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Indo-Guyanese work to make their numbers count

The Indo-Guyanese population in Queens was difficult for census takers to count because of its origins on two continents and difficult to represent on the City Council since the people are divided among several council districts. One Richmond Hill group is hoping to change both situations.

Dozens of high school students and an older generation of professionals gathered July 11 in the first of a weekly series to call for voter registration, an accurate count in the next census, and representation in the City Council by their candidate, Trevor Rupnarain.

“We need a Caribbean-based person in this seat,” said Carol Bagot. “We need representation.”

Rupnarain in running in Council District 28, which covers Rochdale Village, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Jamaica and Richmond Hill.

He is vying for the seat against 10 other Democrats: Anthony Andrews, Aziz Uddin Bilal, Patrick Jenkins, Allan Jennings, Rameshwar Jodha, Dwayne Kirkland, Garth Marchant, Inderjit Singh, Michelle Titus, and Carolyn Younger.

The Indo-Guyanese in Queens are people whose ancestors moved from India to Guyana, South America in the 19th century and then to the United States beginning in the late 1900s.

Vishnu Mahadeo, a community member, spoke on the need for the Indo-Guyanese community to “stand up and be counted” both in the next census in 2010 and on the City Council.

Mahadeo cited a recent report that the Richmond Hill area has the largest percentage of people from the Indian subcontinent — 38 percent — according to 2000 census data. He contended, however, that the Indo-Guyanese community was severely undercounted.

Richmond Hill is split down the center of the city council map, with District 28 to the east and District 32 to the west.

Mahadeo believes there are some 60,000 Indo-Guyanese and Caribbean people in the area. “The census data did not come close,” he said, “and because of that we may not be able to get the services we need to get.”

Haji Zakir estimated that about 50,000 live in “Little Guyana” in the Richmond Hill area and said public-school teachers should be familiarized with the “Caribbean way of life” so they can better communicate with their students.

Those from Richmond Hill HS and John Adams HS in Ozone Park have formed a group, Youth Extreme, with its own executive members, to support Rupnarain’s candidacy. They are financially independent and plan to have their own treasurer.

Richmond Hill HS student Rene Persaud said she heard about Rupnarain’s campaign at school and was interested in what he wants to do for the community.

Another student, Joanne Hernandez, said her concern over crowded schools, which she shares with Rupnarain, got her interested in his campaign.

Sean Rampersad cited John Adams as an example of overcrowding. “It was built for 3,000, but now holds 5,000. If we expect to make a change, we need to take a risk,” he said about becoming involved in politics.

“People might not want to do it because they don’t think it’s cool,” he said. “It’s not about being cool — this is on a higher level.”

A John Adams student, Nalily Lachminaraine, said her work with Youth Extreme is a good way to meet new people and discuss problems that legislators need to deal with.

“I think that, most of all, the schools need our help,” said Youth Extreme member Raymond Persaud. “We need more day care and youth centers instead of being out on the street.”

Shamdeo Kamptaprasad cited the problem of basement rentals — it is illegal to sublet basements apartments, but many immigrants need the extra money to pay for their mortgage, and there’s a dearth of affordable housing in the area.

The students complained about the physical division of the Van Wyck Expressway, which runs down the center of the council district, separating Richmond Hill and Jamaica, South Ozone Park and Rochdale Village.

Several speakers at the event last week stressed the unique opportunity of the upcoming primaries and election.

“For the first time someone who looks like you and feels like you is running for public office,” said Colin Moore, who is Guyanese. “This could be the first Guyanese city council member.”

And there are no incumbents in Queens due to term limits, Moore pointed out.

“You young people from Guyana and other places can make significant changes this year,” Moore said.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at or call 229-0300 Ext. 138.

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