Archive for November, 2007

November 6, 2007

Silenced South Asians: Lives in Poverty

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Feature

By Aparna Kothary and Roopika Risam

Silenced South Asians: Lives in Poverty

Public perceptions of the South Asian community in the United States suggest that we are a “model minority” that faces few challenges or obstacles. As South Asian politicians, entrepreneurs and physicians have become more visible in America, their success obscures the plight of the silent South Asians who live in poverty. While we acknowledge that our South Asian community is diverse in cultural practices, religion and language, we often do not acknowledge that income levels vary among South Asians. The “model minority” is indeed a myth, and it suggests that South Asians living in the United States are all wealthy or at least comfortable. This is not the case.

Challenges such as poverty, lack of access to employment and limited translation services affect disenfranchised members of the South Asian community. Contrary to popular perception about South Asians’ affluence, a significant percentage of South Asians live at or below the poverty line. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly two-thirds of Bangladeshi seniors are below 200 percent of the poverty line, and while only 13 percent of Indians are at 125 percent below the poverty line, this figure comprises over 200,000 individuals. The South Asian community needs more programs and organizations that offer services for this demographic of low-to moderate-income (LMI) individuals and needs to make people aware of the programs that do exist. Members of this demographic encounter immigration problems, and they lack access to basic services such as health care, education and affordable housing.

One Woman’s Story
Amina Nasreen* is the 20-year-old daughter of immigrants from Dhakha, Bangladesh. Her family arrived in the United States in 2002, when Amina was 15. “We came to New York to stay with family first and wanted to stay there. It was too expensive, and we moved to Washington [D.C.] to find a cheaper and safer place [to live].” Like many immigrants, the Nasreen family moved to the United States hoping for better opportunities for the children, Amina and her younger brother Adnan, now 14.

We left a comfortable life where we had servants. We had a big house, friends and relatives. I went to convent school. And we left it for this.”

In Bangladesh, Amina’s father, Rafiq, is qualified as an engineer and her mother, Seema, is a doctor. In Northern Virginia, where the Nasreens now live, Rafiq works as a gas station attendant, while Seema is no longer able to work because of health problems. Neither Rafiq nor Seema were able to find jobs that were comparable with the positions they left behind in Bangladesh. “It is their heartbreak,” says Amina, “We left a comfortable life where we had servants. We had a big house, friends and relatives. I went to convent school. And we left it for this.

According to Amina, “this” is a tiny, 900 square foot two bedroom apartment in a crumbling building in Fairfax County, Virginia. The family struggles to pay the $1500 monthly rent, which is why Amina went to work right away once she graduated from high school. “I did well in school. My education and English were good before coming here. But college was not a thought. Not even NoVA [Northern Virginia Community College]. My father could not support us by himself. He tried and took [on] long hours. So I knew I had to take a job as well.”

But Amina had difficulty finding a job. “I don’t know why people didn’t want to hire me. I wanted a job close to home so I could be near my mother. And we can’t afford a car.” She looked for employment as a receptionist or administrative assistant, but was unable to find a job. Finally, she began looking for any job she could find. “While he was at work, my father met a man who had taken over a fast-food shop at a local university. My father said I had trouble finding a job, so the kind man told my father he would hire me.” Amina took the job and has been working there for two years. Because the Nasreens couldn’t afford an apartment close to the Metro, Amina walks half a mile to the bus stop, takes the bus to the nearest Metro station, takes the Metro to another station, switching lines along the way, to get to work. Her commute can take up to two hours. Rafiq walks three miles to his own job. “It isn’t a lot of money,” Amina says of her job. “But I get $7 an hour. It will be $7.55 next June.” Working 40 hours a week, Amina takes home $1120 each month before taxes. Neither she, nor any of her family members, has health insurance. “All we have, it seems, are these jobs and our green cards.”

Like other working-class immigrant families, the Nasreens have found little information about where they can turn for help. “In America, you’re all alone,” Amina says. But Amina and her father are trying to save the little money that they can each month in the hopes that they will be able to send Adnan to college. “We’re telling him, ‘Work hard, work hard. Get a scholarship,’” Amina notes, “I don’t know what he thinks. He saw me work hard, and here I am. What kind of example is that?”

“In America, you’re all alone.”
“It’s hard, sometimes, working so close to the university. I see people who must be students and they come in and spend five dollars or even more on a sandwich. They sit and eat while reading a course book. I want to be doing that. But here I am.” She adds wryly, “I can take leftovers home.”

She admits that the life her family leads is not the one she had envisioned for herself. “It’s hard, sometimes, working so close to the university. I see people who must be students and they come in and spend five dollars or even more on a sandwich. They sit and eat while reading a course book. I want to be doing that. But here I am.” She adds wryly, “I can take leftovers home.”

Help is Available
As the South Asian population in the United States has grown, so too has the number of South Asian organizations that are dedicated to serving LMI families like the Nasreens. As a result, there are now many organizations that offer invaluable services for South Asians, including job training, language instruction and workshops for individual and community empowerment. Most organizations that serve the South Asian population are local, grassroots non-profit organizations.

In New York and New Jersey, for example, the Council of Peoples Organization or COPO, has been working with South Asians since February of 2002. This non-profit organization was created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and has reached out to over 8,500 South Asians in need since it first began. Unlike many organizations that focus on particular aspects of the South Asian experience in the United States, COPO incorporates multiple services and tries to provide a one-stop self-help shop for New York and New Jersey’s South Asian communities.

COPO’s mission is six-fold. One objective is to assist low-income South Asians, and one of the most important ways that the organization accomplishes this goal is through its language courses. COPO offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, including evening classes for working adults. The language barrier is a significant obstacle to finding employment, and COPO’s classes provide a valuable service. The organization also works to foster cooperation among the divisions within the South Asian community, such as nationality or religion. With educational programs, COPO works to educate community members about their rights and their civic duties, and to empower the South Asian youth population.

In Chicago, the Asian Human Services serves Asian (including South Asian) and immigrant populations. Taking care of more than 7,000 clients each year, Asian Human Services offers low-cost health care, adult education, mental health programming, employment and job services and a charter school. These services are provided with confidentiality and are designed to help clients of a wide variety of age ranges, including children and the elderly.

Since 1978, Asian Human Services has grown from a small office with a $270, 000 annual budget to a large agency with a budget of more than seven million dollars. With four locations in Chicago, its community reach is broad. Although its name suggests a focus on Asian clients, the group works with other ethnic groups. Further, one does not need to be a United States citizen to take advantage of the services that Asian Human Services offers.

SAWNET has compiled a great list of resources for South Asians in the United States. Click here for the list. This list is not comprehensive, but it is representative of the types of organizations that specifically work with South Asian clients.

If you wish to help an organization by volunteering your time or a donation, please contact them directly. ABCDlady has shared this resource list with the Nasreen family.

In Southern California, individuals in need can get help from South Asian Helpline and Referral Agency (SAHARA). SAHARA comprises professionals who volunteer their services to the South Asian community. From this non-profit organization’s toll-free helpline (1-888-SAHARA 2), one can find referrals for homeless shelters, resources for victims of domestic violence, counseling services or support groups, health care, legal advice or state and local financial assistance.

In addition to its helpline, SAHARA conducts health fairs for senior citizens in the South Asian community. It provides education on issues that are important for South Asians in Southern California. If necessary, SAHARA offers in-office consultations to help individuals or families in need of solutions to their problems. Its staff includes doctors, lawyers, social workers and psychologists.

While COPO, Asian Human Services and SAHARA are important community resources for South Asians, many states and cities with large South Asian populations do not have such resources. In these cases, individuals who need assistance should contact their state and city government offices. These organizations provide a valuable community service and there is great need for similar programs nationwide that provide basic services for South Asians.

How Can I Help?
-Volunteer: Contact local South Asian assistance programs and offer your time or expertise. If you live somewhere that does not have an organization that specifically caters to South Asians, contact any local assistance program and offer to serve as a translator. Or contact a South Asian organization in another area and see if you can help start a branch in your location.

– Advocate: Be an advocate for South Asians whom you know might need help. Refer them to organizations that can provide them with the resources they might need. Contact local non-profits and encourage them to include outreach with the South Asian community in their agendas.

– Donate: Most non-profit organizations operate on shoestring budgets. As a result, they would welcome charitable donations. If you are unable to make a financial contribution, consider offering a gift of your skills.

*Names have been changed.


Aparna Kothary is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland. She now works at South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT) as their Fundraising and Development Assistant through the Americorps VISTA program. Aparna can be reached at aparna@saalt.org.

Roopika Risam is Managing Editor at ABCDlady and a Ph.D. student at Emory University.

 

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