Home Away From Home: A Desi Senior Center in Queens

Farah Akhbar, NBC News, June 5, 2015

Not far from the bustling Bangladeshi restaurants and stores on Hillside Avenue is a mosque teeming with activity but not necessarily from worshippers. During the day, women and men sing songs at the “open mic,” take English classes, learn about civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and participate in group exercise. They eat meals, pray and celebrate their birthdays together. Sometimes they cry too.

These folks are members of the newly opened “Desi Senior Center,” a facility targeted to assist the growing and aging South Asian community in this Queens, New York neighborhood. (Desi is a term that describes anyone from South Asia–Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka). The program is attended mostly by Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants but is open to people of all faiths and backgrounds. It is housed in the basement of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, free of charge and is open to anyone 60 and up (though exceptions are sometimes made for younger participants.)

The facility is operated by India Home, a non-profit organization started by a group of Indian-American physicians who longed for a culturally sensitive community space for their aging parents. The center is open three days a week and offers a wide range of services tailored to the needs of seniors. Bangla is spoken, halal meals are served, prayer space is available and men and women exercise separately. It is the largest program of its kind for South Asian seniors in New York City, with roughly 100 seniors attending on a regular basis.

“The center is historic for the Muslim community,” said Shamsi Ali, Director of the Jamaica Muslim Center. “The response has been overwhelming.” Shamsi says that the Bangladeshi community, one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in New York, had lobbied their elected officials for years for financial help to create a center like this. Their prayers, he said, were finally answered in the form of a $100,000 grant from Councilman Rory Lancman’s discretionary funds. Councilman Lancman’s district has the largest Bangladeshi population in New York City and is home to over 23,000 residents of South Asian descent.

Lancman says the center could receive another $100,000 of public funds after the city budget is passed in June. The Councilman, who attended the center’s opening day, hopes one day it could grow into a “full blown” senior center with additional funds.

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