South Asian Immigrants Struggle in Jackson Heights

Tauqir Ahmed, a 40-year-old immigrant from Lahore, Pakistan, relocated to Jackson Heights four months ago to provide a better life for his family. Despite arriving in New York full of hope and enthusiasm, Ahmed has seen his dreams cruelly dashed. “God knows what I was thinking,” he said in Urdu. “Now I have nothing.”

Ahmed, who has two young daughters, spends most of his days looking for construction work and odd jobs around the neighborhood and is finding it impossible to make ends meet. “We have nothing to eat at home,” he said. “I used to go around asking people for help. Now all I can do is ask God for mercy.”

Jackson Heights has long been a popular destination for South Asians moving to New York City. The draw is so strong that in late 2014, a multi-part television drama called “Jackson Heights” aired in Pakistan on the Urdu1 network, showcasing the fictional lives of a handful of Pakistani immigrants and the challenges they faced as they struggled to survive in the neighborhood. The show’s themes of social isolation and cultural disharmony mirror the experience of many South Asian immigrants in Jackson Heights.

For Nirajan Chaulagain, 30, who came to Jackson Heights from Nepal two months ago, the experience of moving to New York has been a bruising one. Unemployed and struggling to find a white-collar job, the cultural differences have unsettled him. “You feel like in New York, especially in the city, you feel like there is no humanity,” he said, shaking his head. “People don’t care about each other. In Asia, people like to chitchat, but we didn’t see that over here.”

Chaulagain’s unhappiness stems from a sense of isolation; the feelings of loneliness and lack of purpose have chiselled at his self-confidence. “These days I am doing absolutely nothing,” he said.

Rubina Louis, who has been in Jackson Heights for ten years, attributes the difficulty of assimilating to a deep-rooted American mistrust of foreigners. Louis, who is from Bangladesh and whose husband is Pakistani, described her frustration in trying to communicate with the administration of the public school her 9-year-old daughter Towaseen used to attend. “Their attitude is racist,” she said angrily. She described a sense of mistrust when she would arrive at the school dressed in traditional South Asian garments. “I don’t know if they are thinking that I will blow myself up,” she said.

Louis was disappointed with the quality of teaching and felt the school gave favorable treatment to Hispanic students in her majority Latino neighborhood. “We come from third world countries, but the education in those third world countries is much better than in America,” she said.

Others see the problem as much less sinister. For Tanveer Rahim, 51, a financial consultant who moved to Jackson Heights from Bangladesh in 1994, the isolation many feel is a natural consequence of moving to an unknown country with a different language and a different set of values. “You have to start everything new, so everything is a big challenge,” he said. “Most of the immigrants have an issue with language. That is the biggest challenge.”

The lack of English fluency is the most difficult obstacle faced by newcomers, according to Aniqa Nawabi, manager of resource development at Chhaya CDC, a local nonprofit that works with South Asian immigrants. “From the research we have done, the language barrier is the primary cause for why immigrants are unable to take part in civic life or understand their responsibilities,” she said.

Chhaya, which is Sanskrit for “shade,” provides free English language classes twice a week aimed at helping South Asian immigrants navigate everyday issues like finding affordable housing. “It’s something to introduce them to the conversations of daily life,” said Nawabi.

But for Tauqir Ahmed, who speaks very little English, the pain of not being able to provide for his family has already turned what was once a dream into a rude awakening. “My family tells me that the drums in the distance sound the most pleasing,” he said with a wistful smile. “It’s so humiliating to live in this community and complain to journalists. But when a person is trapped, what else can he do? He has to speak.”

— Hasan Ali