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Away from Kashmir, scattered Kashmiri diaspora comes together

Kashmiri diaspora has been coming together in annual gatherings recently organised in North America that have attracted thousands of Kashmiris based in USA and Canada. 

By Majid Maqbool

Kashmiris in North America are a thriving community of diaspora who live in the United States and Canada as their adopted home. Unlike many other immigrant communities, a significantly large number of Kashmiris are professionals, including doctors, engineers, scientists, professors, entrepreneurs, technology consultants, and business leaders. The community has grown rapidly in the past 20 years. Many families live in the suburbs of large metropolitans in North America.

Community members in the metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. have always lived tightly knit with each other. Many consider their Kashmiri friends in their local areas as their family and, given Kashmir’s painful history, are loyal supporters of each other. The community members routinely meet in their respective areas during Eid celebrations, picnics, marriages, and other social events.

Recently, the community has been meeting at a national level and such gatherings have brought together thousands of attendees in the last three years. It all started with a few friends discussing the need to bring the community together in an environment of trust – and to meet, interact, and strengthen the bonds of the community. Kashmiri Gathering of North America, now called Kashmiri Group of North America (KGNA), was started in 2016 by two Kashmiris, Tahir Qazi and Wajahat Qureshi, in an attempt to revive the culture, tradition, community, heritage and identity, specifically for the Kashmiri diaspora community. “The idea behind the gatherings has been to create a safe space for mutually respectful interactions between Kashmiris and have an impact on the teenagers and children to uphold the traditions of the conflict-stricken Kashmir,” says Qazi. He lists out the following objectives of such annual gatherings:

  • Build trusting relationships with each other in a relaxed setting and help connect families and friends throughout North America.
  • Give an opportunity to the next generation Kashmiri Americans to develop a common identity and help them discover common cultural and social threads that connect them with their roots, and with each other.
  • Make it easy for new Kashmiri immigrants to North America to get to know others within the Kashmiri American community.
  • Facilitate connections between Kashmiri students, professionals, businesses, and entrepreneurs to help them develop supporting and mentoring relationships for their advancement.
  • Become a reunion event for those who came many years ago but don’t get an opportunity to see each other that often.
  • Create an environment of trust in which participants can discuss things that matter to Kashmiris throughout the world.

The first two annual events were held in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia in March 2016 and April 2017 respectively. The third event was held in Los Angeles, California, over a three-day period from 30 June to 2 July this year. Hundreds of attendees from all over the USA and Canada assembled at the event to celebrate their common roots. “The community is proud of its Kashmiri identity alongside an adopted identity as a result of migration to United States of America and Canada,” says Wajahat Qureshi. “It is a result of these events that our younger generation has started to take a keen interest in discovering and adopting the Kashmiri part of their hyphenated identity. Attendees at previous events have created works to promote Kashmiri language, art, and culture and also found jobs and mentors, and, in some cases, life-partners. New nonprofits and initiatives have been started to help our people here and back home,” says Yamin Fazili, another organiser of these gatherings.

During the 2016 event, after bringing famous Kashmiri singer Rashid Jahangir to the event, organizers like Samina Masoodi and Hina Kausar worked to put together a cultural program with local community members. The cultural program performance left the audience enthralled and brought out the hidden talent and love for Kashmiri culture in the community. “It was better than what any professional could have ever done,” noted Irfan Qazi, a cyber-security engineering leader from Long Island, New York.

Other Kashmiri diaspora communities around the world are taking notice of such initiatives by non-resident Kashmiris. “A platform that was created for bringing all Kashmiri-Americans together under one roof to strengthen our identity, has now become a brand that non-resident Kashmiris from other countries are identifying with as well,” says Samina Masoodi, another event organizer. On the opening day of the gathering in LA, British Kashmiris also held a similar gathering in London. Live videos from the two gatherings were shown simultaneously on a split screen in both locations as a show of solidarity and celebration of common roots with each other.

The three day event in Los Angeles started by a warm welcome by two of the earliest immigrant couples in the LA community, followed by a keynote fireside chat with Farooq Kathwari, the CEO of Ethan Allen, a furniture company with hundreds of stores throughout the world. Kathwari, who’s one of the best-known Kashmiri business leaders in the world, talked about the journey of the diaspora community in the last few decades and his personal experiences that the next generation can learn from. While the very young kids had their own space and activities in “Camp Kasheer” for two days, the older kids and adults engaged in discussions, debates, networking, plays, traditional arts, music, etc. “In ‘Camp Kasheer,’ the younger kids were engaged in activities related to Kashmiri language, arts, crafts, and other activities to familiarize them with language, history, and culture of Kashmir,” said Marina Sofi, another organiser of the event.

“Zoon-e-Dab, We The People,” a session primarily conducted by the youth, has been set up for the event along the lines of Oxford style debates. The session requires participants to prepare and take well-researched positions on topics of interest to the community. “Zoon-e-Dab” was the highlight of the 2017 event and allowed the community to tackle some difficult questions facing it. Given the structure of the session, the mutually respectful interactions have allowed the community to learn to debate and handle disagreements and further common understanding. This year’s three topics were ‘whether Kashmir can be a viable independent state’, ‘whether Kashmiri diaspora are doing enough for Kashmir’, and ‘whether new marriages should primarily be within the Kashmiri community’.

Many attendees also participated in professional networking and youth career exploration sessions to build strong professional and mentoring relationships. Professionals from various fields engaged with youth to help them with information on career choices after completion of their studies. Newly arrived international students also met with each other to discuss issues of common interest.

The gatherings have become a venue to discuss various nonprofit efforts that the diaspora community contributes significant amounts of time and money to. Various efforts from organisations like Kashmir Education Initiative (KEI), CHINAR International, Revive Kashmir, Tariq Memorial Foundation, and KGNA were discussed at a panel to share lessons learned, how to make these efforts more effective, and how to work with each other.  “These nonprofits are focused in the areas of education, social development, economic development and other charitable activities to help the people of Kashmir,” informs Dr. Manejeh Yaqub, the secretary of KGNA. “One of the new nonprofits, Kashmiri American Society for Healthcare, Medical Education, and Research (KASHMER) held its annual session at the gathering. These nonprofits and many more are run by volunteers and are a means to help the people of Kashmir,” she added.

At another session, “Koshur Darbar”, the Kashmiris panelists, poets, and scholars shared and discussed recent books, works of art, and issues of contemporary and historical nature. The session started with Wajahat Dedmari, an LA based hospitality lead for the event, describing the historical origins of some phrases that emanated from the brutal Dogra rule in Kashmir and have become a part of Kashmiri language. A panel discussion with Dr. Ather Zia of University of Northern Colorado focused on the recent book, Resisting Occupation in Kashmir: The Ethnography of Political Violence, that Zia co-edited with Haley Duchinski, Mona Bhan, and Cynthia Mahmood. Daisy Khan read excerpts from her recently published book, Born with Wings. Popular Kashmiri poet, Madhosh Balhami, had sent a few readings of his poems that were screened during the session. Abbas Zaffar read from his recently written poems in Kashmiri language and exhibited his painting skills by creating an amazing painting on stage in 10 minutes. Arshad Mushtaq, a Kashmir based visual arts director, talked about theater and its importance in telling stories of Kashmiris.

Shuja Paul, a director who works in Hollywood, conducted a hands-on workshop and taught a small group of attendees how to act and create a production that was shown at the event. The cultural program on both nights of the event brought out the best of the talent in the diaspora community in the form of skits, plays, ro’ef, music, songs, a display of traditional clothing, and other items of cultural importance. Sufiyan Malik, a young rabab player visiting from Kashmir, delivered solo and group performances, enthralling the audience with his skill. The highlight of the cultural program was the play, Bea Chus Shahid (I am Witness) by Arshad Mushtaq, which was performed by local actors led by Dr. Nahida Nazir, who also organized the play. “The play was so powerful that everyone in the audience was left with tears in their eyes,” said an organizer. The three-day event ended with a cruise in the Queensway bay and a picnic at a nearby park.

“Such an event is not the result of only a couple of people’s work or ideas. There are hundreds of organizers and volunteers who work together to design, organize, and deliver such a professional and high-quality event,” said Manzoor Mir, who led the program management function. The local California community had made elaborate arrangements as local hosts, making traditional Kashmiri kulchas, dry fruit bags, nun chai, etc. Volunteers and organizers from the LA community had to put in hundreds of hours of work to procure the venue, arrange audio-visual, manage logistics, and ensure flawless execution of the program. Many Kashmiri businesses set up tables to showcase their products and services and the attendees were able to buy high quality Kashmiri handicrafts and embroidered clothing. The entire event is funded by the community through attendance fees, donations, and sponsorships.

“The gathering has started to become a place of convergence for the diaspora and increasingly a trickle of Kashmiri visitors from other parts of the world,” said Zeeshan Khan, who attended the gathering with his family. On the sidelines of the gathering, the attendees engaged in various activities, including a photo shoot showcasing Pheran as a symbol of traditional Kashmiri attire. The attendees coming from different parts of the USA and Canada have expressed great satisfaction in being together on these occasions with fellow Kashmiris and building and strengthening the bonds of friendship with other Kashmiris. The diaspora community plans to continue with such future gatherings in coming years.

Photos with captions below:

Event Organizers had started working on this summer event back in November 2017. (L-R): Yamin Fazili at onsite event check-in, Custom KGNA bags sponsored by Kashmirbox and Alanic filled with various items for attendees at the event

(L-R): Yamin Fazili interviewing Ethan Allen CEO, Mr. Farooq Kathwari. Kids kept busy at the engaging all-day “Camp Kasheer” at the event

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One of the most popular sessions from last year’s gathering, Zoon-e-Dab, featured youth debating critical topics to the Kashmiri diaspora in presence of a diverse panel

Multiple sessions were held during the 3-day event focusing on youth starting from high school to young professionals. The sessions were geared towards creating a supportive network among the diaspora addressing needs like career counseling, mentorship, professional development and community impact

The gathering offered a collaborative space for all American based non-profit organizations working on projects in Kashmir

(L-R): Discussion with Dr. Ather Zia and Daisy Khan focusing on their recent books. Abbas Zaffar with his artistic creation

(Clockwise): Traditional Ro’ef, Kid’s Kashmiri traditional fashion show, Sufiyan Malik performing at the cultural event, “Bea Chus Shahid” (I am Witness) by Arshad Mushtaq

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Third Annual Gathering in Los Angeles hosted by KGNA brought together more than 500 Kashmiris.

Bio:
Majid Maqbool is a Journalist and writer based in Srinagar.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.

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