The Arab “Dreamers” of Brooklyn

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The Arab “Dreamers” of Brooklyn

When you think of DACA recipients, you may think of the 618,342 young people of Mexican origin whose ability to work and live legally in the country where they grew up has hung in the balance since President Trump’s Sept. 5 repeal. Or the tens of thousands from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. But you probably don’t imagine Barish, a 30-year-old Pakistani woman raised in Brooklyn.

Barish is among 1,685 Pakistani DACA recipients, many of whom live in New York City. She has a spunky style, and is often cloaked in colorful, patterned hijabs and a nose ring with sparkle that mimics her eyes. ‘Barish’ is a pseudonym that means “rain” in Urdu, reminding the young woman of her parents’ homeland. As a child, she didn’t think much of her family’s lack of papers. “It didn’t affect me in any way,” she says. She soared through elementary school, junior high, then high school. But things began to get complicated when she started work at 15.

As an undocumented immigrant, she says, she was relegated to poorly-paid, under-the-table jobs, often for bosses who abused their knowledge of her status. “People are not stupid. If you’re asking for off-the-books jobs, they know why,” she said. “They take advantage.” Later, that same status would put a wall between her and her ultimate dream: furthering her education.

But in 2013, once she became a “Dreamer,” one of the nation’s DACA recipients,  Barish’s life turned around. She began to feel she was finally moving towards her goals.

Barish is a natural optimist. She sees Trump’s DACA suspension as a temporary thing. She hopes that she’ll ultimately have the opportunity to stay in the United States, to finish her education, and to build a career in the only country she has known. Her field of choice? Computer information systems. “I’m not looking to take a handout from the government,”she says. “You guys can take as much tax as you need out of me, to do what you need to do for this country.”

Barish is convinced that Trump has a soft spot for the group that will ultimately spare them deportation. “I feel hopeful,” she said. “Let’s see.” But she is also trying to squeeze her remaining two years’ worth of undergraduate credits into a single year—just in case she is forced to leave.

* * *

Some of the city’s key Arab-American organizers and community leaders take a different tone on Trump. Rama Issa-Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Bay Ridge-based Arab-American Association of New York, said she was not surprised by this most recent threat to DACA. For her, the real shift has shaken out since the presidential election. “This administration has kept its promises about ‘otherizing’ communities of color, and immigrant communities, and LGBT communities. And so folks are scared,” she says. “It’s sort of a slap in the face, of like, does America really feel like this? About me? About my community? About my sister communities?”

Even though the vast majority of DACA recipients are Latin American, the Arab-American Association jumped in to offer institutional and community-based support. Issa-Ibrahim explained that in recent months, the shared fate of America’s minorities has rendered this kind of mobilization crucial. “If there’s a silver lining in all this—Arabs and Muslims, Latino communities, communities of color, black communities, LGBT communities—we found this common ground amongst us all, that we are all fighting for the same thing. Our freedom really depends on the freedom of the others as well.”

After Trump’s Sept. 5 announcement, the association brought crowds to protest at City Hall and helped to organize an emergency town hall later in the week. The meeting—a somber event that took over a church basement in Southern Brooklyn—was filled with eager allies outnumbering the Dreamers themselves.

Many were young, hijab-clad Brooklynites. After City Council member Carlos Menchaca reminded the crowd to “take a deep breath” and take heart, lawyer Tahanie A. Aboushi stepped out in front of the rows of folding chairs. “Sessions is Sessions, Trump is Trump, and this is really happening,” she said.

Aboushi is partner at a small law firm, but has found one day a week for the past eight years to work pro bono in her community. Every Wednesday, she gives hours of legal advice at the Arab-American Association’s offices in her native Bay Ridge. In a separate conversation, Aboushi explained how integrated the association is with South Brooklyn’s Arab-American population: “Our elderly folks will even come in with the mail, and they’re like, ‘Listen, I can’t read English, just open it and tell me what it says.’”

But although she feels the association and her community are almost one and the same, Aboushi especially values the fact that it does not serve Arabs only—any immigrant who needs help can walk through the door.

Aboushi cautions Dreamers to be organized, and to get help early to see what other options they might have aside from DACA. The seasoned lawyer notes that there are many Arabs and Muslims who have DACA status but still more that are here through a parallel program called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. This program serves essentially the same function as DACA, only for a different population. It gives people who have entered the country from war zones temporary permission to work. “Trump hasn’t said anything about TPS. I think that’s probably a program he would target. Whether or not he would be successful is different.” She pointed, in particular, to the fact that Yemen and Syria—both TPS-eligible countries—were targets of the Trump administration’s travel bans this year.

* * *

Aboushi’s church basement audience listened intently as she drew a strong parallel between the administration’s Muslim Ban and its move to roll back DACA. Just like the travel restriction, she said, the DACA suspension seems to pointedly punish a particular population whom Trump had campaigned against—in this case, Mexicans. A lawsuit filed on Sept. 6 by 15 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia makes a similar case.

For Brooklyn’s Dreamers and their supporters, the message at the church basement event was clear: don’t underestimate this.

Barish was among them. She blended in with the small crowd, lingering in the corner to wait for a friend after the speakers were done. There was so much to think about. What would become of her career, her education?

Before she became a Dreamer, Barish had tried twice to go to college. After her first start, she said, the family was struggling too much from her added costs and reduced working hours. Her father, who drove a Yellow Cab despite his Pakistani college degree, paid for most of the family’s expenses and their one-bedroom flat, which housed the family of six. Barish had to stop taking classes to help, turning to full-time work instead.

A few years later, Barish had saved up enough to try again. But during a pre-semester trip to the registrar’s office she learned that undocumented students are not eligible for in-state tuition rates. She was forced to drop out two days before the semester began. “When I saw the bill, I cried,” Barish said. “I was shaking. I remember the guy being really rude to me, and I was just like, ‘You don’t understand. You may be having a bad day, but this one day that I’m here, I’ve been planning this for years.’”

It’s no surprise that one of Barish’s first moves after applying for DACA status in 2013 was to jump back into her studies. Now, she works a job that honors minimum wage requirements to pay for her classes, for which she forks over the ordinary New York State tuition in full.

Thinking about her future, Barish keeps coming back to her father’s sacrifices. He values academic achievement, she says, and wanted a good education and career possibilities for his children when he gave up his own at 35. “Everything I’m doing now, it’s for my dad,” Barish says. ” I never told him that, but I want him to see it.” Barish plans to stay in school, to eventually get her doctorate. To earn positions that will someday make him proud. If she can.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Barish as Arab. 

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