Asia Life

Life in New York’s Little Pakistan

This once-thriving community is still trying to put itself back together after the 9/11 attacks.

Life in New York’s Little Pakistan
Credit: Youtube Screen Shot/ Mohsin Zaheer

If you live in New York and are interested in how low-income Pakistanis live, you don’t need a hefty airline ticket — a $2.75 subway ticket will suffice. Exactly 12 stops from the Times Square subway station, the Q line goes straight to Newkirk Plaza in Midwood, Brooklyn, an area referred to as Little Pakistan.

As a Pakistani reporter, I was terribly excited to be assigned this neighborhood as my beat. I was sure that I would find stories of fear and tension among a targeted Muslim population under the current hostile administration. A year later, I’m still trying to grapple with the discrepancy between my expectation of the place and the reality that I soon discovered. There was no fear, no tension, there was not even mild stress; instead, the neighborhood displayed sheer indifference at the political situation of the country they hesitantly called home.

It’s shocking how drastically the landscape changes during the handful of subway stops from Times Square. The disappearance of shiny skyscrapers is just one of the shifts. You suddenly see women and men walking around in shalwar kameez, the national dress of Pakistan. You hear Urdu and Punjabi on the streets – actually, any sound even resembling English is rare. As I walked through the neighborhood, every aspect of it surprised me. I never imagined a small immigrant community could turn a piece of land in New York into home so overtly, to the point that I forgot I was still in the city. I strolled past Punjab Grocery, seeing every item I associate with Pakistan displayed on the shelves. I smelled the appetizing aroma of fresh barbecue outside Lahore Chilli Restaurant, and I saw women leaving Raheela Beauty Parlor all decked out in traditional jewelry and heavy makeup. Somewhere in the distance, a parked car rolled down its windows and played loud Pakistani pop songs. If there was ever a moment in my life where I felt like a fictional character who had traveled across space and time, this was it.

Through regular interactions with the residents of the neighborhood, I learned that most of the immigrants cannot speak a word of English, and neither do they have the necessary education to be able to grow out of the neighborhood. For the community members, landing jobs that do not require hard labor is not even a distant dream. That is why so many either open a grocery store or a restaurant — comforted by the thought that this would not put any pressure on them to assimilate in a culture that is not their own.

One of the first stores I walked into was PAK U.S TRAVEL. The owner was a travel agent for Pakistan International Airlines, but sold women’s clothes as a side business. Hungry for stories, I asked him about the most pressing issues the community was facing – expecting he would spill tales of racial profiling, hate crimes, and ostracism. But he just laughed without saying a word. I prompted him again, this time only with my eyes — confused and inquisitive. He then calmly answered: “Sit in this store for hours at a stretch and you won’t see a single customer. Bring customers to this neighborhood, that’s all we want.”

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I heard similar stories from other store owners, all narrating the economic struggle of running small businesses in the neighborhood. As an outsider, I thought to myself that it makes perfect sense that businesses are not doing well — there are five Pakistani grocery stores 30 seconds away from each other, and an equal, if not larger, number of Pakistani restaurants with identical menus. The competition alone could kill them.

But my ignorance was soon highlighted by a community member who had witnessed the neighborhood go through a painful change overnight.

Hassan Raza came to New York in July of 2000 and belongs to the last batch of Pakistanis who came through the Diversity Visa Lottery. When he drove onto Coney Island Avenue from John F. Kennedy Airport, the view from the cab window surprised him: crowds of Pakistanis in shalwar kameez strolling around. He remembers feeling as if, after almost 24 hours of air travel, he was back in Pakistan — but not for long.

In the fall of 2001, when a group of terrorists with misplaced and deranged religious beliefs carried out the 9/11 attacks, the Pakistani neighborhood faced strong repercussions. Two hundred and fifty-four Pakistani immigrants were picked up from their homes in New York as part of the FBI’s investigation, although none of the 9/11 hijackers was from Pakistan.

Terrified for their lives, many legal and illegal immigrants alike left the United States, either headed to Canada, encouraged by the friendlier immigration laws, or back to Pakistan, realizing they were safer where they began. Community members talk about seeing the lively Little Pakistan turn into a ghost town immediately after the attacks. They say while it picked up some years later, it could never recover from the damage those terrorists brought upon this happy Muslim population, which had created a world of its own within the streets of New York.

My frequent trips down to the area mocked all my presumptions: These people cannot bother about President Donald J. Trump’s aggressive policies because they have already faced one of the most brutal storms in history and the currents still linger. They don’t have the time to think about what may become of them under the current administration because they have more pressing issues hanging over their heads. They need to figure out how to make enough money to feed their families when they don’t speak the language of the country at large, and when the people their businesses once served have fled.

Today, there are no throngs of Pakistanis loitering around the streets of Little Pakistan — just individuals struggling to keep their heads afloat in deep water. That is why the political climate of the country does not terrify them, because really, how much worse could it possibly get?

Nushmiya Sukhera is a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. She received her master’s in journalism from Columbia University.