The second generation of around a 1000 Kashmiri American families feel more closer to their ancestral land and are making small efforts in their own way to help alleviate sufferings of their brethren, a Kashmir Life report
For the world, it took ages to discover Kashmir. Landlocked in a remote belt, even Islam took around 700 years to send its central Asian preachers here. But that was once upon a time.
Now, Kashmiris can be found anywhere across the world – absolutely cosmopolitan. Earlier, they used to be salesmen in handicraft stores but now there are doctors, engineers, scientists who serve far away from their homes. They have chosen homes beyond their motherland and America is no exception.
In the USA, estimates put the number of Kashmiri American families slightly less than 1000. “Say, there are 400 Muslims and 500 Pandits (families),” said a New York resident. “Most of them are doctors, quite a few businessmen and other professionals,” added a journalist who has been to US many times. An American who works in India adds, “We do not have a Bradford but yes Buffalo is the only place that has the highest concentration of Kashmiri Americans at a single place in the USA.”
There is no record available about who was the first Kashmiri who settled in the US. However, Ghulam Hassan Khan, son of an affluent Srinagar family is believed to be first Kashmiri to have ever gone to the US in the 1930s. He studied engineering at Harvard University and returned home. He was the engineer who built the Zero Bridge. Some members of his family later went to the US for studies and settled there.
Usman Rahim, an American of Kashmir descent says there have been two major waves of the influxes of immigrants to the US from Kashmir. “The first one was in mid-1970s when the US was in the process of getting out of Vietnam,” he said. Then, there was an acute shortage of human resource and the US started recruiting people – doctors and engineers and lot many professionals. “That was a major flock that started settling in the US.”
“The visa regime in the sixties and seventies was not so harsh and a number of students who came for studies, got job visa and finally secured the now-elusive green cards, married, settled and became proud US citizens,” adds an American journalist who wishes to remain anonymous. They were a mixed lot – Muslims and Pandits and included a number of teachers and professors.
The second major immigration started as Kashmir became restive that eventually led to the eruption of armed militancy. However, this group was small and very few could manage their stay on “refugee grounds”. Unlike other countries like the UK and Canada, immigration to the US became difficult in the last 20 years, more so after 9/11.
Now Kashmiris live everywhere across the USA.
They are part of the US society’s better socio-economic group, often falling in the upper-middle class. Their kids go to the best schools and pass out from reputed universities. “They are scattered across the country and there are a couple of engineers working as far as Alaska with some oil companies and doing good,” Rahim said. “There is not a single city or a university especially the reputed ones where you would not see a Kashmiri American studying and doing the best.” He said most of the Kashmiris in the US fall in the high-income bracket of the society.
Most of the Kashmiris in the US continue to be doctors. Off late, however, there are people working for the US government, in Silicon Valley, and many have created small and big business stories. “They are a small community,” said Rahim, “but wherever they are they have earned an image and a reputation many envy.”
Though Farooq Kathwari continues to be the most influential Kashmiri living in the US, there are many others who have earned a position of high reputation. Till a few years back Agha Shahid Ali was perhaps the best-known face of Kashmir in US’s literary circles. Farah Pandith is the only Kashmiri origin person who has reached a senior position in the US administration. Osman Ahmad Handoo, a top-notch lawyer who was working as an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and was in the limelight for appearing for the detainees of the Guantanamo Bay has joined a high power council of the treasury department that works as a watchdog of the Wall Street.
There is Mohammad Zamir Afsar, a British applied mathematician of Kashmir descent, who is a research fellow working at the NASA Glenn Research Center at a very young age. Currently working on the dynamics of noise in jet aircraft, he was recently here for a lecture at the University of Kashmir.
Dr Farooq Khan, the leading professor of medicine is one of the prominent faces in US. So is Dr Shawl and Dr Altaf Lal. The latter is one of the leading members of US’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that oversees epidemics and emergency response across the world. He is based at Atlanta Georgia and is holding a very responsible position.
There are not many people in the politics but Rahim says there are a number of people who are in sharp public focus without being in politics. These include Prof Sayyid M Syeed who is the national director for the Office of Interfaith & Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an organization that he is credited to have helped evolve in last many decades. Daizy Khan, an erstwhile resident of Srinagar is at the heart of the controversy over the mosque at ground zero.
Pandits, however, have chosen specific fields. Unlike doctors, they are found more in academics and managing businesses especially banks. Off late, the community has created a few authors including Chitralekha Zutshi, who did a great scholarly work on Kashmir and Sudha Koul who wrote, The Tiger Ladies of Kashmir.
The generation next is changing. Not that they have taken it too easy. But they have branched out to many new fields. “There are two major shifts in the next generation of Kashmiri Americans,” says Rahim, “One that they have started coming out of the professions their parents practised and second they are desperately trying to be close to the homeland of their parents.”
There are people going to music, film-making, designing, aeronautics and journalism. In 2008 Tariq Thapa did his film ‘Zero Bridge’ and within a year there emerged a band ‘Zero Bridge’ by two Kashmir American bothers – Mubashir Mohi-ud-Din and drummer Mohsin Mohi-ud-Din.
Unlike their parent generation, the generation that was born and brought up in the US is keen to somehow remain connected with Kashmir. They have set up a number of groups that work on different fronts to help the people who need it in Kashmir. Apart from helping destitute, trying to see scope for intervention in skill up-gradation, there are certain groups that are trying to preserve culture. “A group has actually recorded a series of Kashmiri folk songs in a bid to preserve them,” the US journalist said, adding, “They are giving it to American libraries in order to introduce and preserve it.”
Groups of these Kashmiri American youth make efforts spending part of their yearly holidays in Kashmir. For many years, a group is sending volunteers and specialists in different fields to work in Kashmir for a few weeks. It helps them travel, contribute, spend, gain knowledge and experience and train others.
Some of them are seen teaching in Kashmir schools, working with groups making efforts to preserve the heritage and environment. They even are helping the hosts in Kashmir in managing linkages with experts in the US for better understanding of difficult non-political problems. Some groups pool part of their earnings and pocket money to give scholarships to the most deserving candidates in Kashmir though they are few in number.
There are doctors who fly back home with a lot of medicines and costly equipment which they contribute either to the hospitals or to the needy.
Unlike their parents who would opt for traditional charities, the new generation prefers to study the requirement and scope of any initiative. They actually create a blueprint to which they adhere to. This is helping develop a scientific culture for social work in Kashmir.
However, what distinguishes Kashmir Muslim Americans from their Pandit immigrants is they are barely organized. Pandits are close-knit and have maintained the culture even in the US. They marry within themselves and speak Kashmiri unlike most of the Kashmiri Muslim Americans. Every year the Pandits which have set up Kashmir Overseas Association arrange a yearly get together that helps them bond better.
Ethnic communities living in the US are key to Washington’s policy-making towards the particular regions. Many policymakers think a strong presence and influence of Irish Catholics led President Clinton to go for Good Friday Agreement. But Kashmiri Americans say they are a small community that lacks any influence to the level where it could impact Washington’s decision making for a nuclear sub-continent that Clinton termed the most dangerous place on earth.
“We are trying to do our bit,” said Bashir G Ahmad, a Kashmir American who lives in New York. “In April we submitted a memorandum to the White House and this time again we are trying to send one more and we are trying to collect 1000 signatures.” He said they are being communicated unofficially that the president will talk about Kashmir with his hosts in Delhi but in private.
(Some of the photos were provided by Yousra Y Fazili, a Kashmiri-American from Buffalo, NY who lives and works in Washington D.C.)
Afeefa Syeed is senior culture and development advisor at USAID, a position she has held since late 2008.
A cultural anthropologist, Afeefa works with USAID staff in Washington as well as the field to define best practices, highlight success stories, develop tools and frame country strategies that reflect greater expertise in engaging with the cultural contexts USAID serves.
Her work has also included advising the White House, National Security Council, State Department and Homeland Security Department on the same issues.
Prior to her current position, Afeefa worked for 15 years with various international and grassroots NGOs and development agencies in areas of youth and women empowerment and leadership, civic education and participation, good governance, education and curriculum reform, and advocacy.
Her involvement and community activism led her to run for local office in 2003 as the Democratic candidate for the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors from the Potomac District.
Afeefa was born in Srinagar and emigrated with her family to the United States in the 1970s.
Farah Anwar Pandith
The first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities that the US Department of State created in 2009 saw the rise of Farah Anwar Pandith in the USA. She took over in September.
Hailing from Sopore (born January 13, 1968), Farah immigrated with her mother to Massachusetts on July 4, 1969. She worked with USAID between 1990-93 and later in 2003-04. Prior to her current appointment, she was Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Between 2004 and 2007, she worked at the National Security Council at the White House under Elliot Abrams covering a portfolio that included “Muslim engagement,” countering violent extremism, and the Broader Middle East North Africa Initiative. For a brief stint, she was posted in Kabul as well.
Farah graduated in 1986 from Milton Academy, passed out from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and did her master’s in Law & Diplomacy (M.A.L.D.) in 1995 from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She wrote her Master’s thesis on the insurgency in Kashmir.
After her appointment, she visited India and made a brief speech in Delhi. The response to her visit, she later said, overwhelmed her.