay men how to organize their finances better. On Amazon, the description promises to tell gays and lesbians, among other nuggets of wisdom, “What insurance we absolutely need to protect our legacy, our lovers – or our independence.”
The food kept coming: Gutti Venkaya Kura, a delicacy from Andhra Pradesh, then, Alu Gobi, a dry potato and cauliflower dish.
Like the inveterate New Yorkers they were, the diners kept circling back to marvel at the life they led here. Everyone at the table felt lucky to be living in the city and lucky to be in a place that allowed LGBTQ+ communities, like the one gathered around the table, to have events like the one they were at.
The mango mousse arrived.
As the night wound on, everyone kept talking. Pradip said he was glad Babu had pushed him to come tonight; it was nice to talk to people for hours without thinking about age at all. Then it was time to leave. Where they would meet next time, they wondered. Would it be easier to meet in someone’s apartment? Or how about a picnic in Central Park.
This SAGE Table was organized by SALGA NYC on May 18th, 2017. You can click here to visit their website. Funds for the meal was generously provided by India Home, Inc.
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
“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
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”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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)
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.