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June 14, 1999
Saya! Fosters Self-Confidence, Community Spirit Among South Asian Teens in Queens, New York
A P Kamath
For several weeks, 15-year-old Pavneet wondered whether he should quietly remove his turban once he was out of his parents' sight. He knew the significance of the turban, but the classmates at the new school he had just moved in on the outskirts of New York City were relentless in poking fun at him. Pavneet's self esteem has taken a big hit.
Joining SAYA! (South Asian Youth Action) indeed could help Pavneet as it has helped hundreds of South Asian teenagers in New York's Queens borough the past three years in building their self-esteem and confidence, and getting them to address issues of conflict with their peers, parents and family members.
Nothing is a taboo for discussion to SAYA! members, including the subject of suicides. Though just about three Indian teenagers have killed themselves in New York in the past eight years, including a college-bound girl who hurled herself against a moving train, there are reports of many attempted suicides.
Saya! also hopes to foster political and cultural awareness among Queens' South Asian youth.
Last week when SAYA! members performed at its second annual Benefit Performance at the Joseph Papp Theater in Manhattan, they articulated many of their concerns -- and showed how they overcame their fear and reservations of living in a multicultural New York.
A Sikh teen, hoping desperately to belong, cuts his hair -- and creates a big commotion at home.
"This teenager decided to cut his hair in order to fit in with his peers, even though he remains religious," said Sayu Bhojwani, executive director of Elmhurst-based SAYA! in an interview. "The father considers this a betrayal of faith, and it's a cause of much conflict."
Called Turban Trouble, the skit detailed the dilemma of a teen living with traditional parents -- and craving to be accepted by his American classmates.
A lot of Indian children find it difficult to explain to their American classmates why they do not eat beef -- and in many cases, why they don't eat any meat or fish at all. Some times the young South Asian kids find it hard to understand some of the undercurrents of their own religion and culture.
When more than 100 kids in SAYA! meet three times a week, they not only discuss culture, religion, coping but they also play basketball. Some of the older students also get involved in tutoring and mentoring programs. They also learn to say "no" to peer pressure on sex and drugs.
Participants come from the Subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Guyana.
Nearly half of the 10,000 South Asian teens in New York live in Queens.
For more information, contact SAYA!; (718) 651-3484.
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