Making Their Way

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For Tasnim Huque, the past few months have been full of surprises. Her Muslim parents, who immigrated to New York City from India’s sprawling eastern city of Calcutta in the late 1980s, are gradually allowing the 18-year-old to show some independence. While there’s little inhibiting most seniors at Hunter Science High School in Manhattan from attending the prom— except, perhaps, the cost of limos, gowns and tuxes— Huque was certain that she’d be missing it for a different reason: her 6 p.m. curfew. But her parents recently told her that she could, in fact, attend.

“They even bought me a nice Westernized dress,” she says excitedly. And that’s not all she’s excited about. Huque is also stunned that her mother, a teacher, and her father—who works for the MTA—are allowing her to apply to colleges on her own. “My parents are highly educated, but I’d be the first to graduate from college [in the U.S.],” she says. “They might have taken this one thing from me in letting me hang out late with my friends,” a reference to the curfew. “But they give me trust. They always tell me, ‘You remember who you are and what your responsibilities are.’” The coming-of-age journey of teenage girls and young-adult women in the city’s immigrant communities— many of which are rooted in socially conservative values with prescribed gender roles—often raise deeply nuanced questions about cultural identity, self-esteem and self-determination.

“We’re getting a lot of immigrants from places where gender expectations are really, really different. For girls, they’re being trained very early in family maintenance and preserving family honor,” says Philip Kasinitz, a CUNY Graduate Center sociology professor and co-author of the 2008 book Inheriting the City, which chronicles the experiences of the second generation in New York. “But they’re hitting a society where they’re being told, ‘Follow your dreams. Do the thing that makes you successful, and to hell with your family.’ That especially places girls in a difficult spot. And the question becomes, How do you balance that?”

It’s a question that Maimouna Nbiaye, 17, finds herself grappling with. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Senegal, she’s now a student in the International High School at Prospect Heights. Nbiaye, who aspires to become a doctor, is struck by the possibilities awaiting her. “When I was [in Senegal], I did not think about how I can stand up and say, ‘Oh I can do this,’ ” she reflects. “Back in Senegal, it was just men who said, ‘I can do this.’”

But she’s also conflicted. Nbiaye isn’t sure if New York—despite all that it promises—is where she wants to settle after pursuing her studies. West African culture, she argues, isn’t valued enough here. Umu Jalloh, 18, who was born in Sierra Leone, draws a similar contrast. “Back home, older persons get more respect. Over here, you see someone cursing a person who could be their grandmother,” she says. “Respect is what my culture is about.”

But the longing for home is driven not only by cultural familiarity—City Limits interviewed about a dozen West African teenage girls who expressed similar sentiments—but also, in part, by the searing memories of what relatives and friends left behind are still enduring in the aftermath of bloody conflict. Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone was torn apart by a brutal civil war. “When I used to be in my country, I went through war, and I used to cry a lot,” reflects Jalloh. “I saw people dying, poor people and sick people. I just want to be able to help them.”

Located in the Bronx, the Sauti Yetu (which means “our voice” in Swahili) Center for African Women provides a range of support services primarily to the city’s West African immigrants on issues ranging from reproductive health to domestic violence. Their Girls Empowerment and Leadership Initiative (GELI) provides some 50 teens and young women— including refugees—hailing from places including Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone with culturally sensitive after-school programs including counseling workshops, academic support, arts-related courses and advocacy.

But as they participate, many of the Sauti Yetu girls face their share of challenges, from the impact of abbreviated educations and turbulent family reunions to demanding household responsibilities. “The reason why we target girls in their late teens is because they’re easily neglected,” explains Ramatu Bangura, the Sauti Yetu program manager who spearheaded the launch of the initiative. “In cultures where girls get married very young, the idea of having a 16- or 17-year-old girl in the house is freaking out the parents. They don’t know what to do with a teenager who is developing her own mind and has a budding sexuality. That’s where we come in.”

And while standard teen worries about academic challenges, relationships, sex and self-esteem are all aired openly during workshop sessions and free-flowing social theater performances—based on the eater of the Oppressed model crafted by the late Brazilian writer Augusto Boal—unique concerns like cultural alienation and early marriage also factor into the wide-ranging discussions. “In our first group, we had 12 students, and nine were married or engaged to be married under different circumstances,” says Bangura.

The nonprofit group maintains close contact with the young women—whom Sauti Yetu attracts from area public schools and mosques—to determine instances of coerced marriages. “We tell them that the minute you hear any inkling of a marriage in our group, let us know so that we can contact the family and negotiate a better position for them. It’s not as cut-and-dried as people make it out to be,” Bangura explains. “What are her prospects for education, and what does her security look like? They’re calculated decisions, which really goes beyond ‘My culture says’ or ‘My culture doesn’t say.’”

Still, Sauti Yetu staffers claim that since the program’s inception, they’ve had at least two instances of underage teenage girls involved in marriages that the staffers believe were coerced. After contacting the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the group also claims that ACS determined that the girls weren’t in danger and that the cases didn’t require intervention. (In a statement, ACS said, “Children’s Services is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of every child whom we come into contact with. Culturally competent practice that respects and acknowledges the diverse backgrounds and cultural values of the families we serve is a core component of our work. When Children’s Services receives a report from the State Central Register of child abuse and maltreatment, child protective specialists will fully investigate the facts and circumstances of the family at issue in the report and take necessary steps to ensure the safety of children.”)

Dina Emam, 24, has been aware most of her life that she was different. Born in Egypt, she migrated to New York with her parents when she was 9 months old. After growing up in the north Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint as the only Arab Muslim enrolled in a predominantly Irish and Italian Catholic school—an experience she describes as “challenging”— Emam later became president of the campus group Arab Students United as a New York University undergrad.

The group produced political-, social- and cultural- themed events from an Arab perspective for a campus-wide audience. But for Emam, Arab Students United also had a personal impact—by helping her shed the identity crisis that she felt when she was younger. “In college, I just started to feel more comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “I think we’re seeing the creation of a new kind of culture. Obviously, I have my Eastern culture, and it’s not going to be the same as someone who actually lives in the region. But I also have my experiences in the West, and they can’t be discounted.”

While the campaign to tackle stereotypes—both cultural and gender—is one that links Arab-American young women like Emam and the West African teens, it’s playing out in sharply different ways. One important figure in Arab New York is Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, a civic group in the south Brooklyn working-class neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

Eight years ago, Sarsour—then a street-savvy and budding 22-year-old activist of Palestinian descent— was volunteering for AAANY, doing voter registration on the streets of Bay Ridge, where she settled on a spot outside a local mosque. It wasn’t long, Sarsour recalls, before she was told by an influential Muslim leader that the “men were coming out.” She was told to go. Immediately. Sarsour eventually left , but not before she made her point clear. “I said, ‘Excuse me? This is the United States of America. Where do you think you are? I can stand wherever I want.’”

For AAANY, creating new outlets for self-expression among teens and young-adult women is increasingly becoming a focus area. The group has 12 staffers—nine of whom are women aged 30 and younger. Beyond offering traditional Middle Eastern folk dance and music performances, AAANY— whose work has received funding from the New York Foundation and the Brooklyn Community Foundation— also seeks to use culture to broaden the voices, roles and perception of New York’s Arab-American women.

That effort includes an initiative dubbed Brooklynat, which translates to Arab Girls in Brooklyn— a youth group whose members engage in local activism and community service projects, from food pantry service and park cleanup jobs to poetry slam outings. The organization also places young women at the center of voter registration drives and an ongoing push to have Muslim holidays placed on the public school year calendar.

But for young Arab-American women, being politically active in the aftermath of Sept. 11 brings with it a range of other issues for a community whose residents often feel under siege. “You had the FBI coming in, immigration raids, hate crimes, kids in our community getting into fights in school because someone called them bin Laden,” recalls Sarsour. “It was crazy.”

The atmosphere has improved since then, but there are subtle reminders of distrust. “I’ve been in simple situations where I’m with other young women who are covered in a train station, and you’ll have tourists who skip over us looking for directions, and they’ll just go past us,” Sarsour says. “Sometimes I don’t bother, but other times I stop and ask them, ‘Oh are you looking for so-and-so?’ And they give me a look that says, ‘Oh my God, you speak English?’”

One of the things immigrant teens are forced to either accept or resist is the disparity between their real lives and the myths of immigrant success that pervade American culture. With representation from countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, South Asians total some 300,000 people across the city. On the surface, the growing population—which boasts a strong enclave in Queens—appears to be a community on the rise. But it also faces significant challenges, even with the high prevalence of two-income households.

In Queens, where some 16 percent of the population lives at the poverty level—the percentage among South Asian youth is just over 22 percent, according to the Census. It’s within that segment where SAYA, a nonprofit organization that runs a number of leadership development programs for some 600 children and youth in the city’s South Asian community, concentrates its efforts. “The popular notion is that everyone in the South Asian community is successful economically, but that’s not necessarily the case,” says Udai Tambar, executive director of SAYA. “The South Asian community is still very young right now. We have an opportunity to prevent a permanent underclass from being created in this city, and that means engaging and empowering as many youths as possible.”

Meanwhile, New York’s Haitian young have faced a peculiar dilemma: whether or not to claim their heritage or instead try to melt into the larger sea of black New York. Fela Pierre-Louis, a 25-year-old Haitian, well remembers being the source of derogatory verbal barbs as a city public school student. “People used to ask me if I had AIDS and told me that I stunk when I didn’t,” she says. “Nobody wanted to be Haitian.”

Pierre-Louis leads the youth development program at Dwa Fanm—which translates to women’s rights in Creole—a Brooklyn nonprofit group focused on human rights issues for Haitian women. In her work, Pierre-Louis is noticing that more teens are “owning up to being Haitian” compared with when she grew up.

On a late afternoon in May, near the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Clarendon Road in East Flatbush—the site of the annual Haitian Flag Day celebration—Dana Baptiste, 20, is fully absorbed by the action onstage. The neighborhood is the heart of the city’s Haitian community.

Performing the infectious rhythm called Rara Nap Danse (a Creole reference to Carnival) on the expansive stage is the 14-member Brooklyn-based percussion band Brother High. Baptiste, who migrated from Haiti to the city eight years ago, finds herself standing in a spot where she’s long wanted to be. “In Haiti, rara is street music, and religious people aren’t really into that,” she says before smiling. “I always wanted to come here, and [my parents] wouldn’t let me. But I’m an adult now.”

As she turns in the direction of her two female companions, Baptiste vigorously pumps her fist into the air. “Haitian girls rock,” she says. “Haitian girls rock.”