Tag Archive | "immigrants"

Bronx Cricketers Push For More Pitches

The Columbia Cricket Club and the Long Island Kings play a cricket match at Van Cortlandt Park on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Dressed in classic cricket whites, the players waited for their batsman to play the match’s crucial moment in Van Cortlandt Park. The Columbia Cricket Club had only one more chance to beat the Long Island Kings, who had scored 114 runs. As the bowler pitched the ball, the players watched from their place on the cricket pitch. When the batsman struck the winning run, they erupted into cheers. Their teammates on the sidelines stormed the field. Columbia Cricket Club had chased 115 runs with three wickets to spare. The team was going to the league playoffs.

Columbia Cricket Club players cheer on their teammates who are on the field. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Every weekend, the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park becomes a hub for New York City cricket. On a Sunday morning in late September, the 1 train headed to the borough was packed with players lugging their bats and equipment. Family and friends set up beach chairs on the sidelines to watch games. Spectators kept score and retired players served as umpires. South Asian and Caribbean music played from portable speakers.

Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are among the country’s cricket hotspots. In New York City alone, there are more than 200 teams.

Experts say the sport is one of the fastest-growing in the United States. The Bronx is home to immigrants from some of the world’s most cricket-devout countries, including a Bangladeshi population that has more than tripled since 1990.

The Columbia Cricket Club and the Long Island Kings shake hands after the game finishes. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

“Cricket gives us identity. It’s like a culture to us. It’s like a religion. We can’t stop playing,” said Lokendra Chauhan, President of the Columbia Cricket Club.

Players from the Columbia Cricket Club, one of the largest clubs in New York City, are from India, Australia, Antigua, Pakistan, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. It also has one of the few American-born players in the city, an Irish school teacher with no tradition of the sport. 

For many immigrants, playing is a way to remain close to home and build community as they navigate life in the United States. “You have been living in one country, you leave everyone and everything behind for a better future,” said Chauhan, who is from India.

“Cricket brings us a family life.” 

But the rapidly-growing, cricket-loving immigrant population has put increased pressure on the Bronx’s pitches, with demand for playing time exceeding available fields, according to borough cricket leadership.

The Bronx’s three home leagues—New York Cricket League, Commonwealth Cricket League, and the newer Royal Premier League—share the pitches at Van Cortlandt Park, Soundview Park, and Ferry Point Park. 

“We need to play. We need space. There is a demand for space on the weekends,” said Milford Lewis, who was president of the New York Cricket League for 11 years until 2017. 

A traditional cricket match lasts around five days, but the cab drivers, executives, waiters, doctors, lawyers, and janitors who play cricket in New York City can only play Saturdays and Sundays. In the Bronx, leagues usually play Twenty20, a shortened version of the sport played in three hours. But even the reduced game time hasn’t averted scheduling issues, since the Bronx has lost seven official pitches in the last six years. 

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The Parade Ground at Van Cortlandt Park. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

In 2013, the Department of Parks and Recreation injected $15 million to redesign the Parade Ground, a 66-acre swath of land used for cricket, soccer, baseball, football, cross-country, and Gaelic football at Van Cortlandt Park. The space was closed for three years until the construction was finished. 

Renovations were a significant improvement—the pitches were made regulation size and designated exclusively for the sport with no field overlapping with other sports—but two fields were lost. It left the Bronx with 18, still more than any other borough. Brooklyn and Queens trailed behind with 16 and 13 fields respectively.

But other sports have since cut into cricket real estate. Just last year, the Department of Parks and Recreation took away two more pitches at the Parade Grounds to create three small-sided soccer fields.

The Bronx now has nine fields in Van Cortlandt Park and two in Ferry Point Park, putting the official number of dedicated pitches at 11. There is also a cricket pitch at Soundview Park and a softball field that doubles as a cricket pitch, but NYC Parks doesn’t list the spaces for play on its website as of September 2019, although players said they are still using them.

Our pitches were designated solely for cricket. Now we have to share it with soccer, share it with frisbee, share it with athletics,” said Lewis, who is from Guyana. “If we can at least get one or two other pitches put out for us at any other ground in the Bronx, we will be thrilled. Cricket wants to get bigger, so we need bigger spaces.” 

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Ravi Etwaroo, owner of Cricket Zone USA, pictured here with cricket bats at his Parkchester-based store. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Ravi Etwaroo, a Guyanese immigrant, has been running Cricket Zone USA, the Bronx’s only cricket store, since 2003. His clientele, which he estimates to be around 3,000 players from across the city, keeps him in the loop. Many of his customers complain about the need for more fields. Some say they have to commute to other boroughs to play. “Some have even stopped playing because it’s too inconvenient to play when you have to spend a whole day commuting and you have a family waiting at home,” Etwaroo said.

Leagues, in particular, are affected by the lack of space, since they are in charge of scheduling matches amongst their club members. They must apply to NYC Parks for a permit to play at public facilities. 

In 2017, twenty-two permits were approved, none were denied, and fourteen were withdrawn. In 2019, twenty-seven were approved, 4 were denied, and four were withdrawn. These statistics don’t include the Soundview pitch. 

 “NYC Parks works hard to accommodate space and scheduling needs for all of our permit applicants,” said Anessa Hodgon, a press officer for the Department of Parks and Recreation. “Denied applications typically stem from lack of availability.”

But permit statistics don’t account for individuals, non-affiliated teams, and smaller leagues who might also want space to play but don’t apply because established teams are often grandfathered into the same time slots year after year. People without permits will often just hop into a field that isn’t in use. 

They also don’t reflect league sizes. Commonwealth Cricket League has around 2,000 players and 162 teams across the city. “It’s the biggest cricket league in North America,” said President Lesley Lowe, who founded the league in 1980 with his father and brothers.

Lowe, the most senior cricket administrator in the country, agreed that there is a need for more fields, but doesn’t where they would go. “I’ve grown up here and played at Van Cortlandt since I was fourteen. I’ve scoped out the Bronx for pitches, inch by inch. A cricket field is twice the size of a baseball diamond. Where can we put that?” 

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The lack of fields doesn’t only affect adult male teams, who dominate New York City’s cricket scene. It’s especially difficult for women to form teams and carry out regular practice meets since men’s teams have established tenure over many of the grounds.

Samantha Ramautar’s official portrait for USA Cricket. © USA Cricket

Samantha Ramautar, a member of the women’s USA national cricket team, said that the lack of field availability impacts New York’s female cricket players, who only get together once or twice to play during the summer. She trains in a New Jersey facility that is one and a half hours away.

“We don’t get as many opportunities as the guys do,” she said, “If there were more facilities, you’d find more women that wouldn’t feel intimidated playing with the guys, and we would have more leagues.” 

New York City is also the only city in the United States with cricket teams at public high schools. Three of the 34 participating schools are in the Bronx.“The public school cricket athletic league is the brainchild of the development of cricket in New York City,” said Milford Lewis, who has been an umpire since 1996 and often runs youth games. 

Lewis says that the youth teams serve as feeders for the cricket scene, but that can be difficult to sustain when they don’t have regular, dedicated space to play. “They have to start playing in April to make sure everyone has time to use the pitches. I’ve done games where the temperature was in the 50s. Their hands are cold, their feet are cold, their faces are cold.” 

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Bronx Community Board 9 Chairman William Rivera is working with NYC Parks to create the first cricket-dedicated pitch in his district at Pugsley and Randall Avenues. Rivera was inspired to pursue this initiative when he attended a cricket award ceremony at Parkchester’s Starling Avenue, which is a predominantly Bangladeshi area.“Children in my district grew up watching this sport in their birth countries, grew up watching their parents, and moved here later learning that this sport they love doesn’t have a real outlet for them to play,” he said. 

USA Cricket, which was re-organized by the International Cricket Council last year, is hoping to rehabilitate New York’s cricket infrastructure as it invests $1 billion in the sport across the country over the next ten years. Its ambitious plans include a cricket stadium for international play in New York City. The Bronx is on the list of potential locations because of its large green spaces and vibrant cricket scene. 

“If Bronx comes and says, we are ready to partner with you and we’ll give you a ten-acre park, we will help. Even if we forget about the stadium, even if they are looking to put a turf pitch, we are ready for that too,” said USA Cricket Club Director Ajith Baskar.  

The pitch above is covered with Astroturf, but has clay underneath instead of concrete. When it rains, there is inconsistent ball bounce and pitch variations. Having high-quality grass pitches is a priority for players in New York City.

“That would be heaven,” said Columbia Cricket Club President Lokendra Chauhan. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Rather than creating more playing spaces, some cricket players believe that enhancing the current pitches could make the usage of space more efficient. Implementing floodlights, for example, could double playtime by making nighttime cricket possible. Better upkeep of the facilities, such as keeping grass short and installing natural turf pitches, would help New York teams train to compete at an international level. In turn, raising the sport’s visibility could give clubs and leagues leverage as they advocate for more space. 

“If we have ambitions in New York to be delivering players that can step up at a high club and international level, the facilities here are inadequate at the moment to provide for that,” said Sumantro Das, a Columbia Cricket Club player from New Delhi.

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After winning its match against the Long Island Kings, the Columbia Cricket Club huddled together in a circle to debrief. Team officers gave a rousing speech to their players. They were proud of the work their team had done to secure the win. After the game, the players went for drinks to celebrate their victory.

This is what keeps bringing Das, who has been playing with his club for the last ten years, to the cricket pitches in the Bronx. He played professionally with the Birmingham League in England two summers ago and enjoys the competition and the thrill. But it’s the community aspect of it that he loves.

“This scene is vibrant. It’s exciting. The full breadth of diversity is incredible. It’s economic, it’s national, it’s community-wide, it’s international. It’s a beautiful picture.”

The Columbia Cricket Club storms the field after winning its match against the Long Island Kings on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes
A player from Columbia Cricket Club takes off his legs pad, used by batsmen and wicket keepers to protect their legs from the hard leather balls used in cricket. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes
The Columbia Cricket Club celebrates its victory against the Long Island Kings on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, SportsComments (0)

Putting Little Yemen on The Map

At a small intersection with an under-developed park called Green Streets, no longer than the length of three tightly parked cars, lies the center of Little Yemen in Morris Park. Door-to-door services crowd the street in front, including Al-Meraj, a halal meat market, and Gamal Business Services, where Arabic-language employees provide tax, translation, and notary services.

The Green Steets intersection that Yahay Obeid hopes to rename “Little Yemen” park.

For Yahay Obeid, this is also the center of his dream.

Obeid, a control supervisor at JFK Airport, serves on Community Board 11 as the public committee safety chair and is the outreach liaison for his local mosque. His current mission is to establish the enclave’s identity as Little Yemen on Google Maps.

Obeid wants the official designation because it will encourage residents to feel a sense of belonging and pride in the Bronx, he said.

His goal is to give residents “a place where they can say, ‘Yeah, I’m waiting for you at the Little Yemen triangle.’”

The heart of the neighborhood is on White Plains Road and Rhinelander Avenue, where the most popular Yemeni restaurant, Arth Aljanatain, is located. The restaurant’s windowed walls offer a view of Green Streets, where passersby can see local Yemeni customers sitting on one of their eight tables. It’s where the coach of the Yemen United Soccer Club takes his his sons for dishes such as salta, a meat broth-based soup, and rice and chicken dishes. The main mosque of the area – that holds two Friday prayer services to accommodate the worshippers – is here too. Hookah cafes, a Yemeni supermarket, and Yemeni delis and pharmacies surround that one intersection.

Little Yemen, which encompasses pockets from Van Nest and Bronx Park East, is a small pocket of the approximate 120,000 residents in the area, according to the NYU Furman Center.

Local Islamic-wear boutique, across the street from the Bronx Muslim Center.

And it’s even a smaller fraction of the approximate 6,900 Yemenis in New York State, estimated by the Arab American Institute Foundation. The number of Yemenis residing in the Bronx and specifically in District 11 is unclear to community officials. 

Obeid got the idea to reach out to Google earlier this summer, when he took part in the planning of the city’s first-ever Yemeni-American Day Parade. Anwar Alomaisi, the parade’s volunteer photographer, took a drone photo that captured the crowd at the triangle intersection. Once Obeid saw it, he was inspired to try to create “Little Yemen.”

Obeid submitted his request to Google using its My Business mobile application. Google verified the location and a few weeks later, Little Yemen was on the map. Sort of. It appears on Google Maps as a museum open 24/7. All Google Maps users can also manually add suggestions for businesses, hospitals, streets, and other places, where it will go through a verification process, but they cannot add neighborhoods.

Screenshot of Little Yemen on Google Maps as of September 5, 2019.

“It might not be an official museum, but people will check it out,” Obeid said about the designation.

Separately, Obeid has made a request to the Department of Parks and Recreation to rename the park to “Little Yemen.” He will reach out to Google to change the museum designation if the park is renamed with a sponsorship from the Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the meanwhile, “it will be somewhat of an outdoor museum of the Yemeni community.”

Google retrieves neighborhood information from third-party providers and public sources that they describe as local government websites and transportation operators, according to a Google Spokesperson.

They define borders with a red outline to map boundaries. 

Establishing Little Yemen on the map would solidify the Arab presence in the area, said Jeremy Warneke, Community Board 11 District Manager.

“They’re very visible and present, and you can either embrace the future or do your best to deny it,” Warneke said.

Ethnic enclaves, or Littles, in New York City, are typically defined by “commercial, residential, and institutional concentration of a particular ethnic group,” said Tarry Hum, Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College, CUNY

She notes that neighborhoods develop out of  “reciprocity and ethnic solidarity, class relations (and conflict) [that are] tempered by shared culture, language, experience of racial discrimination.”

Many Littles in New York don’t appear on Google Maps. The New York Times mapped out several based on population concentrations. In the Bronx alone, there are at least six distinctive neighborhoods, including Little Ireland in Woodlawn Heights, Little Albania in Pelham Parkway, and Little Ghana in Concourse Village, which are just some of the 30 Littles the Bronx Ink identified throughout New York City.

Obeid considers his efforts “a gift to the Yemeni community.” 

“Now they see us out of the grocery stores.”

On October 3, 2019, a few weeks after this story went live, The Bronx Ink discovered that Little Yemen’s designation on Google Maps changed from museum to neighborhood. The new designation can be viewed by clicking this Google Maps link.

This story was updated to reflect the following correction: Yahay made the request to change the name of the park to the Department of Parks and Recreation, not the community board.


Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Featured, ImmigrationComments (1)

Unofficial American: A Mexican Immigrant in the Bronx

“How can I help you?” asked Israel Sanchez, 20, at Ritchie Torres’ City Council office in the Bronx. He had a calm presence and professional tone, wore a button-down checkered shirt, and spoke with no accent. He was caught at the reception desk with no reference files in front of him but was still able to explain in detail the status of Latino immigrants in the neighborhood. He gave all reference contacts, including email addresses, accurately from memory.

It’s a topic Sanchez knows well. His family is not only part of the immigrant community in Fordham but among the most vulnerable.

“My parents and I live off the book. We pay taxes but the country doesn’t recognize us as legal residents,” he said. “On one hand, you love this country, but on the other, your life is really difficult.”

Meanwhile, a Latino family of ten crowded into the city council office, taking over the reception area that only tightly fits five chairs. Three adults and a flock of children, whose ages varied from toddler to early teen, all spoke Spanish to each other. The woman with the youngest on her lap shook her head with an awkward smile when she was asked if she spoke English. They needed Sanchez to help them communicate.

“People think things in elections won’t affect your lives. But it’s because of what Obama did, I was able to be here and do what I do,” he said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – a presidential executive action that President Trump would rescind and President Clinton would defend. The Sanchez family, who cannot vote in the elections, hope the voters will make the right choice for them.

Protection against Deportation

Sanchez was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was two years old. His parents took him to climb over thorny fences at the Mexico-California border, and flew to New York. He qualifies for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the executive action initiated by President Obama in June 2012. The action has temporarily protected more than 700,000 immigrants from deportation, 66.6 percent of whom are Mexicans. These immigrants, who are eligible for the executive action and are called the Dreamers, were brought to the United States as children and have made the country their home. Although the executive action does not offer a legal path to citizenship, the Dreamers approved are given temporary work permits.

Immediately after the policy announcement by President Obama, Sanchez applied for the executive action, eager to be able to work legally. He researched the application process, gathered all the legal documents, and submitted the application himself.

Sanchez is temporarily relieved that there is finally a policy that protects immigrants without legal permission like him. “I guess I would be more concerned to meet you if I’m not protected by DACA,” Sanchez said. “The concern is always at the back of our heads.”

His concern does not come from nowhere. The Obama administration has deported more immigrants than any previous president, and the number has been steadily increasing year by year. Although New York City is not among the cities with the top number of deportations, Sanchez and his family are still at risk every day. He deliberately avoids any unlawful activity – things that would be destructive but less devastating for American citizens to be caught doing, such as possession marijuana or working at an illegal business. His uncle’s experience taught the family a lesson.

Hoping to work and earn his living, Sanchez’s uncle landed a job at a company that manufactured counterfeit Nike shoes, where many of the workers were undocumented. Later, the company was reported to the police and had to shut down. Sanchez’s uncle was arrested, and his status was exposed, along with the other immigrant workers who did not have work permit. As a result, he was deported and sent back to Mexico in 2012, after living 20 years in the United States.

 

The Identity

Although Sanchez’s parents have always told him to be extra careful, he was on TV once with Julissa Arce, an author and advocate for Mexican immigrants. In facing the topic, Sanchez never backs down, and his spine is always straight. After Sanchez received protection against deportation, he has become more active in speaking for immigrants like him. Margaret Calmer, Sanchez’s girlfriend since high school, recalled that their high school friends who used to joke about him being Mexican respected him more after knowing the hardships he has faced.

Without a second of hesitation, Sanchez identifies himself as an American. He enjoys Mexican food and music, but since his first memory, he has never stepped out of the country. He’s had an American education and upholds American values like independence and protection for human rights. He wants a career in government to make better policies for immigrants like him.

In order to achieve his goal, Sanchez interned at the city council office while he was a full-time college student and working at Staples for tuitions and expense. “He always works extra hard to prove that he deserves to be here,” Calmer said.

But he becomes frustrated when his identity clashes with how other people see him. “I think I’m an American, but it’s difficult to claim, since I’m not a citizen,” said Sanchez. He finds many people address him first in Spanish. He was once stopped on his way to Boston because his truck had a headlight out, but the police officers asked if he spoke English and searched his truck for drugs for half an hour. After private middle school, he was accepted to a private boarding high school in Virginia, but this dream school revoked the admission decision after the family visited the campus. The school told him that the revocation was a result of his legal status, but he speculated the real reason being that other students’ parents did not like his Mexican origin.

“I was the only Mexican kid. It was very difficult for people like me to go to a school with bunch of rich kids. You kinda feel you are out of the place” Sanchez said. “You kinda expected things like this to happen, but you didn’t think it would actually happen.”

The school admission office, on the other hand, stated that the school would verify the legal status of any applicant. The director of admission did not recall any incident of revocation of admission offer since 2006.

Sanchez’s road to the American Dream demands more efforts than his American peers. He says his Mexican parents hardly know how American society works, and, along with his two younger brothers, rely heavily on him to navigate their lives. Sanchez in many ways has become the third parent of the family. From credit cards to car insurance to college applications and internships, Sanchez has learned it all by himself.

“I have to explain little things like internships to my parents. Sometimes it’s frustrating,” he said.

 

Unseen Future

Because Sanchez’s temporary status comes from a presidential executive action, the next president, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, could revoke the policy. People like Sanchez would no longer be able to work legally and would not be protected from deportations. It’s his worst nightmare.

He is afraid that the new president will drop the policy, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service will report him to law enforcement units for deportations. “They know me now. They know I’m here,” he said.

Sanchez is graduating from Baruch College in two years. He has two scholarships that cover all his tuition, putting no financial burden on his family. But his political commitment to make immigrants’ lives better would be more promising if he were born in the country and had a U.S. passport.

“He’s just normal, like the rest of us. He jokes around and he enjoys his life. But until something changes, there’s always going to be legal status hanging over his mind preventing him from living an entirely normal life,” Calmer said. “All he wants is a normal life.”

“I can never be the President. That’s one thing,” half-joked Sanchez. But whoever does become president can determine whether he can become officially American.

Posted in Bronx Life, FeaturedComments (0)

Obama the Favorite in this Bronx Barbershop

Ghanaian immigrants watching Tuesday’s presidential debate in a Bronx barbershop concluded that Obama deserves another term. (SELASE KOVE-SEYRAM/ The Bronx Ink)

Seated between two Hispanic women on the Number 4 train heading to the Bronx, a middle-aged looking African woman talked on her cellphone in a language that was a world away from her immediate surroundings.

The woman was speaking Twi, a language that is common in the West African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast. “As for today, Obama needs to pull up,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “If the other man wins, he’s going to put a tag reading ‘For Sale’ on all of us.” Her reference to the second 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was clear. The debate would be live in less than 15 minutes.

An estimated 14,769 Ghanaians live in the Bronx, the single largest group from an African country in the borough. A recent report from the American Community survey shows that Africans are the second largest immigrant group in the Bronx out of six continents. And even though they are more than 5,000 miles away from their homeland and many can’t vote here, they are deeply engaged in the current election.

Inside a large barbershop on Walton Avenue in the Bronx Tuesday night, over a dozen men watched the live Presidential debate amidst cheers and catcalls. Aged  29 to 48 years old, they all identify themselves as Ghanaian immigrants. They said they were united in the view that health care, immigration and foreign policy are the issues they are most concerned about and they prefer Obama to Romney.

Awudu Issu, 36, was one of the men. Looking calm in his green sweatshirt, he seemed removed from the discussion until the debate ended. When he finally spoke, it was with careful deliberation. His views of the two candidates are influenced by his own experiences. “I don’t support Obama because he is black,” he said.  “He is the U.S. President and I’m supporting him objectively.”

Issu arrived in this country in June, 2011, on a Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which gives permanent residence visas to persons who meet eligibility requirements set by the State Department. He now holds a green card and can access free medical care. A graduate of a technical university in Ghana, Issu works as a shop attendant in a Goodwill store in the Bronx. “I came to America because there are opportunities here for immigrants,” he said. “Obama is consistent with his message for people like us, but Romney is not.” He cited Mitt Romney’s response to Arizona gun control laws raised in the debate as an example.

Issu worried that a Republican victory might disturb his plans of enrolling in an American university after making enough money from his current job because he said, “Republicans have more foreign policies which do not favor immigrants.”

The owner of the barbershop, Kwame Agbo, 38, agreed. “We need somebody who can do the job and Romney does not favor immigrants in his statements,” Agbo said. Though a Ghanaian, he currently holds American citizenship after living here for the past 16 years. A registered Democrat, he said he is familiar with what many new immigrants go through. “It is not good to see people getting deported while trying to work on their immigration documents,” he said. He thinks Romney might do that.

“I currently get a single check, and I have five kids,” says Gibrin Mohammed, 42. “Obamacare is something that would also help me, but Romney does not like it. I will go for Obama.” Like Agbo, Mohammed is also a Ghanaian immigrant who has been living in the United States for 16 years. He currently works as an undercover security officer in a Polo Ralph Lauren store.

The barbershop punditry is a world away from what is happening in Ghana, where elections will be held in early December. The Ghanaians see a stark contrast with the electoral process in their homeland. In Ghana, a plan by a think tank to engage the presidential candidates in a debate has been postponed many times. The current series of debates is a chance to see American democracy in action. Kofi Addison, 29-year old assistant to Agbo said, “We are here, so this is home. When we go back to Ghana, we would be interested in that too.” Addison has been living in the Bronx for nine years and is now a registered Democrat.

As the second debate ends, the mood in the barbershop was one of excitement. Addison turned to the other viewers and communicated in Hausa, a major West African dialect. He later translated: “I like Obama, because he cares for the middle class. In America, that’s how people survive.”

Posted in Featured, Politics, Southern BronxComments (0)

Yemenis in South Bronx can’t forget the turmoil they left behind

“Papa, take me with you,” Abu Hamad recalled his five-year-old son pleading with him on the phone from Sana’a last Oct. 10. The Hunts Point shopkeeper’s half smile could not hide the worry in his dark round eyes. His three young children and wife are still living in the capital of Yemen, he said. And not even his American citizenship could help them out of the mountain city that is reeling from an increasingly violent civil uprising.

On Sept. 24, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 33 years, returned to his homeland after a brief medical exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. He was forced out of the country after an assassination attempt. The departure raised hopes for reform in the Arabian Peninsula nation of 24 million people. But his abrupt return has sparked fresh violence, which has already claimed close to 2,500 causalities since February. On Oct. 16, 18 more people were killed and 30 others were wounded in clashes between Saleh’s troops and his rivals, according to news reports from the region.

It was mid-afternoon Monday in South Bronx. Save for the periodic chugging overhead of the No. 2 train and the occasional ringing of the cash register, it was quiet inside the 37-year-old cellphone dealer’s shop. But Abu Hamad’s restrained outrage was bubbling up time and time again. Two hours earlier, he was on the phone with his family and he learned that the neighborhood where they live is only getting an hour of electricity every day. It was especially upsetting because they live less than five minutes away from Saleh’s presidential palace, Abu Hamad said.

“What kind of life is that?” said Abu Hamad. “It’s a shame. We need to change the President.”

For now, Abu Hamad remains helpless. It has been four years since his last visit to Sana’a. Months ago, he had to meet secretly with his family in Egypt. But with their immigration documents pending and the U.S. embassy in Yemen shuttered, he could not fly them back to America.

Abdul Karim, former president of the Yemeni Immigrant Association in New York, warned that the situation in Yemen could get worse. The 52-year-old South Bronx businessman said Saleh cannot be trusted despite his pledge to resign before the next presidential election in 2013.

“President Saleh has been known to be a big liar,” said Karim, a Columbia University graduate and member of a lobby group asking for the U.S. government to pressure Saleh to resign. “That’s his tactics for the past 33 years. He’s been governing on such a premise. That’s basically his foundation for ruling the country.”

Karim, who has an international affairs degree from Columbia, said Saleh’s cooperation in hunting down top Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and other suspected terrorists within Yemen, has complicated the U.S. government’s effort to force him out of office. The U.S.-born Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, were killed on Sept. 30, just six days after Saleh’s return to Yemen. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was also killed Oct. 14.

“The U.S. has been kind of looking the other way as long as it serves the American interest in eliminating radical elements,” said Karim, noting that many innocent civilians have also been killed. The former legislative candidate in Yemen’s highland city of Ta’izz said the U.S. has “no leverage” in its diplomatic run-in with Saleh.

Still, Karim said even if Saleh stays in power, his government is already “totally crippled.” “He can’t rule. It might turn to be ugly,” he said.

At this Yemeni-owned Hunts Point deli shop, talk of President Saleh's ouster is framed on the condition that it is done in an election. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

Aqel Allahabi, 22, manager and part owner of the Hunts Point Deli,  said he shares the sentiments of Karim and Abu Hamad. But he is not in favor of an armed rebellion against Saleh.

“If the people don’t like him, why did they vote for him?” Allahabi said, referring to the 2006 presidential election, when Saleh received more than three quarters of the vote. He said any change of leadership should be done in a “democratic way.”

Standing outside the door of Clinton Deli along East Tremont Avenue one weekday afternoon, Antar Al-Suhaidi said he could not be bothered by the political and armed conflict in his country of birth, which he left when he was only 14.

“It’s a deadlock,” said Al-Suhaidi. “We know nothing will change, so we stick to the main reason for our immigration, doing business here.”

The 20-year-old deli cashier said he works 12 to 13 hours a day, mostly seven days a week. “I work hard now, to enjoy a better life later in my home town,” said Al-Suhaidi, a native of Ibb in southwest Yemen. At the end of the day, he was too overworked to even think about politics, he said.

Abdul Karim said it is not that New York City’s Yemeni community, many of them in the grocery and deli business, are apathetic to their home country’s situation. But many are just caught up trying to survive and deal with their lives as new American immigrants.

“Life is very consuming here in America,” Karim said. “But are they aware of what’s going on in Yemen? Yes, they are aware of what’s going on.”

Back at the cell phone shop, Abu Hamad said his primary concern is the safety of his family. Abu Hamad, who came to the United States at 17, said he wants his children to enjoy what he went through when he first arrived in New York.

“I love it here,” Abu Hamad said. “When I am here, I’m in heaven. So if there’s a way, I would like them to have a good life, have a good education and to eat healthy.”

As he talked about reuniting with his family, Abu Hamad cocked a worried smile showing his perfectly aligned teeth, his tall and lanky frame sagging as if he was carrying the weight of the world. “God knows when that’s going to happen.”

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Advocates to Obama: Keep your promise

Around 400 concerned Bronx residents, politicians, and clergy marched down 159th Street and the Grand Concourse on Sunday imploring President Barack Obama to finally sign an executive order reforming America’s immigration laws.

It was an election promise the president failed to keep, the activists said. “Before he became President he promised us he will fix the problem with our immigration system in one year,” said Joel Bauza, pastor at Calvary Church in the Bronx and one of the organizers. “Three years later, we’re still waiting for him.”

Protesters said they became alarmed last week when the federal court in Alabama upheld a strict law requiring police and public school officials to verify the immigration status of detainees and students.

“The idea that just because you are brown skinned, you will be asked to show immigration papers is ridiculous and wrong,” said Bauza, from his perch in the back of an old pickup truck, where he was leading the marchers in chants. “They’re punishing all immigrants for the wrongdoing of a few.”

New York has approximately 625,000 undocumented immigrants, the fourth largest population in the nation, according to the Pew Hispanic center, a nonpartisan research organization. Half of the city’s undocumented residents live in the Bronx.

New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., who called the March for Dignity of Immigrants, walked in front of the demonstrators arms linked with elected officials and ministers from the Hispanic clergy organization. The protesters chanted, “Yes we can, no more deportation, Obama, keep your promise, and no more separating families.”

The rally showed a growing disillusionment from the president’s key supporters in the last election. In 2008, an overwhelming 89 percent of Bronx voters cast their ballot for Obama. Sen. Diaz, Sr. warned that could change in 2012.

Others were more blunt. If the president doesn’t sign an immigration reform bill, he’s going to have to leave in 2012 said Dr. Hector Chiesa, a senior pastor at the Church of God on Third Avenue.

A contentious debate over immigration rages on the campaign trail among Republican contenders. Activists in the Bronx said their concern is bigger than who wins the next election.

“The government that is for the people will remain, it doesn’t matter the party line,” said Bauza. “Everybody is trying to make immigration into a Republican, Democratic, liberal or conservative movement, what happened to the people?”

Since Obama took office in January 2009, more than one million immigrants have been deported from the United States. That has raised many eyebrows around the country. During a roundtable discussion with Latino media last month, Obama sought to explain the staggering number of deportation saying the statistics is deceptive.

“With the stronger border enforcement, we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back,” said Obama. “That is counted as a deportation even though they may have only been held for a day, or 48 hours.”

Activists insist separating loved ones is not a way to promote family values. “Deportation had left broken homes, children without fathers and mothers, families without hope,” said Diaz, Sr.. “The President can’t simply blame the Republicans or members of Congress for inaction. He can put this issue to rest if he wants to.”

The protesters welcomed the recent weeklong nationwide sweep that resulted in the arrest of 2901 convicted illegal immigrants, but cautioned that each case should be considered separately.

“Did they get arrested for criminal activities or simply because they were jaywalking?” asked Bauza.

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