Head of Queens, NY non-profit Chhaya CDC testifies on Capitol Hill

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Annetta Seecharran testifying online at the Capitol Hill hearing March 1, 2022, on Discrimination and Civil Rights of Muslim, Arab, South Asian American Communities. Photo: Chhaya CDC.org

In moving testimony, Annetta Seecharran, the executive director of the non-profit organization Chhaya Community Development Corporation based in Queens, NY, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill about discrimination and other issues that continue to make life difficult for immigrants of South Asian origin.

Seecharran was invited to speak before the United States House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the Discrimination and the Civil Rights of the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian American Communities, held March 1, 2022.

Among the recommendations Seecharran offered to public officials was to model the nation’s discourse to suit a nation that is more diverse than ever before; providing opportunities to repair and redress wrongs, including those after 9/11, by investing in these communities; change and implement equitable immigration policies – from DACA to H-1B visas.

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Chhaya CDC has been helping minority communities and immigrants for twenty years in dealing with housing and other problems. It advocates for systemic changes that remove barriers to housing stability, economic mobility and well-being for South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers.

According to a press release and the transcript and video of the testimony sent to Desi Talk by the organization, Seecharran brought her perspective from more than two decades of work with South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities in New York City. She highlighted the consequences of post-9/11 backlash and policies affecting South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs, and pushed for action to repair and reinvest in these communities.

“There’s a direct line from the post 9/11 climate to the current status of many South Asian immigrants in NYC and the country,” Seecharran said. “Resources were allocated towards surveilling our community, and not to critical social services despite the tremendous needs now amplified by COVID-19,” she added.

In a heartfelt recount of her family’s loss, Seecharran remembered a personal loss from the  9/11 bombings.

“My cousin was nearby when the plane hit the South Tower, where her husband, Alfred, worked. She rushed towards the building with the hope of rescuing him but then saw the building collapse in front of her. She ran for blocks without her shoes to save her own life, hoping that her husband had survived. For days, we searched hospitals to find Alfred. We never did,” Seecharran recalled.

“Yet, at a time of heart-wrenching grief, we found that we were also targets of verbal abuse and attacks,” she said, instances when members of her family were told “Get out of this country.”

She detailed the post-9/11 trauma faced by people of South Asian origin, and the different faiths they represented in the War on Terror that followed, in every day life and every day places they visited.

In a 2018 report, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) documented 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities in the year leading up to the 2016 election, Seecharran pointed out.

And while South Asians have persevered and are among the fastest growing immigrant groups in the country, “The model minority myth, often used to prop up our communities as a racial wedge, erases the real disparities and vulnerabilities many members face,” Seecharran contended.

Quoting the U.S. Census data, Seecharran said there are 5.4 million South Asians living in the United States with ancestry from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the diaspora, including Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Fiji, Tanzania, and Kenya. The New York City metropolitan area is home to the largest South Asian population in the country, where those of Indian origin rank third after immigrants of  Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin.

She detailed the housing status of various groups in Queens and the impact on businesses during the pandemic.

“Over the past two years, our staff at Chhaya CDC have counseled and supported community members to navigate the morass of local, city, state and federal regulations around health and safety, loans, restaurant revitalization, paycheck protection and more,” Seecharran said. And while a number of non-profits have been helping these communities, she said, it was not sufficient.

Others who spoke at the hearing included Maya Berry (Arab American Institute), Hammad Alam (Asian Law Caucus),  Amrith Kaur Aakre (Sikh Coalition), Zulfat Suara (Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County), and Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia (Penn State Law).

Seecharran, originally from Guyana, and before becoming executive director of Chhaya, she led the organization South Asian Youth Action, SAYA.

Chhaya CDC called the hearing “historic” and “more than 20 years in the making,” and expressed the hope that “This hearing must be the first of many that occur in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures around the country to understand the full breadth of the issues facing our diverse communities.”

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