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South Asian students unite

Learning to care about the welfare of others and deciding to help improve human conditions is a lifelong process, said Indian actor and Parliament member Shabana Azmi at the 11th annual South Asian Students Alliance conference held in downtown Chicago in January.

“While spending time among those living in poverty to understand my movie roles better,” Azmi explained, “I learned that with my resources, I have a responsibility to help those in need.”

Azmi was among the South Asian writers, producers, politicians, and activists who spoke at the conference, organized by the South Asian Students Association groups at Chicago and Northwestern. SASA, one of Chicago’s largest recognized student organizations, has more than 300 members.

The national conference, entitled “Unity Through Action,” attracted more than 2,000 college and university students from across the country to Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel. The unity theme, say student organizers, was chosen to emphasize the need for South Asians in the United States to support each other—despite regional, language, and religious differences—when faced with discrimination. “The conference not only pointed out problems in the South Asian community,” notes Priyank Gupta, ’00, who arranged conference security, “but also showed students how to make real change happen.”

In her keynote address, Azmi emphasized that she has learned not to assume she knows what the poor need, but to ask them how she can help. She also spoke of her controversial portrayal of a lesbian housewife, Ratha, in the movie Fire. Though banned in theaters across India, the movie has received acclaim in the United States.

“I choose to play characters that I am drawn to,” Azmi shared. “I also play characters who I feel we need to portray. I considered it a challenge to play Ratha not as a victim of a loveless marriage but as a character who grows and strengthens.”

Anisa Rahim, ’00, was impressed by Azmi: “She didn’t suddenly decide to ‘save the world,’ but went through a process of deciding that helping the impoverished is important to her.”

In her talk, Senain Kheshgi, a producer for CNN Newstand, said that students interested in journalism could not only help destroy misconceptions about South Asians but also bring more South Asian and international news to the media’s attention. Shashi Tharoor, communications director for the United Nations, told students that South Asians in the United States have a chance to work together based on their collective outsider status, unlike in their native countries where existing divisions often prevent collaborative action. In America, he said, “we have a greater chance to overcome religious, regional, class, and caste boundaries.”

Among other South Asian leaders calling for unity, Bhairavi Desai, from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, attended the conference to discuss the protests she has led on behalf of the cab drivers she represents: “We must unite to help the great numbers of South Asians in low income brackets, like taxi drivers, store clerks, and motel workers, who don’t fit into the ‘model minority’ image.”—J.P.

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