Immigrant elders find relief and isolation with affordable housing in NYC

Nurul Khan and his wife Farida Begum are an older Bengali couple from Queens who lived for 30 years in damp basement apartments in Jamaica, Queens until recently.

“It was so damp I got arthritis,” Farida Begum said to visitors recently. “The basement was freezing.”

After living in damp basement apartments for 30 years, seniors Nurul Khan and his wife Farida Begum recently moved into affordable senior housing

The visitors were in Farida Begum’s brand new apartment on 96th avenue. Tiny and spry, the 58 year old rushed about the apartment getting us snacks and making chai on her brand new stovetop.

“I never saw the sun for all those years. My body used to ache all over.”  “Now look!” She gestures with delight to the window that looks out on to Amsterdam avenue and where her squash and chili plants on the sill soak in the sun.

In 2017, India Home helped Mr and Mrs. Khan re-apply for an affordable senior apartment with the city.  A year later, the Khans moved into an apartment owned by NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority), in one of the city’s 41 seniors-only developments.

Mr and Mrs. Khan have been allotted a one-bedroom apartment. For seniors on a fixed income finding affordable housing can be challenging

“Thank Allah for getting us this house.”  Farida Begum said proudly showing us the kitchen and the bathroom in the spotless one – bedroom apartment . “Everything is very nice.”

Mr and Mrs. Khan are the lucky ones who managed to get an apartment they can afford. Many others are not so fortunate.

In New York City, the number of people over age 65 has passed the one million mark for the first time in history and 462,000 of those are over 75 years old. By 2040, one in five city residents will be an older adult. However, there’s a severe shortage of affordable senior housing for this rapidly growing population.

In January of 2016 LiveOn NY, an advocacy group for aging New Yorkers released a survey of affordable senior housing buildings located in New York City, financed through Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). An astounding 110,912 seniors were found to be on waiting lists for affordable housing through the HUD 202 Program. With a citywide response rate of 46%, LiveOn NY estimated that upwards of 200,000 individuals were likely to be on waiting lists in New York City. Further, the study found that seniors wait an average of 7 years after first applying to receive affordable housing, with some having to wait as long as 10 years.

Nationally, too, a  2014 study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation concluded that for the older U.S. population, “Housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply.”

The situation has steadily worsened for seniors since back in 2012, the Federal government under President Obama cut funds for new private affordable housing developments under Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In Jamaica, the Khan’s were paying $1300 for the basement apartment. Nurul Khan (68) continues to work doing security with a contractor at JFK airport, as he has for the past  20 years. His wife retired from working at Rug Doctor in Long Island, repairing carpets. They didn’t have children and have had to depend on these low paying jobs to support themselves. Their economic circumstances have worsened because of the rising rents. Their landlord threatened to raise the rent and that’s when they came to India Home’s Case management team. The team reactivated an old application that had fallen dormant and helped the couple to reapply.

According to the New York Times, “for those who are still working age, it’s getting harder to pay the rent: According to a StreetEasy survey, rents in the city rose twice as fast as wages between 2010 and 2017. The lowest rents (those up to $2,300) rose 4.9 percent annually since 2010, which means someone who paid $1,500 a month in 2010 likely paid nearly $600 more for the same place in 2017.”

For seniors on a fixed income it can be a challenge to find affordable housing in NYC. The application process is confusing for immigrants with limited English skills, and the wait lists long. Even when they do get an apartment, seniors are often displaced from all that is familiar.

Social Isolation is a problem

Farida Begum says she has to depend on her husband now to get Bengali groceries from Queens. While they live in an area that is well connected to public transport, Farida says she’s afraid now to take the train all the way to Queens to see her relatives and friends because she may get lost.

“This is a beautiful apartment, but I ‘m scared. Who will come here to help if something happens to us?” Farida Begum says.

A growing percentage of New Yorkers prefer to age in their community, surrounded by their friends and relatives and supports cultivated over a lifetime. However, given the fact that there are not enough apartments to go around, seniors like Nurul Khan and Farida Begum have to take whatever they can get, even if it is far from their friends and relatives.

But Mr. Khan hopes that things may change. “There’s some new apartments that have opened up in Queens.”

 

 

 

 

  • 41 seniors-only developments
  • 15 seniors-only buildings exist within mixed-

 

 

 

 

 

Pains, Trains, and no Automobiles: Abu Sayeed’s Commute Highlights Transportation Difficulties for Elders in NYC

Three mornings a week, Abu Sayeed, 64, wakes up in his home in Cyprus Hills in Brooklyn, NY, worrying about the subway. He wonders if he’ll manage get the right train? How long will he have to wait? As he gets ready for his long walk to the station – putting on a cap, a thick sweater, sports shoes – he worries if he’ll make it in time to catch the exercise class he loves so much at the Desi Senior Center in faraway Jamaica, Queens.

His journey begins at the Cypress Hills subway station in Brooklyn where he catches the J train to the Sutphin Boulevard station in Queens. From there he transfers to the E train for Kew Gardens. At Kew Gardens he waits for the F train to Jamaica’s 169th street station.

Three trains and 70 minutes after he first got into the subway, he emerges into the light at Hillside Avenue and walks up the slope to the Desi Senior Center. He’s timed the walk: it takes a further 8 minutes.

Abu Sayeed has to take 3 trains and travel for more than an hour to get to India Home’s Desi Senior Center. Lack of convenient transportation increases the social isolation and decreases the wellbeing of our immigrant seniors.

Refuge from Social Isolation

Abu Sayeed has made this complicated journey, three times a week, ever since the Desi Senior Center opened in 2014. “My three arteries was blocked so I had three bypass operations. But still I came,” he says, proud of his tenacity. “I am coming here since day one. December 15, 2014.” His eyes crinkle under his cap. We are in the office of India Home’s Desi Senior Center in Jamaica. Outside the door, other older adults at the center have finished their lunch of rice and chicken curry are munching on apples for desert. A few pop in now and then to say hello to Sayeed or to ask questions of the staff.

So why, given the time and effort it takes, does he make this journey day after day?

Abu Sayeed doesn’t hesitate. “The friendliness of all the people here is very important to me. It is something that I enjoy every much,” is how Sayeed explains his dedication.

For Sayeed, and others like him, the Desi Senior Center, catering to mostly Bengali muslims and other immigrants from South Asia, is a refuge from social isolation, a problem that more and more elderly face in New York city. Sayeed moved from Bangladesh in 2008 to join his children in the US. His sons are busy, off at work or college, leaving Sayeed and his wife alone at home. In the summer he putters around growing flowers and vegetables in his small garden, but in the winter, there’s nothing to do. “My wife is idle,” he mock-laments. She’s happy to stay home. But he gets bored.

At the Desi Senior Center he meets older adults from his country who share the same language and culture, people with whom he can laugh or talk politics with for a few hours a day. There are other reasons that draw him here: “There is a group exercise session that happens every day that I really like. That is the main reason why I come here. They also serve halal food which, especially for me, is very important.”

Food that is culturally suited, exercise, a friendly face: Sayeed’s needs are simple. Yet the journey to enjoy a few hours of small comforts is difficult. 

The burden of transportation costs

Finding easily accessible public transportation is one problem; the high cost of transportation is another. Sayeed, who retired as a manager at a fertilizer plant in Bangladesh, has no work history in the US and thus has no social security income to draw upon. The cost can become a burden: “Every day I am spending $5.50…that is a lot if you don’t have a job.” he says. Selvia Sikder is a case management worker at India Home: “New York City requires that older adults have to be 65+ to get the reduced fare Metrocard. Many of our elders who don’t meet the criteria, even those who are below the poverty line, are spending $5 dollars a day to get to the center.” They can’t access private transportation services because these seniors are often on Medicaid, and these services are not available to those on the Medicaid plan.

There are days when Sayeed simply doesn’t have money and waits for some kind soul to swipe him through the turnstile.

Still, not all elders are as determined or as healthy as Sayeed. “Many elders have to beg for a ride to come to the center. Or wait for family to come and pick up. Some can’t afford even the reduced fare of $1.35. Others live far away from the nearest subway or bus-stop and find it difficult to walk,” Selvia, the case worker, explained.

Fast Growing Elderly Population Needs Better Options

New York City’s large older adult population includes 1.4 million people over the age of 60 and the fastest growing segment of this population are immigrant seniors. The 2013 poverty rate among those age 65 and over was 21.6%. Given these statistics, one would think that NYC would make improving the public transportation system for the elderly a priority. However, the global design and consulting firm Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility index 2017 published in 2017 found that NYC’s public transportation system was ranked 23rd in the world. Funding concerns, long commute times and looming mega projects kept the city out of the top tier.

New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) funds 14 transportation only programs, which provide means of transportation to older and frail adults, according to a concept paper released in 2015. However these programs serve a limited number of community districts. Many community districts in Brooklyn and Queens remain without a ready source that can provide transportation to older adults.

The benefits of older adults being able to use a low-cost, easily accessed public transportation system are well documented. In January 2017, Reuters reported on a UK study that followed 18,000 older adults for more than a decade. Eliminating cost as a barrier to traveling around town was seen as an important way to improve the mental health of older adults by reducing loneliness and lack of social engagement.  

By 2040 the older adult population of New York city is set to grow by 31%. Without proper transportation infrastructure that works for the aging,  older adults like Abu Sayeed will face increasing social isolation and the physical and mental health issues that come with it. For now, though Abu Sayeed is looking forward to turning 65. “After 1 yr and 4 months I’ll get my half-fare Metro Card.” He grins in anticipation. “Almost there,” he says.

Recommendations

Here are some of the recommendations that AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) urged on Congress in 2012. Many of them could be applied in NYC today.

  • Dedicate increased funding for public transportation and the specialized transportation program for older adults and persons with disabilities.
  • Include support for operations to help mitigate the high cost of gas and other expenses.
  • Strengthen the coordination of public transportation and transportation provided by human services programs, such as agencies that provide transportation for seniors to group meals
  • Ensure that older Americans have greater involvement in developing transportation plans to meet their needs.
  • Ensure that state departments of transportation retain their authority to use a portion of their highway funds for transit projects and programs.
  • Include a Complete Streets policy to ensure that streets and intersections around transit stops are safe and convenient.

 


			
						
		

Captain Tilly Park Picnic

By Nibras Karim, Hunter College Asian American Studies Program Intern

The Captain Tilly Park in Jamaica, is named after Captain George H. Tilly who was a local son of a prominent Jamaica family who was killed while fighting in the American war in the Philippines in 1899. The park is a local destination for Jamaica residents to relax and enjoy public space and greenery in their neighborhood. Situated on nine acres, the park is in the heart of Jamaica and a peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.

 

On September 21, 2017, as part of our effort to help with the health, fitness, and mental wellbeing of the seniors of our Desi Senior Center, we took them out for a change of environment and had them try some new activities they hadn’t done before. The seniors really enjoyed the scenery that the Captain Tilly Park had to offer such as the ducks and Canadian geese swimming about. They also enjoyed the picnic we had brought. They did their exercises outside and enjoyed the fresh air.

One highlight of the day was when they played games like carrom board and ludu. Carrom is a  “strike and pocket” table game similar to billiards. Instead of using cue sticks and billiard balls, carrom is played by using different sized and colored pieces called carrom men. Some of the seniors were very passionate about winning the carrom board games. Prizes were given out to the winners of the games.

 

 

After they ate their picnic, they sang Bengali folk songs, solo and in chorus with others. Everyone was very supportive of each other regardless of their singing abilities. In the end of the picnic, all the seniors thanked the director of our Desi Senior Center Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed for making this wonderful picnic a possibility.

Cultural encounter: Our seniors visit an American landmark

Our seniors, many of whom are from Bangladesh, went to visit Boscobel House, one of America’s greatest historical homes

On July 27th 2017 our seniors from our Desi Senior Center went on a summer picnic to Boscobel House and Gardens in Hudson Valley. Described by Nelson A. Rockerfeller, then Governor of New York, in his keynote address at Boscobel’s opening celebration in 1961 as “one of the most beautiful homes ever built in America,” the house is considered, “one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the country and contains one of the nation’s leading collections of furniture and decorative arts from the Federal period,” according to their website. In short, it is a quintessentially American gem.

Many of our seniors are immigrants from Bangladesh and are relative newcomers to America. Many do not have the economic means to travel for pleasure. So this trip was very exciting and a revelation for them, one that had them looking forward to getting out into the open air for days.

Our seniors were awed by the breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley

As the bus wound along the Hudson, and they finished their breakfast and broke out the snacks, they admired the beauty the towns and mountains we passed through and were vocal in their appreciation of the river and the rocky cliffs that fell away from the road.

Boscobel Gardens

 

 

The bus got to Boscobel mansion at around 12:00 PM. The driver made a mistake and took our party to the entrance to the woods instead of Boscobel. “You build up so much expectation through the journey only to bring us to the woods?” our seniors joked. Though, once we found the correct entrance, everybody was in awe of the elegant house set in the midst of beautiful rolling gardens, and the breathtaking views of the Hudson river shimmering in the calm valley.

Docents explain the history and traditions of Boscobel House to our seniors

Docents from Boscobel treated our seniors to a tour of the house and the gardens. They went went over its unique architectural details, furniture and decorative objects, and also talked about daily life in the early 1800s. Our seniors loved hearing the stories of the history and traditions of the house. The docents were thrilled with their enthusiasm and interest and answered many questions with patience and humor.

Boscobel House had provided us with tents to rest in and have our picnic.  Later in the evening, our seniors, who come from a tradition that reveres literature and poetry, held an impromptu cultural event under the tents.  

They sang folk songs in Bengali. They recited famous poems by poets like Nurul Hassan or Rabindranath Tagore, or the ones they had written, told jokes, and read from famous works of literature or their own pieces.

That is where we shall leave them: a collection of our Muslim elders, on the grounds of this tradition-steeped American historical landmark, filling the air that wafts off the storied Hudson river with their own words and songs – creating on that day their own American moment and memories.

Reporting contributed by: Sabit Bhuyian

Our seniors recited poetry and sang folk songs in Bengali in an impromptu cultural event under the tents at Boscobel

 

 

 

 

Voice of America on India Home: “Aging New York Immigrants Confront Shortage of ‘Culturally Appropriate’ Services”

For 75 years the Voice of America – VOA has been the the official news source of the United States government and provides news and information in 47 languages to a weekly audience of more than 236.6 million people on 5 continents around the world. Last week they did a multi-media segment on India Home.

They explored the problems our seniors face…

“Among New York City residents over the age of 65, the immigrant population accounts for 49.5 percent, up from 38 percent in 2000, and growing. Facing language and cultural barriers, increased isolation, and higher levels of poverty than their native-born counterparts, the rapid expansion has taken its toll on both immigrants and the small, cash-strapped organizations that serve them….

Interviewed Lakshman Kalasapudi, India Home’s Deputy Director : 

“But Lakshman Kalasapudi, deputy director of India Home, says there is a misconception that South Asian immigrants who arrive as older adults are “fully taken care of” when they live with their children.

“This financial dependency kind of creates family tensions, especially when the seniors are living in overcrowded situations,” Kalasapudi says. “There becomes a real breakdown in the family structure and it really profoundly negatively affects the seniors’ mental health.”

And talked about India Home’s services:

“India Home is a secular organization that depends heavily on community donations and discretionary funding from local council members. It confronts social isolation and loneliness among South Asian elders. But it does so by partnering with existing centers, including Jamaica Muslim Center.”

To read more click here: https://www.voanews.com/a/aging-new-york-immigrants-confront-shortage-of-culturally-appropriate-services/3959423.html

India Home’s Nargis Ahmed wins the AARP Community Hero Award

nargis ahmedIndia 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 aapi heroseniors 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.

Know Your Rights: Training Elders on their Immigration Rights

IDP-ICE-Raids-Flyer-ENG-Jan-27-2017

A Know Your Rights poster from IDP (Immigrant Defense Project) that we used in our trainings

What do you when officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) come to your home? If you are stopped in the street by police and asked for your immigration status? What are your rights as an immigrant in these perilous times? These and other questions were part of a series of KYR (Know Your Rights) trainings that India Home conducted with our elders, almost all of whom are immigrants to the country. Most of our seniors are citizens, or, having immigrated here on family quotas, hold green cards.

However, after the change in federal administration, they have heard rumors about ICE raids and have questions about immigration status. There is much rumor and conjecture and fear. India Home staff have in the past few months undergone KYR Immigration Information Training and were prepared to pass on the knowledge. We also brought in Cyrus Mehta, a well known lawyer, and Professor Alina Das from NYU Law School on different occasions  to inform and reassure our elders of their rights as immigrants.

The message we wanted to get across was simple enough: 1. Everyone has rights under the constitution of the United States and it’s important . 2. You have the right to remain silent 3. You have the right to an attorney and to see a warrant and so on.

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Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer, speaks to our elders at the Desi Senior Center about their immigration rights

At Sunnyside Community Center, India Home staff who had training, chose to create a skit of sorts where some volunteers enacted an ICE Raid. Some were ICE officers and some were immigrants and when “officers” asked the “residents” to open up, they practiced saying things like “I choose to remain silent,” and “I would like to talk to my attorney.”

Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer distributed flyers at the Desi Senior Center emphasized his message that all people in the United States, even the undocumented have rights and patiently answered the many questions from our seniors.

Alina Das is an Associate Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law, where she co-teaches and co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic. She and her clinic students represent immigrants and community organizations in litigation and advocacy to advance immigrant rights locally and across the country. Professor Das visited our Desi Senior Center in February, and her students demonstrated an ICE raid and the correct responses in such situations.

At our Richmond Hill location, we invited the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) to come in and discuss rights for immigrant New Yorkers and reassure everything that the city is committed to being a sanctuary city for all. MOIA representatives further stressed the need for IDNYC and how beneficial it is for immigrants.

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Prof. Alina Das and her clinic students came to Desi Senior Center to talk to elders about their rights as immigrants

To evaluate the learning, India Home staff asked the elders to repeat, a few days later, what had been taught. They repeated the main points of the teaching. A lesson well learned, perhaps, and an useful one at that!

 

 

Desi Senior Center celebrates Ramadan Month

India Home marked the beginning of Ramadan by celebrating our elders achievements

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 and prose written by our elders

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.

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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

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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