Boro immigrant center gets grant to fight backlash

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The phones at the Liberty Center for Immigrants in Richmond Hill have not stopped ringing in the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“We’ve been receiving a lot of telephone calls from people claiming they were profiled or insulted,” said David Karran, executive director of the center that caters primarily to Richmond Hill’s Guyanese community.

“Our clients were really panicked post Sept. 11. We were swamped by telephone calls. They were scared,” said Dolly Hassan, the supervising attorney of the center. “It’s just an uncomfortable, uneasy feeling among immigrants who may not look American.”

Karran and Hassan now have some help answering the questions of those immigrants making the calls. Their organization was among the first non-profit organizations to receive money from the September 11th Fund, a charity set up by the United Way and the New York Community Trust, to help agencies that work at the front lines and provide support and services to victims, their families and others affected by the terrorist attacks.

The fund has raised more than $300 million, almost half of which was donated during the nationally televised Sept. 21 Tribute to Heroes that featured many Hollywood stars.

Armed with a $10,000 grant, the Liberty Center plans to conduct a campaign in the Richmond Hill community to let immigrants know they have rights that are protected by the constitution, even in a time when the country is on edge.

“We plan to do a little education,” Karran said.

The executive director, who was recently subjected to what he calls “serious checking” at the airport as he prepared to fly to Guyana, said, “you are more tolerant and understanding during a time like this, but there is a lot of concern in the community.”

He said that though there are good reasons for some of the added security measures being put into place, “at the same time, immigrants have rights.”

Karran, who officially opened the Liberty Center for Immigrants in May 1994, said he plans to use the grant money to let people know what those rights are.

Hassan and Karran have already begun reaching out to mosques, Hindu temples and other houses of worship in the Richmond Hill area to lay the groundwork for an extensive community outreach campaign.

The center will also place advertisements in local newspapers and on radio stations, publish a brochure, and continue to answer telephone calls from immigrants who have questions.

It will conduct workshops to teach members of immigrant groups stung by backlash from the Sept. 11 attacks that they are governed by the same laws as those who were born in the United States.     

“They are American citizens and they are entitled to protection,” said Karran. “We are planning to sensitize people and explain to them what their rights are according to the constitution.”

Hassan said she has received complaints from people that they have been stopped and asked for an identification. “They don’t have to give it, they don’t have to open their doors,” she said. “These are the things we will talk about.”

While the motivation to apply for the grant came from the barrage of phone calls the center received following the Sept. 11 attacks, Karran and Hassan said they were also influenced by what they see as an unfortunate mixing of the separate issues of terrorism and immigration.

“Immigration and terrorism are now being spoken of as part of the same equation,” Hassan said.

The two Liberty Center officials said they were worried the attacks may lead to the passage of legislation that hurts immigrants. Prior to the terrorist attacks, President Bush said he was considering granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico and possibly other countries.

Now, Karran and Hassan are worried U.S. government sentiment will move in the opposite direction. Hassan said government officials have begun to detain people who remain in the United States once their visas expire.

“The atmosphere was so good,” said Karran. “Now I don’t know what the outcome will be. We fear the worst.”

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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