Our Streets, Our Stories

Our Streets, Our Stories

Take a walk towards 204th Street and 35th Avenue in Bayside, Queens, and you might notice a street by the name of Salman Hamdani Way.

Streets in America often get named after people whose stories need to be remembered. I have no doubt that the naming of Salman Hamdani Way this week in Queens was the result of consistent and tenacious advocacy by Salman’s mother, Talat Hamdani. I first met Talat in March 2011 when she spoke at the National South Asian Summit hosted by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). We had asked our speakers to reflect on the ten-year anniversary of the September 11th tragedy, which was to be commemorated later that year. Talat paid a moving tribute to her son, Salman, a Pakistani American who was trained as an EMT and NYPD cadet. Salman had rushed into the Twin Towers on September 11th to be one of the first responders. Salman lost his life that day.

As his family struggled to endure the pain of losing Salman, they had to simultaneously deal with allegations that Salman was somehow linked to the 9/11 attackers. As Talat recounted the story, each of us was touched in some way. A new mother at the time myself, I couldn’t imagine the pain that Talat had endured. At the same time, I remember feeling angry and frustrated by the injustice that Salman and his family faced.

Talat channeled her anger and pain towards publicly remembering Salman’s legacy, and what it means in a post 9/11 America. As time passed, Salman’s name was cleared and he received praise and recognition from New York City leaders, as well as Rep. Keith Ellison, who memorialized Salman in a moving speech during the infamous King hearings on Muslim radicalization. Talat has continued her quest to have Salman’s heroism publicly acknowledged – including at the 9/11 Memorial where his name is not located with the other first responders – and to eliminate the ongoing assumptions of disloyalty weighed against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, as they were against her son.

This week, part of Talat’s quest has been achieved. A street in Queens, on a block where Salman grew up, now bears her son’s name, and hopefully, it will prompt questions from curious children and passers by, seeking to understand who Salman Hamdani was, and what his story means to all of us.

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Talat Hamdani with elected leaders at the naming of Salman Hamdani Way on Monday, April 28, 2014 (Picture courtesy of Umair Khan)

Salman represents the often forgotten stories and experiences of many South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims over the past 13 years. As we build national narratives around the post 9/11 experience, the stories of South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims – communities affected by targeting and xenophobia in the name of national security – are often underrepresented or forgotten. What happened to the “disappeared” – the men detained and deported off streets and out of their homes in the weeks after 9/11? What happened to the families devastated by the special registration policy that required boys and men over the age of 16 from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries to report to immigration authorities?

When our stories are told, they are sometimes misrepresented, as seen in the faith-based and community criticisms over the depiction of Islam in the National September 11th Memorial Museum opening in May or in the xenophobic rhetoric of some of our political leaders.

Storytelling, documentation, organizing and advocacy grounded in the struggles as well as in the moments of resistance and leadership within our communities can give us a more complete sense of how we have come together – and how we have unraveled – in post 9/11 America. And for that, we need the voices of organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights that continues to litigate on behalf of detained South Asian and Arab men, of filmmakers like Theresa Thanjan who captured the plight of families devastated by special registration, of groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving which organizes family members of detainees; of national advocacy groups like SAALT, NNAAC and others who move our communities’ experiences into policy and media spaces; and of grassroots efforts like the Bay Area Walking History Tour, which reveals a radical history of South Asians organizing and resisting on the streets of Berkeley, including after 9/11.

And we are indebted to mothers like Talat Hamdani whose love for her son and her pursuit of justice inspires each of us to reach towards her vision of a better America.

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