In an ironic twist, the venerable non-profit Chhaya Community Development Corporation, Chhaya CDC, which helps South Asians and others with housing issues, is in danger of losing its own home in Jackson Heights after nearly 20 years.
Chhaya was founded in 2000 by an Indian American, Seema Agnani, and today works with the immigrant communities from South Asia facing housing and other related problems.
Appropriately, the theme of this year’s Chatpati Mela held July 13, was “Here to Stay.”
“The ‘Here to Stay’ theme is really a statement about so many forces acting to make immigrants feel pushed out — out of this community, out of the country,” Annetta Seecharan, executive director of Chhaya, told Desi Talk. It was initially thought of as a statement against the citizenship question in the U.S. Census and about being counted, Seecharan said. But it is also about the forces of gentrification that might result in South Asians having to move out of Jackson Heights, she indicated.
Organizers called “the threat of displacement” bittersweet in a press release, noting that a recent change in ownership of Chhaya’s main office building had resulted in a significant rent increase which has launched the local non-profit into a search for a new home, facing the possibility of having to leave its neighborhood of origin, Jackson Heights.
“We are indicating (with ‘Here to Stay’) that this is a fight to stay here,” Seecharan emphasized. The organization is raising money to buy its own building so that it can remain with the constituents that it has helped over the last nearly two decades. “We are committed to staying in Jackson Heights, a historic place for South Asians. Just imagine all the South Asians being removed from Jackson Heights! It matters symbolically as well – what does it say about to our community if we move out?” Seecharan asked.
In the press release from Chhaya, Seecharan said, “Even legal immigrants feel the weight psychologically over this weekend’s ICE raids, and we want to ensure community members know their rights and who to contact for help.”
The popularity of Chhaya was evident from the thousands who came to the Chatpati Mela this year, more than 2,000 at any given time, Seecharan said. For the first time the Mela was held at the doorstep of the organization on 77th Street between 37th Road and 37th Avenue. And it was the largest ever, according to Seecharan.
The line-up of performances included sessions on knowing one’s rights, how to fill the Census 2020 form, the victory on keeping Amazon out of the area, and celebrating the passing of Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act 2019.
“This year’s Chatpati Mela succeeded in producing what street fairs are meant to be, an expression of the streets that they are on,” organizers said.
Vendors sold food and goods that were representative of the diverse South Asian community, from Indian-Mexican fusion cuisine to Rani Antie jewelry which used to be sold fromd a shopping cart.
Chhaya’s Community Leadership Award for a “Small Business Trailblazer,” was given to Yamuna Shrestha, the owner of a well-established Nepali restaurant, Bhanchha Ghar.
Performances at this year’s Mela were also representative of the broad South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community. Parijat Desai returned to Chhaya’s stage, performing contemporary Garba with various rhythms of Gujarati folk music; Neela Zareen, director of “Neela Dance Academy” showcased Kathak student performances; A music song and poetry performance was staged by Nadia Bourne and Simone Jhingoor of the Jahajee Sisters; Rhythm Tolee concluded the Mela with Punjabi folk fusion, Sufi and funky Bhangra Music.
Senator Jessica Ramos, and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz spoke at the event, praising the work of Chhaya CDC.
A Community Leadership Award was presented by Commissioner Bitta Mostofi from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, to Mirbahar Jahangir Hossain, president of the Hillside Park Tenants Association.
The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violemce, CAAAV, founded in 1986, received the Community Leadership award for organizing.