A Larger-Than-Life Loss

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The streets of Richmond Hill, Queens, the heart of New York City’s Guyanese community, were eerily quiet the weekend after the World Trade Center collapse. The roti shops that line Liberty Avenue were empty; few children were playing outside. Even the loud soca music pouring forth from restaurants couldn’t mask the uncharacteristic hush at the tables.

“Some people are at the mandirs or at the mosques,” said Lee George, a photojournalist who moved here from Guyana three months ago. “But most people are staying close to home.”

The aftershocks of the attacks traveled quickly through this Queens neighborhood. Home to about 70,000 Guyanese immigrants, this is a tight-knit community where families have known one another for generations on two continents. The Guyanese embassy confirmed in early October that 23 Guyanese were presumed dead.

The best known among them is 31-year-old Nezam Hafiz, who worked on the 94th floor of Tower One. A star player with the U.S. National Cricket Team, Hafiz was something of a hometown hero in Richmond Hill, where cricket is more a source of national pride than a sport. He was a regular celebrity in the Caribbean emigré press. But, Hafiz’ photograph in Cricket International the week of September 11 was not in the sports section as usual. It was alongside photos of two other missing people.

“It seems like everyone in the Guyanese community knew him, so we all feel the loss,” said Ashur Shakur, a close friend of Hafiz. “He was here last Saturday for a game against the Windward Islands and now he is gone. We are all in disbelief.”

The timing of the World Trade Center attack–on Primary Day–also created a curious tenuousness in Richmond Hill. After several attempts at elective office, a financially and politically viable Guyanese candidate emerged this year in 37-year-old Trevor Rupnarain, a lawyer running for the City Council’s 28th District seat.

With traditional campaign tactics on hold, he organized a candlelight vigil on September 15 in Hafiz’ name. Only a few dozen people showed up, but among them were some local celebrities: Sew Shivnarain, coach of the U.S. National Cricket Team, and Brooklyn State Supreme Court Judge Reynold Mason, a native of Grenada.

“The attack was a blow to people all over the world, not just to the Guyanese,” said Rupnarain. “At the same time, this community is at a turning point with the campaign. We have to keep going forward.” Ten days later, he and his supporters lost their race for the Council.

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