Help Wanted But Not Delivered To Diverse South Asian Immigrants

By Sayu Bhojwani

When I moved to New York more than 10 years ago to attend graduate school, I was often the only Indian in my classes. Today, South Asians are everywhere in the city, in schools, in restaurants, on the subway. They are driving taxis, selling newspapers, managing mutual funds, performing surgery. Everyone in New York knows an Indian, or at least someone they think is Indian, but who may well be Bangladeshi, Guyanese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Trinidadian.

Yet, social service and government agencies are ill prepared to meet the diverse needs of the 1.2 million legal immigrants, including South Asians, who came to New York in the 1990s.

Over the course of the five years I served as executive director of South Asian Youth Action, I witnessed a significant disparity between a genuine desire to help immigrants assimilate into New York society and any real understanding of the diversity and difficulty of the immigrant experience.

In New York City, Census 2000 figures indicated that some of the largest percentage growths in the Asian population are among South Asians, with approximately as much as 150 percent growth in the Pakistani community and 500 percent growth in the Bangladeshi community. In the last 10 years, the characteristics of New York City’s immigrant population have changed significantly. More immigrants to New York today are younger, working class, and less likely to speak English.

This is particularly evident among South Asians, who established themselves in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an apparently affluent community of doctors and engineers who generally arrived in the United States with some knowledge of English. Some South Asians currently settling in New York are high-skilled workers who are temporary residents of New York on the H1-B visa (a special visa category that American corporate interests lobby for to ensure a labor pool for the high-tech industry).

But most of today’s South Asian New Yorkers are markedly different, sometimes undocumented, often non-English speakers, and likely to reside in ethnic enclaves like Elmhurst in Queens or Midwood in Brooklyn. South Asian youth in Queens high schools, for example, range from a 12-year-old Sikh who was born in New York, and speaks three languages (Punjabi, Hindi and English) to a 16-year-old born in Pakistan who speaks only Urdu and has never before been to school. To complicate this picture further, consider that the number of Guyanese and Trinidadian immigrants of Indian descent is nearly impossible to obtain, since census categories reflect national origin rather than ethnicity, and neither the Department of Health nor the Board of Education make such distinction either.

A few special-interest social service agencies exist solely to meet the needs of South Asian communities, working with youth, victims of domestic violence, substance abusers and domestic workers. Despite a South Asian population of nearly 300,000 in New York City, there is not one fully operational multi-service agency in the community. This is partially because of the regional and religious diversity within the community, and its geographic disbursement throughout the city. We in the nonprofit world also have to take some of the blame for the lack of social services; our own feelings of being on the margins of society have led us to focus more on activism than on the provision of social services. New efforts in Jamaica, Queens and in Midwood, Brooklyn have been initiated to provide services to local communities of South Asians, but it is too early to predict how they will develop.

Meanwhile, schools, settlement houses and YWCAs or YMCAs are attempting to meet the social service needs of immigrant groups in only the most superficial ways, if at all. All want to work with immigrants; most just don’t know how. For one thing, large agencies lack qualified, linguistically and culturally competent staff to work with immigrant communities. Even programs created for New Americans fail for their lack of sensitivity towards such issues as gender and religion. Schools in particular fail miserably to create opportunities for immigrant parent involvement in their children’s education; parents are often turned away from schools who claim they are too full to accept their children, notices are sent home in English to non-English-speaking parents, open houses are scheduled during the day or in the early evening hours when many immigrant parents are at work. Today’s teachers and counselors have much lower expectations than the model minority image that Asian kids are high achievers might lead one to believe. As a result, anecdotal evidence indicates high incidences of misplacement of immigrant students in special education and direct advice from college counselors to immigrant youth to not aspire to competitive colleges or careers.

Government agencies do have funds specifically earmarked to support programs for immigrant communities; some have been savvy about assembling advisory committees to help develop funding priorities. Others, like the Administration for Child Services, which often removes children from families where there is alleged child abuse, make few attempts to offer cultural competency training to their staff. The disparity between numbers and money is striking: for example, Asians are over ten percent of New York City’s population, yet under two percent of city-funded contracts are awarded to Asian American agencies by the major city agencies, according to the Asian American Federation of New York.

During my tenure at South Asian Youth Action, or SAYA!, we responded to some of these challenges through programming, fundraising and advocacy. By offering girls-only programming, we were able to address particular cultural concerns for young women growing up South Asian in New York while making parents feel comfortable that their daughters were in a safe space. Staffs who spoke South Asian languages were able to communicate with parents and with recently immigrated youth, helping to build parents' trust in the program and make youth feel welcome. By placing a caseworker in five high schools (four in Queens, and one in Manhattan) to work directly with students who were facing academic or social challenges in the school, SAYA! was able to help schools to improve the way they serve their South Asian student population. Services then, and now, include mediation with guidance counselors, teachers and/or parents, and cultural competency training to school staff to build their capacity to work with immigrant students.

Finally, by working closely with elected officials and city agencies, over the course of five years, we raised 20 percent of our budget from the government. While for some agencies, this can restrict activities and place them in a precarious position if funding is cut, I feel immigrant groups need to make city agencies aware of the concerns of their communities and access resources to meet those concerns.

For the social service needs of New York City’s immigrant communities to be adequately met, private and public agencies must have a two-pronged approach. First, the staff of schools and large social service and government agencies must be better educated about the complexity of the immigrant experience prior to and upon arrival in the city. Such efforts need to be undertaken in partnership with community groups whose expertise is now exploited for little or no recompense. Second, we need to build the capacity of immigrant communities to develop leadership and organizations that can provide services and advocate for better policies and more resources. All too often, immigrants to New York achieve their goals despite rather than because of the city’s agencies; it is time to reverse that pattern, so that all New York City residents can receive quality education, health care and other social services not by accident, but by design.

Sayu V. Bhojwani is the founder of South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), a youth leadership agency in Queens.


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