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South Asian advocates honor ‘architects of change’

A Thursday evening celebration brought more than 100 people to the Jackson Diner, a landmark Indian restaurant seen by many in the South Asian immigrant population as a beacon for its sizable Queens community, to recognize the efforts of three “architects of change.”

The three community leaders were honored by the Chhaya Community Development Corp., an organization that assists South Asians with affordable housing, tenants rights and other issues, for work that has affected the lives of the city’s South Asian population.

Before the ceremony began, waiters passed vegetable pakora, chicken malai kabobs and tandoori prawns to the attendees, many of whom were wearing bright-colored, traditional South Asian sarees and burqas without veils. They had gathered to show their support for the efforts of Anish Berry, Chaumtoli Huq and Sadia Rahman and for the maturation of the city’s South Asian community in recent years.

“I can’t believe it — a packed house here at the Jackson Diner. Talk about change, huh?” said John Liu, the first Asian American to hold a seat on the City Council, before introducing Berry, a successful businessman who has helped New York’s South Asians through his extensive philanthropy.

“[Berry] is someone who reaped the benefits of Queens and New York City without ever forgetting that there are so many in need,” said Liu, who is expected to be the first Asian American elected to a citywide office in the comptroller race Nov. 3.

Berry co-founded the Doshi Difference Program at John Bowne High School in his native Flushing. The program provides students with unique opportunities to enrich their science educations.

Huq is director of litigation for Manhattan Legal Services, a program that provides free legal services to low-income Manhattan residents. She also founded and directed the first South Asian Workers Rights Project, which provides legal services to low-wage South Asian workers.

“Chamtouli has been involved in this work for 15 years. She’s a tireless worker in the community,” said Chhaya Executive Director Seema Agnani. “She won’t stop, she’ll do this for life.”

Rahman was chosen to receive the award because of her work on immigrant housing and tenant issues.

Described by state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), the first Hispanic elected to the state Legislature from Queens, as “an individual that is moving this community forward,” Rahman has worked with the Catholic Migrations Office-Immigrant Tenant Advocacy Project on immigrant housing issues since 2006. Later this month she will join the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center.

Housing and tenant issues are extremely important to South Asian immigrant communities in New York. Many new immigrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries looking to purchase homes in their new country have been susceptible to predatory lending practices, leading to a situation in some neighborhoods, including Jackson Heights and Jamaica, where as many as half of defaulters on mortgages are South Asian, said Agnani.

Mortgage trouble is just one arena where Chhaya offers assistance. Translated from Bengali or Hindi, “chhaya” means “shelter or shade from a tree,” and the organization embodies that imagery, Angani said, helping keep South Asian immigrants in their homes and protecting them from improper landlord practices.

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