The first-ever South Asian Advisory Group Town Hall was a night of promoting unity and tackling critical issues impacting the South Asian community on Long Island, such as domestic violence, hate crimes and discrimination.
In partnership with the Muslim Entrepreneur Association, New York Grows Together and the Khalsa Community Patrol, Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages and Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages hosted a public forum on March 2 at the Elmont Memorial Library with the goal of sparking a dialogue about the needs of South Asian people. Attendees also learned about economic opportunities, as well as helpful federal and local resources at their disposal.
Abdul Rahman, co-host of the town hall, founder of the Muslim Entrepreneur Association and director of New York Grows Together, said the purpose of the town hall was to allow attendees to speak openly about matters they believe need to be addressed.
“These things we usually sweep under the rug,” Rahman said. “We don’t talk about domestic violence, we don’t talk about mental health issues — until it becomes a problem. That’s when we talk about it, but we have to talk about prevention.”
Dozens of speakers of various ethnic backgrounds — Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indo-Caribbean and others — stepped up to the microphone to share their personal experiences and concerns.
Nafiah Ikram, 23, of Elmont was assaulted on the evening of March 17, 2021 in her driveway when she and her mother returned to their home after shopping. Once her mother was inside the house, an unidentified man came up from behind Ikram and threw acid in her face. To this day, she suffers from both physical and emotional pain from the incident, she said.
According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, a vast majority of acid attacks are committed against women between the ages of 13 and 35, with 99 percent of the attackers being men. The Acid Survivors Trust International organization said 1,500 acid attacks occur annually and 80 percent target women, with 60 percent going unreported.
Ikram said acid is easily accessible and affordable, and she wants to push for a ban on over-the-counter and online sales of these harmful chemicals.
“I really want to try to use my experience to help other people in any way, shape or form,” Ikram said. “What are the next steps we could take to prevent this from happening, aside from just catching the person, because it may be someone else that comes up with this idea?”
Other topics discussed included discrimination in the workplace and the rise of hate crimes against South Asians — especially since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Sikh men are increasingly targeted because they are often mistaken for Muslim Americans, organizers said.
Their turbans — which religiously symbolize spirituality and holiness and are also a sign of honor in the Punjabi culture — are often associated by people with terrorism and 9/11, according to the Sikh Coalition.
Domestic violence is also prevalent in the South Asian community, and some women in the audience brought up the need for more culturally sensitive shelters in Nassau County.
Language barriers often add to the difficulty of these situations, community members said, along with a lack of awareness of the resources that are out there. Particularly vulnerable are the elderly, women and children in need, they said.
“We have to make sure that government is working for you. There are so many resources available on the state, even on the federal and local level,” said Assemblywoman Solages. “It’s important that we have forums such as this where we can talk it out.”
Members of the Indo-Caribbean community expressed feeling disregarded and isolated from others in the South Asian population. They have Indian ancestry but are from West Caribbean countries such as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and Grenada.
However, local Indo-Caribbean leaders said these town halls create a sense of unity between people with similar struggles and who are fighting for the same solutions.
Some audience members expressed a strong interest in volunteering for local organizations or government initiatives.
Some solutions Carrié Solages and Michaelle Solages are working on at the county and state levels include introducing halal food in school meal plans, making Eid al-Adha and Diwali official holidays, implementing a community center in the third legislative district, pushing for more multilingual translators in police departments and expanding the number of beds in local shelters.
“There’s a power when we come together and just be there for each other,” said Japneet Singh, co-director of New York Grows Together.