Snapshots of Business Life Along Liberty Avenue

One Sunday morning in October 2012, I decided to take a walk down Liberty Avenue—a bustling intersection featuring roti-shops and sari stores in south Richmond Hill, Queens. I started at Lefferts Boulevard and began walking down the avenue noticing the vibrant life of local businesses targeted to a people with Indian roots, Caribbean influences, and an urban ambition. After taking another look at the photos on my not so sophisticated camera, I decided to post them. Why don’t you be the judge. Do these pictures tell a story?

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A Car Culture Debates for Style or Speed

Originally Published in The West Indian Newspaper on January 26, 2013 

By: Kamelia Kilawan

It’s a cold, brisk Friday night as passerbys watch in bewilderment while dozens of shiny, show cars are photographed in the street between a glass paneled Starbucks coffee shop, a simmering chicken and rice cart, and the Hilton parking lot.

Two glistening Toyota Supras, red and white, with racecar trunk handles shaped like winged bars stop in the middle of traffic on Sixth Avenue as yellow cabs honk their horns while an NYPD van lags behind.

He crouches below, whips out a tripod and a camera snapping photos of the scene before the cars drive out.

“What brings us together is the picture,” Sateesh Parsotan said at Friday’s car meet on Jan. 18. He explained that you never know if your car’s photo will end up on Facebook but if someone posts it, that shows their respect for the style of your car.

The underground car community in the city has become glamorous bringing many young car enthusiasts together, both during car meetings publicized on Facebook and in a thriving online forum of photos, blogs, and websites. But even after the tragic accident where four Indo-Caribbean teens were found dead in a car that sped off a Long Island highway last October, some leaders of the car movement in Queens have ambitions to suit the need for speed.

 Sateesh Parsotan called "Tesh" in the Monkey Wrench auto shop in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Ryan Rosenberg)

Sateesh Parsotan called “Tesh” in the Monkey Wrench auto shop in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Ryan Rosenberg)

Parsotan, 26, also known as “Tesh” has been driving a car since he was 16 and has coordinated dozens of meetings online for anywhere from several to several hundred car owners throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut through a network of photographers, auto shops, and models called Lowered Congress with over 37,000 Facebook followers.

The meetings have added to the glamour of the scene, allowing owners to show off their posh vehicles in vacant parking lots and street corners throughout the city to local photographers. Although these meetings are often shut down by the police because they are in public locations.

A car meeting last November in front of the United States Postal Office on Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Liu)

A car meeting last November in front of the United States Postal Office on Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Liu)

Yet Parsotan continues to be the face of the underground car community for many in the city including Indo-Caribbeans in Queens.

As his black rosary beads dangled down his neck, Parsotan said by altering the suspension of a vehicle it becomes more attractive, similar to the stance of a runway model as she poses for photographs.

“People are breaking their necks to look at you, it’s the attention, that’s the whole beauty of it,” said Chris Totan, 19, from Ridgewood, Queens about car meets who brought his lowered 1997 off-white Civic last Friday.

A photo of a lowered car enthusiast parked for the Jan. 18 car meeting in West Midtown Manhattan. (Photo Courtesy of Sateesh Parsotan)

A photo of a lowered car enthusiast parked for the Jan. 18 car meeting in West Midtown Manhattan. (Photo Courtesy of Sateesh Parsotan)

But advocates against lowered cars say it destroys the vehicle’s suspension and can be dangerous driving on bumpy city streets.

Pravan Kuntmala, 29, from Astoria, Queens who leads a group against Lowered Congress said lowering a car’s suspension often causes drivers to make abrupt stops and swerves on the road in an effort to avoid large bumps or potholes.

Some members of the car community in Queens feel that a track approved by elected officials would be a lawful way of allowing people to race while the only person capable of being injured is the driver.

Harjit Walia a resident from Richmond Hill explained that one way to focus on the safety of youth interested in racing cars is by developing a racetrack in the city. “If the community had access to such a facility they wouldn’t have to risk their life and others racing on the streets,” he said. But Parsotan said creating a racetrack in the city will only add to the need to speed in the streets. “What will these people do when the track is closed at night?”

Though Parsotan also raced on a track in New Jersey several years ago, he said a track in the city is a risk he does not want his friends to take. “I don’t want to lose anymore friends,” he said referencing his friend Bishnu Dinanauth who died in a race on a highway in Long Island in 2011 while racing another vehicle.

But Walia pointed out the closest track for motor sports is in New Jersey. “There is no place for our hobby,” he said. Kuntmala noted that in previous meetings elected officials from Nassau and Suffolk County rejected their proposals for a track in the area.

Leonard Ali John, 41, the manager of Monkey Wrench who also used to import cars from Japan to Trinidad, said he believes a racetrack is a secure environment for young drivers interested in testing the speed of their vehicles, noting that there are often helmets, a safety crew and firemen on the site.

As a native of Trinidad he remembers being in his twenties testing the speed of his car in Trinidad’s tracks. “You do it to see how it feels. Every one tries to see things and do things just for that adrenaline rush,” he said.

But the need for speed does not always thrill parents, even young parents who attend car meets and are involved in the underground car community in Queens.

Shivanie Seopersad, 21, sat in her husband’s lowered Hyundai Sonata with their six month old son and her twelve year old brother during the car meet on Jan.18.
“I don’t understand what all these girls get so excited about. It’s just the turbo charger or the exhaust engine,” she said as she picked up her baby and wiped his mouth with a washcloth while looking over at a group of girls outside gazing at each car as it entered the street.

Seopersad grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens and mentioned that her husband has been taking her to car meets since they began dating. So far she has been to nearly twenty, some in Flushing, Baldwin and Glencove.

Last week Friday, her husband said he wanted to take their son out to his first car meet.

Avienash Seopersad, 22, said when his son grows up he would tell him not to focus on racing in the streets and instead to have a good-looking car that others would notice.

“I would say don’t go and race that side. Just stick to the show because you’ll be more safe, you’ll get more looks, and you’ll probably be in a magazine one day,” he said.

 

 

Sikhs, With Ally Liu, Push For Change In NYPD Dress Code

Excerpt from Gotham Gazette. Click here to read the full article.

By: Kamelia Kilawan

Sikh devotee at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens.

Sikh devotee at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens.

BELLEROSE, QUEENS — Navraj Deep has wanted to become a police officer since he was 10 years old, but as a member of the Sikh religion, he knows that he would have to give up his right to wear a turban if he wants to join the New York Police Department.

It is a compromise he is unwilling to make. “I really look forward to serving my community and being one of New York’s finest,” said the now-13-year-old teenager, on a recent Sunday at his temple, the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens. “But this country is supposed to be free, and if it’s not free, then what are we here for?”

Navraj Deep, 13, poses for a picture at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara.

Navraj Deep, 13, poses for a picture at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara.

For years, Sikh community advocates have been trying to get the NYPD to reform its dress code to allow officers to wear turbans and full beards, which they say would give an equal opportunity for more Sikhs to become members of the city’s police force. And now they have found a potent ally in their cause — city Comptroller John C. Liu, who is expected to run for mayor and has been shoring up his visibility in the Asian American community.

“We get discriminated against by the way we look but people would get to know Sikhs in the NYPD,” said Gurdev Singh Kang, the president of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Queens. Kang commented that the few Sikhs in the police force of such a diverse city are not recognized because they are clean-shaven. “Until they wear their turban and beard then they will know we are Sikhs.”

The NYPD has defended their policy, saying they do allow certain Sikh articles of faith in their dress code.

“The NYPD makes reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, and already allows Sikh members of the service to wear turbans that fit under department headgear,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told The New York Post in an article published in August.

Browne also told the tabloid that officers are allowed to wear beards at a certain length, but added that in the case of an emergency officers may need to wear gas masks but “beards of a certain length will break the seal” allowing contaminated air to enter.

There are approximately 19 Sikhs in the city’s police department, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Comptroller John C. Liu speaks to Sikh devotee.

Comptroller John C. Liu speaks to Sikh devotee.

In October, Liu visited the Sant Sagar Gurdwara to gather support for his online petition (which currently has 277 online signatures) requesting that Mayor Michael M. Bloomberg include more Sikhs in the city police department by changing the policy to allow officers to wear full beards and turbans.

As Liu and members of his office entered the temple in orange Sikh bandannas, Babaji, the spiritual leader, welcomed his arrival and Liu began his speech with the Sikh greeting “Wahe-Guru!” — referencing the supreme teacher in Sikhism. 

 

Indian Communities Serve Thanksgiving Meals for Sandy Victims

BROAD CHANNEL, Queens— At the American Legion, a community center for U.S. army veterans, dozens of volunteers gather to serve Thanksgiving meals including a flock of Indians and Indo-Caribbeans eager to serve Hurricane Sandy victims.

In an effort to help the hard-hit communities of Howard Beach, Broad Channel, and Far Rockaway community groups came together at the center on Nov. 22 to serve meals that reflected various ethnic tastes and a budding movement to become a part of hurricane relief.

Vermicelli also known as “Vamazelli” brought by Indo-Caribbean community members. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan)

Indian spicy channa, Bengali style chicken and rice, and Indo-Caribbean sweet vermicelli were among the tasty foods brought by volunteers, community members, and religious organizations throughout Queens.

Members of the Hindu Temple Society of North America line up to serve Sandy victims. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan)

As over fifty volunteers from all five boroughs of the city lined up to serve meals to those in need a group of Indian Hindus wearing white T-shirts with the emblem “The Hindu Temple Society of North America” gathered to serve their vegetarian dishes.

Uma Mysorekar, 66, President of the Hindu Temple Society of North America said that during the past two weeks their Flushing based temple has conducted outreach throughout their Hindu community to raise funds, clothing, and canned food towards hurricane victims.

But she said that serving others in need also relates to her faith. “Serving the needy is like serving God,” she said noting that service is best connected to Hinduism as seva meaning selfless service.

Misba Abdin the president of a Brooklyn based organization for Bangladeshi youth and owner of five Key Food supermarkets in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan has been donating canned food to Sandy victims since the aftermath of the storm.

He volunteered during the center’s Thanksgiving luncheon to show that he and his fellow Bangladeshi community members are part of the Sandy relief effort. “We want to be a part of everything,” he said.

Abdin explained that it can be hard to get along with other cultures in such a diverse city but by serving all races and types of people suffering the impact of the hurricane it shows that as Bangladeshis “we are American.”

Etienne Adorno, 28, a political newcomer who ran for State Assemblyman in Woodhaven, coordinated the special Thanksgiving luncheon and said the event was about looking beyond political, racial, and religious lines to help in the Sandy relief effort.

Event coordinator Etienne David Adorno speaks to a crowd of volunteers. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan)

Adorno stood in front of a gathering of volunteers and Broad Channel community members saying that it was wonderful to see “something so beautiful come out of something so tragic” while commenting on the many different groups who came out to help feed those in need.

 

Interviewing longtime Broad Channel resident Martin Feeney. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan

While looking at the trays of chocolate cookies, dozens of pumpkin pies, and loaves of sponge cake Martin Feeney, a life long Broad Channel resident and American Legion community organizer said he was absolutely amazed with the outpouring of help from people throughout the city.

As Feeney noticed three two foot long foil pans of raisin flecked vermicelli he told another community member, “I don’t know what that is…looks like raisins inside” while a volunteer noted  it’s a dessert from the Indian community. Feeney replied, “I guess it’s here so I’ll give it a try.”

 

The Vision for Shri Trimurti Bhavan from Pandit Chunelall Narine

Shri Trimurti Bhavan, called a “thriving Ozone Park temple” by the New York Times has made strides in the spiritual, cultural, and community life of many Indo-Caribbean Hindus. During the course of 14 years, the mandir has become a hotspot attracting politicians like Eric Ulrich and Mayor Bloomberg as well as spiritual leaders like Sri Swamiji. The temple youth have also played a prominent role in the Jamaica Bay Clean-Up Campaign. As the mandir celebrates its 14th anniversary, the leader and pandit-in-charge Chunelall Narine explains how the mandir has progressed and reflects on the future of Trimurti in its need for expansion.

Spiritual leader of the Shri Trimurti Bhavan mandir, Pandit Chunelall Narine.


What is your vision for Trimurti? Any current or future plans underway?

My vision for Trimurti is expansion. I think we have literally outgrown this mandir especially when we have important functions here, we run out of space. My vision is down the block, if it becomes available, then we should purchase more real estate in the future and expand our operations to include more youth and do much more for our seniors because we don’t have a program for our seniors right now. We purchased another building down the block which would be used as a cultural center but that building is in limbo right now. As it seems right now, it will fall in the hands of those that occupy it. My vision is to grow in size and to expand our activities, to do much more for the youths, seniors, and congregation.

City Councilmember Eric Ulrich greets a crowd at Trimurti in 2009. (Photo Courtesy of Gabel for News)

Explain more about the cultural center. What are some ideas for the way it would be run and what activities would be held there?

The cultural center would mean to implement a lot of cultural programs for our children like music programs, dance programs, and Hindi classes. The culture is about the youth. So at the cultural center we’d like to put the youth in charge. We have some brilliant youth here with technology at their hands. One of the things I’d also like to see is a permanent drama class. We were very successful in the few dramas we did for this mandir like Bhakt Prahlad and Ram Banwas. I’d like to see more of this happen…dramatizations, and re-enactments of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other related Hindu texts.

Youths from Trimurti gather to clean up Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York on April 2011 Earth Day. (Photo Courtesy of Kamini Doobay)

During the last 14 years how has Trimurti progressed?

An area we have developed is in youth development and empowerment because one of the main focuses for this mandir is the youth. This means harnessing the capabilities of the youth in areas of music, academics, and so on. We have counseling sessions and music classes and the youths are given an opportunity. Now you may think the youth get a chance to sing here, so what happens to the other community out there? Well whatever happens here is also aired on Jyoti Satsangh on TV, so more than 10 million people are watching so the youth can expose their talents to 10 million people. We’ve also managed to produce at least three brilliant young pandits who serve the outside community as well. These pandits are the future leaders of tomorrow.

What are some of the reasons individuals come for counseling in Trimurti?

Couples come here with problems, family problems, and social problems. We sit down with them, interact with them, and help them to resolve whatever they are experiencing. Many people have gotten a lot of help here. Many people have also come with physical problems and illnesses. They pray and manage to get cured because of their faith. We’ve seen phone calls coming in the middle of the service where people are called right away for emergency treatment and relief from their problems.

Sri Swamiji visits the sprawling altar of Trimurti in July of 2000. (Photo Courtesy of Datta Peetham)

How does the administrative and executive body interact with the membership of Trimurti?

Another thing I must mention is that many mandirs today have administrative problems, with the executive, where they cannot get along. There are people who are power-hungry and people greedy for power and they have their own personal agenda when it comes to the mandir. And you can see many mandirs are split because of this now at the administrative level. And at this mandir, thanks to God and to a very capable executive body, we have not experienced that here. We have a very harmonious relationship at the executive level and at the membership level.

Shri Trimurti Bhavan Inc. is located at 101-18 97th Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. To learn more log on to www.shritrimurtibhavan.org and to receive weekly updates join the group Shri Trimurti Bhavan on Facebook.

TV Promotes Education, Escape, and Empowerment?

For many in America, the responsibility of television is to entertain. With the onset of reality TV and popular celebrity gossip some feel television’s ultimate mission to educate has been lost. However, in many developing nations such as India and Brazil television’s purpose to educate has been accomplished through an increase in villages’ access and specific content exposing rural women to modern ideas of independent, successful women. And for one immigrant young woman, who migrated from Guyana to America, the television has been an outlet to break out of confined traditions leading into a world of achieving the impossible.

Martha Karran, a second year student at Queens College studying Psychology, emigrated from her native Guyana in 1996 when she was just three years old. Television helped Karran develop knowledge of diverse cultures and acted as a vehicle for escape from the confines of her home. Without a clear memory of her homeland, Karran grew up in New York City and remembers learning many American customs through television. The television gave her a “broad range of knowledge of other cultures.” This knowledge helped facilitate the process of adapting into her new school system and associating with the diverse children she met. However Karran also mentioned that “The television helped me break out of confined traditions” while coming from a strict household. The television functioned as a form of escape for Karran while spending much time at home as a young girl.

Karran illustrated her own experience of content empowerment similar to the depiction of free, modern women on television shows in rural villages. Karran explained the reason she enjoyed watching episodes of one particular show “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”

“Some Girls Lead a Magical Life”

(a series featuring a teenage girl with the possession of magical powers) She stated “As a child, I was fascinated by the magic. But when you realize it’s a female character, you think maybe I can do this too.” The change in attitude has led Karran to believe in achieving the impossible and reaching for her own success. She has now achieved a high morale in her college and was recently named a Jeannete K. Watson Fellowship finalist.

In rural Indian villages, the growth of television access has been on a constant increase since the 1980s. According to a survey from the National Readership Council of 2006, 112 million households in India own a television and “In the span of just ten to fifteen years since it first became available, cable or satellite penetration has reached an astonishing 60 percent in states such as Tamil Nadu, even though the average income is below the World Bank poverty line of two dollars per person per day.” All in all the growth of cable and satellite television has been on the rise in developing nations like India, but how does this increase in television access help to educate and empower women?

Researchers, Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago, propose that “Introducing cable television is equivalent to roughly five years of female education.” Interestingly enough the increased access of television in developing nations has led to behavioral changes in women. These scholars found that “Before television arrived 62% of women in Indian villages believed it was okay for husbands to beat their wives, 55% of women wanted their next child to be a son, and two-thirds of the woman said they needed permission to visit friends.” In their study, rural Indian women gained more autonomy or freedom after being exposed to television. These women were able to leave their homes without their husband’s consent and had more input in household decisions. The preference of sons over daughters declined, the amount of births dropped, and daughters became more likely to have a school education. Even more compelling, wife-beating or domestic violence became less acceptable.

Photo courtesy of JICA.

A study by Italian economist Eliana La Ferrara showed the impact of the Brazilian television network Red Globo. The network, renowned for its soap operas with main characters being females with few children, showed that the number of births dropped among women in the new area the network reached. Women in these areas with lower socio-economic statuses had fewer births even though they were ripe in their reproductive stages.

So how does the increase in access of television lead to the education and behavioral changes of women in developing nations? The link here is content empowerment. According to Pulitzer prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristoff’s book A Half of the Sky, “With the television, new ideas infiltrated the villages. Most of the popular cable-television programs in India are soap operas set among middle-class families in the cities where women hold jobs and can come and go freely. Rural viewers come to recognize women should be treated as human beings.” The content of the shows spread the idea of a free, modern woman. While in America many question the way media portrays the ideal female, in developing nations this free, independent woman is a valuable figure of empowerment leading to changes in attitudes and behaviors.

The television, while a questionable medium at times, can be used for a much higher purpose of women empowerment. In developing nations many women are “underutilized resources” capable of adding to the nation’s economy by receiving schooling and obtaining jobs. In this case, empowerment through television content can be quite useful. While the increase in autonomy and status for women in developing nations is phenomenal, take Martha Karran for example, a young immigrant woman from Guyana. Seeing a powerful female character has helped her break out of conventional traditions, believe in the impossible, and go forth with her goals. Being an immigrant woman in America can be difficult but can lead to achieving success by breaking out of the confines of culture. So next time you look at the television, realize that its power can go much further than the plug.

The Perspective of a Young Woman of Islam

Growing up in a mosque as an Indo-Caribbean young woman can be an intriguing experience. For Alyssa Shahzaman, a sophomore at Hofstra University and member of Masjid Al Abidin located at 104-14 127th Street in Queens, her place of worship is like a “little community center” where men and women are separated, yet pray together. In this edited conversation Shahzaman offers her perspective as a young woman of Islam.

Alyssa Shahzaman a member of the Al-Abidin Masjid.

How did you start practicing Islam?

I attend Masjid Al Abidin. My Dad took me there when I was a little girl and I pretty much grew up with the people there. It’s kinda like a little community.

What is the environment like at your masjid? Do you have any activities or groups?

Our masjid is separated. We have a male section and a female section. I’m part of a youth group and everyone from ages from 4 to 14 are involved in the youth group called “sisters” or girls only. We call it sisters only because anyone that is female, we refer to them as sister. The boys have their own group too but it’s separate from ours. Growing up we’d play basketball separate from the guys and have a time to learn Arabic and memorize the Koran. The boys group did pretty much the same things on their own time.

Are you a wearer of the Hijab? Do you wear it sometimes or at all times?

I don’t mind wearing it. But it’s kinda like an all or nothing. You’re supposed to wear it at all times.  And if you don’t, you’re supposed to wear it at appropriate places. Ultimately I do want to wear it all the time. I’d love to wear it. But for now I’ll wear it when I have to. My friends do wear it all the time and it doesn’t bother them and doesn’t interfere with their lives. They still go to good schools and they’re still doing what everyone else is doing. They are just a little more modest than everyone else.

What does the Hijab mean to you?

It’s not just putting a cover on your head. It’s behaving and overall appearance. You can’t wear a Hijab and then go to a bar—There’s a whole lifestyle to it. It’s not just putting it on. You must be willing to make a sacrifice. But it’s a good sacrifice and it pays off in the end.

What was it like post 9/11 in your school? Did you face any teasing or negative experiences?

I went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help an elementary and middle school in South Ozone Park, Queens which has a large amount of kids of Indo-Caribbean descent. During that time was when September 11th happened. I was in fourth grade at the time and everyone made fun of me. But I also think that when you’re in fourth grade you tease and bully without really thinking about it.

Has college opened you up to any other individuals practicing Islam?

I met a lot of cool people in college that are also Muslim. One of my closest friends at Hofstra right now is Muslim and from South Africa but her family is of Indian descent. She was born and raised in South Africa , so she’s brown like us. She wears her Hijab full time too and her culture is very different from ours. She has very different traditions in Islam but after getting so close [to her] I realized there is more than one way to practice Islam.

A lot of religions are said to bring something to the devotee. What does Islam bring to you?

I think Islam brings me peace. For me it’s not all about going to church, wearing the best Hijab, or giving the largest donation. It’s about me being in touch with myself and God. For me Islam is a really simple religion as much as people may think it’s complicated.