Chhaya seeks unity among minorities following Orlando shooting

By Madina Toure

Community activists, artists and elected officials discussed racial and religious discrimination in post-9/11 America as well as the challenges LGBT individuals face at an evening of rights and reflection at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights Saturday following the Orlando nightclub shooting last month.

The event, which kicked off in the afternoon and concluded in the evening, consisted of spoken word performances, “know your rights” workshops and featured a mural with a light blue background and the phrase “Jackson Heights United Against Hate” in black letters. Attendees were encouraged to put their hand on paint and then put their handprint on the mural.

Cliff Mulqueen, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the city Commission on Human Rights, spoke during the ceremony. South Asian American activist Deepa Iyer, a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, served as the keynote speaker.

“Tonight, we are here to stand together to say enough is enough and we are going to unite together against all the hateful rhetoric that seems to be taking over the airwaves of this country,” Annetta Seecharran, interim executive director of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, said.

Queens Museum; United Sikhs, a United Nations-affiliated international nonprofit, and the New York Commissioner on Human Rights were partners for the event and Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) is a supporter.

On June 12, 49 people were murdered in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, including 26-year-old Mercedez Marisol Flores, who was born in Ozone Park but moved to Florida at a young age and went to the club with her friend, who was also killed.

Another 53 were wounded during a nearly three-hour shooting by Queens-born gunman Omar Mateen, who targeted LGBT individuals at the nightclub before he was shot and killed by the police.

Dromm, who held a rally and vigil at Diversity Plaza the same day the shooting took place , said he understands the plight of South Asians, Muslims and LGBT individuals because of what he witnessed during his days as a teacher.

He recalled a student making fun of a Sikh boy when he first started wearing his turban, Muslim girls being mistreated because of their hijabs and the discrimination LGBT students have faced in the public school system.

“I happen to love Diversity Plaza as well,” Dromm said. “I think it’s become the meeting place for South Asian and other folks in the community. So much goes on here. People are naturally drawn here whenever there is some type of a crisis and even times just for celebrating.”

Aniqa Nawabi, Chhaya’s director of development and communications, said that in light of the negative political rhetoric surrounding Muslims, Arabs and South Asians, the Sikh community is affected because people assume that they are Muslim and that as a South Asian nonprofit, Chhaya feels obligated to educate community members on how to combat this type of hate and discrimination.

“The Mexican community, the black community, everyone you can think of has been affected by this and everyone’s becoming politicized,” Nawabi said. “How do we defend ourselves? What is our narrative?”

Woodhaven resident and Indian native Frederic DeSouza, 52, who is a member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, spoke briefly during the event about his experiences living in the United States for the past 22 years.

He recalled a time when a black man and a black woman were staring at him suspiciously for two minutes, which he said was frustrating for him given that he marched in a protest on behalf of the late Eric Garner, who died from a police chokehold in July 2014.

“I was in the protest for him,” DeSouza said. “For five hours, I walked for him. I’m trying my best to support them.”

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtoure@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

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