Sunday, June 1, 2014

129. Ethnic New York: Tibetans, Afghans, Mohawks

     Here now are some more interesting ethnic groups to be found in and around New York.  But for an unusual twist, I’ll begin by mentioning  Gamal, who delivers take-out to us from a nearby restaurant.  Though his English is quite good, I knew he was from Uzbekistan, but when I questioned him further, he explained that he was not an Uzbek but a Tatar, and graduated from the University of Tashkent.  Tashkent … Uzbekistan … Tatar … These words speak to my uninformed Western mind, conjuring up visions of long westbound caravans on the Silk Road, the endless steppes of Central Asia, mysterious nomadic peoples, Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde.  But Gamal presents a modern-day reality.  He and his family came here a few years ago for better opportunities, and to get free of the corruption prevalent in Uzbekistan.  Here they have launched a business supplying provisions to restaurants, and it is expanding now across several boroughs.  Gamal delivers take-out in his spare time simply to earn a little extra cash.  When he comes to us he invariably flashes the warmest smile and gives us the heartiest of greetings.  But we may lose him, for he and his family may in time move to Boston because of the lower rents and shorter commutes there.  But for now we are fortunate to enjoy the services of this friendly Tatar from Uzbekistan, the embodiment of the city’s ethnic diversity.


     The Jackson Heights section of Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in New York.  74th Street between Roosevelt Avenue and 37th Avenue is the heart of Little India, where Indians and other South Asians have predominated, though more recently Latin Americans have settled there, too.  Women in saris are seen on the streets with their children, retailers offer Indian music and Bollywood films, and Indian restaurants abound, but among the Indian jewelry and sari shops and Ecuadorean bakeries one often sees strings of brightly colored cloth rectangles fluttering in the breeze, and pictures of some revered figure.  The rectangles are the prayer flags inscribed with symbols, mantras, and prayers that Tibetans install in front of their residence or place of spiritual practice so that, fluttering in the breeze, they can bring happiness, long life, and prosperity to the residents and neighbors.  And the pictures are of His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.  For here in the midst of Little India is what amounts to a Little Tibet.

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Tibetan prayer flags.
Dennis Jarvis

     Tibet: a remote and mysterious land that Westerners have always thought  of as the rooftop of the world, bordered by the towering snow-capped Himalayas, with Buddhist monasteries, shaggy beasts called yaks, a vast hilltop palace in Lhasa, the capital, and a culture going back thousands of years.  The spiritual leader of Tibet, the much revered Dalai Lama, is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, and is found after the high lamas seeking him receive a vision in a sacred lake that guides them to one or several boys who must then pass a series of tests until the future Dalai Lama is found.  This can take years – four in the case of the present Dalai Lama.

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A yak.
Dennis Jarvis
The palace in Lhasa.

     Our view of this legendary land changed forever once the Communist Chinese took control of the country in 1950 and in 1959 crushed a Tibetan uprising, causing the Dalai Lama to flee over the towering Himalayas to India, soon followed by some 80,000 Tibetans.  Granted sanctuary by the Indian government, the Dalai Lama established a government in exile, and every year more Tibetans emigrated to India, Nepal, or Bhutan, and small numbers of them began migrating from these countries to the West.  By 1985 there were 524 Tibetans in the U.S.  Then a section of the Immigration Act of 1990 authorized the issuing of a thousand immigrant visas to Tibetans living in Nepal and India, following which there has been a steady immigration to these shores.

     There are now at least 10,000 Tibetans here, probably more, with about 4,000 in New York City, the largest Tibetan community in the U.S., mostly concentrated in Queens.  Some came from India, Nepal, or Bhutan, but others were born here and have never set foot in the mysterious land of their family’s origin.  But they feel welcome here, where the plight of Chinese-dominated Tibet arouses much interest and sympathy.  And they can become citizens, whereas in India and Nepal they have only refugee status, with few rights as citizens.  But many hope to earn enough money here so they can move on to Minnesota or Wisconsin, where there are large Tibetan communities and a less stressful environment for raising a family. 

     Many Tibetans here are undocumented, so the women work as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly, and are much in demand, having a reputation for being patient, diligent, soft-spoken, and caring.  The men find work as interpreters or translators, or drive cabs or sell produce in greenmarkets or become construction workers, but some work in – O irony! – Chinese restaurants.  Inevitably, many older Tibetans don’t know English and find it hard to adjust to American life.  They may ride the subway a short distance to attend a Tibetan prayer session, but otherwise they depend on family for social life, and if that is limited because their relatives are away at work, their life here can be bleak: prayers at home and maybe a very short walk to a park.

     Since many Tibetans came here from India, they feel comfortable in the Little India section of Jackson heights, where restaurants like the Himalayan Yak Restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue offer authentic Tibetan and Nepalese food, including the Tibetan dumplings known as momos, and noodles, soups, and sausage, as well as a Tibetan tea with yak butter and salt; being modern as well as traditional, the Yak Restaurant even has a blog.  The yak meat offered in these restaurants is said to be juicier than beef and so delicious that one taste of it may lead to addiction.  But in this country until recently yaks existed only in crossword puzzles, so where does yak meat come from?  From Colorado and Wyoming and Idaho, where yaks are now being raised by American ranchers eager to accommodate a profitable and growing niche market.

     Unlike many immigrant ethnic groups here, the Tibetans are highly political.  Students for a Free Tibet was organized here in New York in 1994 to campaign for human rights and independence in Tibet.  Whenever there is unrest or riots in Tibet, in fair or foul weather they and other groups picket the Chinese consulate at 520 Twelfth Avenue daily, even to the point of being fined for missing work.  “This is not politics,” a young Tibetan insisted once, “this is human rights.  I am for the rights of others as well as mine.”  In 2012 three Tibetans staged a one-month hunger strike outside the U.N. building to demand that the U.N. establish a fact-finding delegation to assess the situation in Tibet.  And they are organized, with a worldwide network.  In New York alone there are at least five very active groups, all advocating for Tibetan interests and concerns, including a Free Tibet movement that, following the teachings of the Dalai Lama, is nonviolent.  But the protesters are not immune to frustration and anger; during one protest in 2008 one of them shattered a window in the consulate. 

File:Students for a Free Tibet Protesters marched to Lafayette Park from the Chinese Embassy in D.C. 自由西藏學生運動抗議者於美國華府從中國大使館遊行至拉法葉公園.jpg
A Students for a Free Tibet demonstration.
Medill DC

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His Holiness, toes and all.
Luca Galuzzi
     The Dalai Lama has often come to New York to give teachings on various aspects of Buddhism and to address huge gatherings of the general public.  Spiritual and inspiring he certainly is, but he also has a sense of humor.  I once heard him in a radio interview announce that there would be a discussion and lots of “blah, blah, blah.”  He seems adept at managing a fine balance between taking himself very seriously and having a quiet chuckle at his own expense.

     But His Holiness is aging; after he is gone, the Free Tibet movement, given the intransigence of the Chinese Communists, may find it hard to remain nonviolent.  Nor is it clear how the next Dalai Lama will be chosen; the Chinese authorities are bound to try to manipulate the process to their own advantage.  Be that as it may, even Tibetans born here feel a loyalty to the homeland they have never seen.  Most become U.S. citizens, but deep inside they remain Tibetan.  Some keep an altar in their apartment where they light incense and offer water daily to statues or pictures of various buddhas and gurus, but others insist that spirituality is cultivated internally and requires no outward observances.  Being greatly concerned lest their children growing up here become too Americanized, they take pains to instruct them in Tibetan culture and have them learn the Tibetan language.


     One woman in Flushing, Queens, whose grandson is a doctoral candidate at the New School, tells how the FBI raided her home, rummaging through her closets while ignoring her protests that she had lived here for 25 years.  Who called the FBI in?  The intruders wouldn’t say, but she’s sure it was a downstairs neighbor.  And the owner of a restaurant claims that he can spot the FBI on sight, and they him: “Yeah, we all know each other.”  All this, of course, after 9/11.  Such is the troubled life of the Afghan community in New York.

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    Afghanistan is a landlocked, mountainous country in Central Asia, historically almost as remote as Tibet, with towering snow-covered peaks, arid plains, and sandy or stony deserts.  It is an impoverished and underdeveloped country with a hodgepodge of peoples and languages, and a harsh climate: a land ravaged in recent times by war and civil strife, terrorism, and a flourishing opium trade that defies all efforts to eradicate it.  Clearly, a land that many might want to leave.  Afghans may have started coming here as early as the 1920s.  More came in the 1930s and 1940s, most of them educated and some with scholarships to study in American universities.  Afghan immigration increased after the 1979 Soviet invasion, when asylum passports were granted freely by the U.S. government, and increased again after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, and yet again after the U.S. bombing began in 2001. 

     Unlike their predecessors, these later immigrants came not enamored of the dream of America, but out of sheer necessity, with little knowledge of English or of American society, and sometimes even illiterate in their own language.  Though glad to be here, they were – and are -- strangers in an alien land, with the largest communities in California and the Northeast.  Most are Sunni Muslims, but ethnically they may be Pashtun (the majority), Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Aimaq, Turkmen, Baloch, or various other ethnicities, including even a few Jews. 

     Today there are at least 9,000 Afghans – some sources say as many as 20,000 – in the New York City area, most of them in various locations in Queens, with the biggest concentration in Flushing.  Here in Manhattan, without knowing them as  Afghans, we encounter the men as cab drivers, restaurant workers, and coffee and bagel cart vendors.  Many of the women are stay-at-home mothers with little exposure to American society, but others take jobs below their former status in Afghanistan and work as housekeepers or babysitters. 

     Soon after 9/11 a Tajik imam, the spiritual leader of a mosque in Flushing, accused the mosque’s Pashtun founders of supporting the Taliban and expelled them from the premises.  The founders accused the imam in turn of inventing these charges so as to gain control of the mosque, sued, and regained control of the mosque by court order, following which the imam and his Tajik followers were forced to leave.  Which goes to show the internal divisions that also afflict the Afghan community in New York.

     When the U.S. intervened militarily in Afghanistan, some local Afghans were angry, feeling that Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, should be blamed for 9/11, since most of the hijackers were Saudis.  But others celebrated the intervention, convinced that a defeat of the Taliban would be a blessing.  Yet all of them are leery of FBI surveillance and aware of being suspect in the eyes of fellow New Yorkers, who have shouted “Terrorist!” at them only too frequently and called them a wild, barbaric people. 

     On September 14, 2009, with a visit to the city by the President coincidentally imminent, armed federal agents raided three apartments in Flushing at gunpoint, breaking in by force in the middle of the night to rummage through closets, drawers, and even purses, searching for explosive devices or their components that were allegedly to be used on targets in the New York area.  No such devices were found, though the police removed computers, cellphones, and other material; the men detained were interrogated and then released.  The whole neighborhood was upset, and those targeted, a cab driver and two pushcart vendors among them, protested their innocence, insisting that they worked hard six or seven days a week and had no time for, or interest in, politics.

Najibullah Zazi
     But the alleged plot was not mere fantasy.  Those targeted had been visited recently by a casual acquaintance, Najibullah Zazi, who was soon arrested in Denver for planning suicide bombings in the New York subway system ordered by al-Qaeda; later he pled guilty and agreed to testify against his fellow conspirators.  Because surveillance had revealed the plot, his case has been cited by the Obama administration to justify massive government monitoring of phone calls and e-mails.  And the Afghan community in New York, even as it adjusts to American ways, continues to feel alien and besieged.

     But change is coming.  In traditional Afghan society, where family and tribal bonds are strong, and the sense of family honor fierce, most women wear headscarves and show no flesh below the neck, and must not make eye contact with a man in public.  As for education, they have little or none, marry early as the family dictates, and are subservient to their husband for the rest of their life.  These restrictions have been loosened to some extent in recent years, but still prevail.

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Afghan women in a market.

     Imagine, then, the shock when a traditionally raised Afghan woman finds herself planted in American society, where no such rules apply.  Yes, she is in a tight-knit Afghan community, but circumstances may force her to take a job outside.  The contrast between the traditional life she has known and what she sees all around her is overwhelming.  And yet, Afghan women are said to adjust even better than the men.  They do find jobs outside the home, and they do want education.

     Answering that need locally is Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a Queens-based human rights organization founded in April 2001, six months before 9/11, that advocates here and in Kabul for the rights of Afghan women.  Funded by government and nongovernment agencies and private donations, it helps women here with immigration issues, parenting, family matters, and domestic violence.  A Women’s Circle holds popular monthly meetings with lectures and discussions, and a chance for women to share experiences and provide mutual support.  There is also a girls’ leadership program, and free classes in English, computer skills, driving, and applying for U.S. citizenship. 

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     As for the organization’s work in Kabul, one story sums it all up.  A girl named Somaya grew up in Herat, Afghanistan.  Her father had two wives and abused her mother.  One day, at age nine, she came home to find her mother in a pool of blood; her father had stabbed and killed her.  The father went to prison, but Somaya’s stepbrothers tried to force her to marry a rich older man in exchange for a large dowry; when she refused, they beat her and locked her in a darkened room.  Finally, when she was allowed to go home with her uncle for a brief stay, she went back to school and told her teacher everything.  The teacher got the stepbrothers arrested, and arranged for Somaya to stay in a women’s shelter.  Finally she was transferred to Women for Afghan Women’s halfway house in Kabul, where she was able to return to school.  She dreams of becoming a lawyer so she can work for the rights of women.

     Against the background of Afghan history and the role of women in traditional Muslim societies, Women for Afghan Women’s program is nothing short of revolutionary.  Even today, in regions where Muslim extremists prevail, a girl or young woman who wants education risks kidnapping, acid in the face, or death.  What do the extremists most fear?  Drone strikes?  No.  Boots on the ground?  No again.  Free elections?  Not even this.  It's the education of women.  An educated woman, even if she remains a good Muslim, is lost to them; she will begin to think and act for herself.  She threatens all the repressive aspects of her traditional society; she is a symbol of hope for others.  The extremists must eliminate her, or their own cause will in the long run be doomed.  This conflict is under way now in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries; there is evidence of it in the news almost daily.

     But even here in New York there are risks for the educated Afghan woman.  Sometimes these young women seem too Westernized to be suitable mates for Afghan men, who prefer to find wives among communities still living in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Progress is slow and uneven; often it is three steps forward, two steps back.  But it doesn’t stop, it continues.  And it continues right here in New York.


     There are many other immigrant groups in and around New York City that I could mention: Turks, Armenians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Croatians, Thai – the list is endless.  Instead, I’ll end with a very special group who have contributed hugely to the city’s skyline, helping make it what it is today: the Mohawks.  They aren’t immigrants at all, of course, since they were here long before the rest of us; by comparison, we are the immigrants.

     Some of them once lived with their families in Brooklyn, but most of the two hundred working here now live during the week in boarding houses or apartments or motels scattered across the metropolitan region, and then on Friday afternoon begin the six-hour drive 400 miles north to the Kahnawake reserve on the south bank of the Saint Lawrence River about 20 miles from Montreal, to spend the weekend with their families.  Then on Sunday night they begin the long trip back to New York, arriving at the job site just in time for work.

     It all began in 1886, when the Canadian Pacific Railroad wanted to build a bridge over the Saint Lawrence River, one end of which would be on their property, and agreed to hire tribesmen.  The railroad meant to use them simply to unload supplies, but at every chance they got, the young Mohawks would go out on the bridge and climb up high.  Seeing that the Mohawks seemed to have no fear of heights, and needing riveters for dangerous work high up, the railroad began training them, and they worked on many jobs in Canada.  Then in 1907, when the collapse of another bridge under construction killed 33 Mohawks, the Mohawk women insisted that, rather than all working on the same site, their men work in smaller groups on a variety of projects.  So they began coming to New York, where such projects were plentiful.  And thus a people with age-old traditions centered in the earth left that earth far behind to work here in high steel.

     The Mohawks weren’t the only workers in high steel; many European immigrants worked there, too.  But the fathers, grandfathers, and even great-grandfathers of today’s Mohawk workers guided bars of steel into the skeletons of the city’s skyscrapers and bridges, and now a fourth generation is helping rebuild the World Trade Center site.   On 9/11 Mohawks working on other projects flocked to the Twin Towers to help people escape from the flaming buildings, and when the towers came crashing down, they helped look for victims and, over the months that followed, worked in the cleanup of what some of them had helped build years before.  Recently they worked frantically to make One World Trade Center rise by one floor every week; scheduled to open in 2014, the 104-story structure is the tallest in the Western Hemisphere, and the fourth tallest in the world.  

     Says one Mohawk ironworker, “One job I’ll always remember is working on the transit hub at the World Trade Center.  Some of the iron was huge.  I’ll never forget that feeling of seeing those pieces of iron, some thirteen feet high and sixty feet long, flying at you.  Awesome.”  And years ago another said, “It’s like you’re on top of the world.  When you are up there you can see all over Manhattan.  You’re like an eagle.”

     And recently another said, “A lot of people watch us and ask me if I’m crazy, but it’s fun.  You got to love what you do.”  And there he is, a fourth-generation Mohawk hardhat, 27 stories up, straddling an I-beam on top of a new skyscraper rising on 55th Street, with gloved hands grabbing a steel beam lifted high in the air by a crane and knocking it into a support column with a resonant gong.

      The perilous work of steel workers perched on beams or clinging to cables high above the city without any safety apparatus visible, as they built the Empire State Building in the early 1930s, was captured by photographer Lewis Hine in photographs that, just to look at them, make you gasp and tremble and your legs go flimsy.  Perhaps the most famous photo attributed to Hine shows eleven workers, some of them Mohawks, casually having lunch while sitting on a beam high in the air with no safety net below them, a photo that never fails to astonish me.  Yet according to official records only five men died during the building’s construction, and only one by falling off a scaffold.

Empire State Lunch

     Are the Mohawks really fearless in such work?  Some Mohawks say yes, but others insist that they’re just careful in following the rules: when walking on a girder, put one foot in front of the other and look ahead, never look down.  Do they ever fall to their death?  Yes, occasionally.  Many graves on the reserve are marked with crosses made of steel girders. 

     (The photo of eleven workers having lunch has usually been attributed to Hine, and the construction site identified as the Empire State Building in 1932.  But recently it has been revealed that the photo was taken on September 20, 1932, by an unknown photographer, and that it shows workers, two of them identified as Irish, working not on the Empire State Building but on Rockefeller Center.)

     But the Mohawk “skywalkers” love what they do.  And what have they and others done in the past?  Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Madison Square Garden, the U.N. building, the World Trade Center – you name it.  And most of the city’s bridges as well.  It’s a long six-hour commute from Canada, but it pays well and the benefits are good.  But if there are 200 Mohawk ironworkers here now, in the 1950s there were 800.  It’s hard work, and dangerous; now more young Mohawks are working in a tobacco industry flourishing on the reserve.  And some ironworkers urge their sons to find other, less dangerous jobs.   So maybe the tradition is dying: dying slowly, but dying.  Time will tell.

This is New York


     Coming soon:  The Gentle Art of Pickpocketing: An Old New York Tradition.  Have you ever had your pocket picked here in New York?  If so, let me know.  In the works: Ayn Rand, lean, hard, angular, and dry, yet her books are still selling.  But did this ardent foe of government intervention sign up for Social Security and Medicare?  Startling revelations to come.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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