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.

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.

 

 

Advocacy Success: India Home’s seniors join letter-writing campaign to restore Title XX Funds

India Home's seniors joined a letter writing campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to restore TitleXX funds for senior center programs

India Home’s seniors joined a letter writing campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to restore TitleXX funds for senior center programs

Seniors from India Home joined LiveOnNY, a senior citizen advocacy group, in a campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to leave the funding for seniors in the New York State budget intact. The budget proposed a transfer of $17 million in Title XX Funds funds from senior citizens’ programs to child care initiatives around New York state.

The change, claimed alarmed advocates, would result in putting 65 senior centers in New York at risk of closing and deprive 6,000 older adults of a day at a local senior center.  “The senior center cuts would also equal the disappearance of 1.5 million meals and 24,000 hours of case assistance which help seniors with public benefits, housing concerns and other aid in their own language. Elderly immigrants will also lose a safe haven, where they can trust staff,” wrote Bobbie Sackman of LiveOnNY in an op-ed in NY Slant.

India Home’s older adults took enthusiastic part in this spirited advocacy campaign to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to restore the Title XX funds as members of New York’s only professionally-staffed centers for immigrant South Asian seniors. Our seniors wrote 40 letters that were delivered to Governor Cuomo in Albany.

In the end, the pressure from 17,500 letters from 141 senior centers, phone calls and strong, united efforts by senior citizen advocates at City Hall and Albany worked to effect change. Last week, Governor Coumo restored the $17 million in Title XX funds for senior citizen programs to the state budget.

 

 

The Colors of Memory: India Home plays Holi

Whenever I think of Holi and our seniors, rangeen is a word that comes to mind. In Hindi it  means “colorful” — and it’s often applied to describe not just things, but attitudes. Someone is called rangeen  because he or she is enthusiastic and excited about living, and a happy generous minded individual.

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Our seniors love to dance

Our seniors love Holi and look forward to it every year. On March 13th as is customary, we decorated the center and brought colored powders for our seniors to smear on each other. This year we also had a singer who delighted our seniors by singing  Bollywood songs of yesteryear. Our seniors danced, sang along, and anointed each other (and us) with color. They also shared the joy of the festival with their American friends at Sunnyside Community Services by making a presentation, and teaching them to dance the Garba, a Gujarati folk  dance.

Many of them also shared memories of celebrating Holi in their past, some reaching all the way back 50-60 years to their childhood’s.

“Some pranksters would load up ox drawn carts with large drums filled with colored water and drive them around town. They would stop at strategic points and dowse passersby in red and green water, and the townspeople would retaliate by drenching the guys on the cart too. It was such great fun–I used to wait anxiously for the day to come.” Dinesh Patel.

India Home's seniors taught their non-Indian friends to dance the garba, a Gujarati folk dance

India Home’s seniors taught their non-Indian friends to dance the garba, a Gujarati folk dance

 

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A visitor joined in the fun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year, we were also joined by Rachel Pardoe of the New York Community Trust, a grant giving organization. She too was promptly pulled into the festivities by our seniors. Remember what i said about them being rangeen?

“When I was first married and went to my husband’s home as a young bride, Holi was such a big deal. My husband and his brothers would pick me up and drop me screaming into a tank full of colored water.” Neeru Hanskoty.

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India Home wins a Communities of Color Non-Profit Stabilization Fund award

India home is happy to announce that we have been selected to receive a grant from the Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund (CCNSF).

The CCNSF grant is given to nonprofits serving majority Asian, Latino and/or Black communities and helps them build organizational capacity. The fund recognizes that organizations (like India Home) with leaders drawn from the community are better positioned to meet the needs of their members.

The CCNSF grant will support our efforts to create a long term strategic plan and come up with a road map for the future. The grant will also help us access expert advice and resources and use them to build our organization’s capacity and long term sustainability.

IMG_0446 “I’m looking forward to working with experts in the field to sharpen our organization’s focus and scope. It will strengthen our efforts to better serve our members,” said Lakshman Kalasapudi, Deputy Director of India Home.

Valentine’s Day and fighting stereotypes about love and aging

The Stereotypes of Love 

You’ve seen the advertisements around Valentine’s Day—the media and your timeline are probably filled with them. These images invariably feature young people—beautiful, tan, fit young people with perfect hair and dazzling teeth celebrating their love. These images are also rampantly ageist. You may not realize it, but this is the culture subtly telling you that everything associated with Valentine’s Day—love, beauty, passion, physical intimacy—all the beautiful human experiences somehow only belong to the young.Nayyars-2

By reinforcing these stereotypical ideas of love, the media writes older adults out of the national consciousness, diminishes their real experiences of love and dehumanizes them. Perhaps, as Ashton Applewhite, author and anti-ageism advocate says, the time has come to “think critically about what age means in this society, and the forces at work behind depictions of older people as useless and pathetic. Shame can damage self-esteem and quality of life as much as externally imposed stereotyping.”

Neeru and Kaushik-2

Love Transcends Age

Many of the seniors at India Home find themselves at a point where they are in a position to enjoy the companionship they have achieved over a lifetime spent together.

As Geeta put it, “Even today, after 45 years of marriage, we go everywhere, for walks, shopping and so on, together. He [her spouse, Shantilal] likes being with me.” 

Sudha, said of her partner of 52 years, “We’ve learned to live together over the years. When one is angry, the other keeps quiet. Then when we cool down we talk about it, express our opinions.”Narulas-2

Listening to these veteran couples would help anyone who has ever been in a relationship identify and empathize with them and undo, what Applewhite calls, “the “otherness” that powers ageism…”

The truth is that love transcends age. This doesn’t need to be said, but older adults, whether they are 60 or 80 years old, feel love, longing, tenderness, friendship, passion–all the emotions that make us fully and gloriously human.

Giridhar, a quiet senior at our center, expressed his feelings about his relationship eloquently when he said, “Like the left leg and the right leg is needed to keep the body upright, my wife and I worked together to make our marriage work.”

Patels-2Disrupting Notions of Love

So to celebrate this Valentine’s Day, we decided to disrupt the stereotypes that exclude older adults from this national celebration of love. Our Twitter campaign features vibrant, loving couples talking candidly about their long partnerships.

After all, love is love, no matter what age you feel you are.

Another Valentine

by Wendy Cope

Today we are obliged to be romantic
And think of yet another valentine.
We know the rules and we are both pedantic:
Today’s the day we have to be romantic.

Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine. – 

 

India Home’s New Report Details Needs of Bangladeshi elders

MigratingIndia Home recently undertook a Needs Assessment Survey of the Bangladeshi elders we serve  in order to gain an objective and honest understanding of their needs. In the tradition of our partnerships with universities, the survey was conducted by graduate students from Hunter College Urban Policy & Leadership Graduate Research. The findings from the survey were published in a report titled “Migrating from Bangladesh to New York: Needs of Seniors.” Working closely with India Home’s staff, graduate students, Katherine Elston, Marc Fernandes Oriade, Tanik Harbor and Jormary Melo co-authored the report.

The 2010 US Census reported that the New York metropolitan area is home to the largest concentration of South Asians in the United States. Bangladeshi seniors were the fastest growing group among all seniors in New York City, increasing at a rate of over 600% between 2000 and 2014, according to the Asian American Federation’s 2016 American Community Survey.

Moreover, 52% of the respondents in Jamaica had arrived in the US only within the last five years, and an additional 15% within the last ten. As a result,  77% of Bangladeshi seniors have limited English proficiency–a fact that points to an even greater need for immediate support.

The elders were asked 4 questions:

  1. What are the current housing needs for Bangladeshi seniors in regards to being both affordable as well as culturally-specific?
  2.  What physical and mental health issues are impacting these seniors?
  3. Is access to quality health care available in their community?
  4. How does transportation (or lack of) impact their daily lives?

A robust survey tool and interview template was used to get answers from the elders at India Home’s Desi Senior Center. The survey was administered to 106 survey respondents and to nine key informants chosen from among other non-profits and leaders serving the community. The responses yielded a rich trove of data which was then analyzed to provide findings and make recommendations for the future.

Community Gaps and How to Move Forward

The research provided strong evidence of need for Bangladeshi seniors in Jamaica. The research team identified key findings within housing, mental and physical health, and transportation. In addition, the data revealed two important underlying concerns that should be addressed immediately.

1. Bangladeshi seniors face the highest rates of poverty and low income status across New York City.

2. As one of the newest senior immigrant populations in the region, their English language skills are low. This lack of proficiency makes it extremely hard for these seniors to navigate the community and the social service resources they need for support.

Furthermore, the findings from this needs assessment in Jamaica show even higher rates of lack of income and limited English proficiency than previously collected data from other city-wide research efforts.

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Elders fill out the surveys created by Hunter College Urban Policy and Leadership Graduate Research

Key Findings

A few of the key findings to the initial four questions include:

  • Lack of affordable culturally-specific independent senior housing in Jamaica
  • high levels of social isolation and the stigma seniors face in regard to talking about their state of mental health
  • the absence of chronic disease management and the negative impact of poor diet and limited exercise on their quality of life
  • the underutilization of the public transit system due to cost, language barriers, and discomfort in navigating the system.

Recommendations

The research teams recommended that all needs identified within the report be integrated into India Home’s long-term strategic plan and the specific recommendations provided be taken up for implementation.

These include

  • expanding daily services at the center
  • creating innovative programs for seniors and their families
  • strengthening existing community partnerships as well as building new ones, and
  • continuing to collect data to gain a deeper understanding of the community.

The report felt that by incorporating the report’s recommendations, India Home can further its mission to address the inequities that impact the most vulnerable community member, and help transform Jamaica’s Bangladeshi senior population from one with great needs to one with greater assets.

This article quotes the report with minor changes. To read the full report please click here: Migrating from Bangladesh: Needs of Seniors

 

Maganbhai and Kamuben Chavda: 63 years together, for poorer, or richer!

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Maganbhai Chavda is tall and thin, a white-haired gentleman who towers over his wife Kamuben’s tiny bird-like figure.  Kamuben,  in turn, is the one you will see dancing the vigorous garba at every opportunity. The husband and wife, both 82, are unmistakable fixtures at India Home’s Sunnyside Community Center location.  They were born in 1935 and have been married for 63 years, sharing a long, eventful life–one that has seen them journeying from abject poverty in a tiny village in Gujarat in India to a life in New York that is filled with success and generosity. The couple spoke to India Home together one afternoon, trading stories, completing each others sentences, refreshing each other’s memory.

Growing up during India’s Independence struggle: 

Kamuben says: “I was 13 years old when India became free and we would stay up night after night because the government said they would announce India’s Independence. Finally, we were told that India was free. All the kids ran out into the street cheering. We had steel plates and we began banging on them with sticks and shouting –we went around the city in a big parade.” Her husband, Maganbhai, has his own memories, although less dramatic: “I remember that there was a building in my village that was built after Mahatma Gandhi-ji visited in 1932. He came through our village on his way to the Salt March in 1932. We children would talk about him all the time.”

“Every day was a crisis of poverty.”

 Maganbhai’s parents were field hands. They were illiterate and worked the land, doing hard physical labor. “We children could only eat if our parents worked with their bodies,” he explains.  As a result of his family’s difficulties his education suffered. ” When I was in the 7th grade I left school. I was an excellent student, first class first, but I had to get a job because we had no money. I couldn’t afford to go to college or pay the boarding fees to stay in town. I became a teacher  and worked for two years. I didn’t like being a teacher, so I joined the postal service in the village. I had six people working for me. I stayed on in that job for 30 years, and only left it to come to the United States. 

Even in 1953, her father-in-law was a feminist

Kamuben studied up to SSC in Baroda and then trained as a teacher. After marriage she moved with Maganbhai to his tiny village of Borsad in Gujarat where they started living with his parents and siblings. “I became a teacher and taught primary school from 1-7th grade. I liked teaching the small children in 1st grade. The kids loved me and everyone gave me a lot of respect. Some parents would come to the school and insist that they wanted their child to be in my class.” Kamuben at one point had 14 assistants working under her and she retired as the Principal of the school after teaching for 30 years.

 Yet it’s the family that she married into that she reminisces about the most. Her father-in-law was illiterate and a farm worker, but she says, the way she was treated was unusual for the era. “My father-in-law was a gem. When I got married I was very delicate and my father-in-law wouldn’t let me go to get water from the public tap. He would come to help.  There were so many restrictions for women in those days. They were to be veiled, they couldn’t laugh or talk in front of their inlaws or even wear shoes.  My father -in-law said, “Wear your shoes.” He was an enlightened person, his attitude was so modern. He always said, “do something new, leave these outdated, ancient rituals.”  We used to play with my father-in-law, a game with cowrie-shells. He didn’t want us to be veiled — he put an end to all that. People in the village used to laugh at us say mean things. They’d tease my in-laws and say that they were letting me do whatever I wanted because I was educated. After a while, though, following our family’s ideas,  even villagers also changed their attitude towards women.”

“My father died without a good doctor, so I vowed to make my sons into doctors”

 Maganbhai and Kamuben are sorrowful when they recall the day his father died. “We had no money to treat him or take him to a hospital in Ahmedabad city. So he died in the village. Maganbhai was changed by his father’s death. “That day I decided I will make at least one son a doctor,” he said said. “Fortunately,  I had three sons and they were all intelligent and they had our support,” he says. Today, not one, but all three of the couple’s sons are medical doctors–one is a radiologist, the others practice ER-Medicine and pulmonary medicine. The couple are justifiably proud of their sons and daughter. “They sent us on a tour of Europe, they sent us to South East Asia,” they said, each one talking over the other in their excitement.

Coming to America

Kamuben’s sister immigrated first to the U.S. and then sponsored the couple. Their children were grown and had done MBA’s in India, but with typical drive and enterprise, they studied further and became doctors. Their only daughter is an accountant. Maganbhai, even after spending his entire career in the post office, decided to continue working in the US and operated a Lotto machine in his brother-in-law’s store. “I started at $3.50 an hour in 1985,” he says. “When I finally listened to my children and stopped working, I was making $7.00 an hour.”

The Goddess of Charity

Kamuben and Maganbhai have been in the US for 30 years. They are comfortably off and their children are doing well. Yet they have never forgotten the days when they weren’t so fortunate. “Everyday was a crisis without enough money,” Kamuben says. Now they sponsor kids who are smart but may not have the means to go to college or  get graduate degrees.  They sent a friend’s young son to London to study. If someone wants money, we give it to them.  “Because we have seen what happens when you have no money, we help anyone who needs it.  We’ve helped so many families, helped their kids come up in the world. Even though I was in the village, I would cook for poor kids who didn’t have anything to eat. I’d feel sad for them.”  Maganbhai teases his wife: ” When we go to India, all our relatives call her the “Goddess of Charity.”

So what’s the secret of their happiness? 

The couple is remarkably active even though they are both 82 years old. Maganbhai waves his hand: “Don’t worry, be happy. Worrying too much makes you sick,” he says. Kamuben nods: “We don’t have any illnesses. I say, eat, drink, be happy, help others and don’t be selfish with your money. If you have enough to eat, feed others. Everyday I pray that god gives me the means to help others.”

On India Home 

“We come here, we see our friends, our brother-in-law is here – we have a good time.”

India Home Honored by Scott Stringer, New York City Comptroller

India Home was honored with a Commendation by Scott Stringer, New York City Comptroller for outstanding services to the city of New York. In his speech on the occasion, Comptroller Stringer, congratulated us for the “culturally sensitive social, nutritional, psychological, recreational” programs we provide to South Asian seniors, as well as the opportunities we give our elders to develop “leadership and engage in self-advocacy.” We were honored alongside two sister organizations providing crucial services to South Asian communities: Indo-Caribbean Alliance and The Sikh Coalition. The event was also a Diwali celebration and was attended by 200-300 movers and shakers from New York City’s South Asian community. We were thrilled to have so many of our members join us and dressed in their traditional best to show their support and joy! You can see more photos by clicking here.

Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, our Executive Director receives the commendation for services to NYC from Comptroller Scott Stringer

Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, our Executive Director receives the commendation for outstanding services to NYC from Comptroller Scott Stringer

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