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October 22, 1999


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The Angel of Jackson Heights

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Lavina Melwani in New York

You'll never go hungry in Sandhya Sheth's home. To visitors who have dropped into her modest apartment in Jackson Heights, she offers with open-hearted Indian hospitality the lunch that she has cooked for her own family -- lentils and rice, augmenting it with samosas and sweet laddoos from the nearby Indian grocery stores on 74th Street.

And it's not just food that she's generous with -- it's her time, her caring and her activism. Her simple, sparsely furnished living room has become a place of support for new immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who find themselves adrift in a complex and confusing culture.

Impeded by language barriers and cultural differences, many do not know their rights or the services available to them. Sheth assists through her non-profit, grass roots organization, Parivar Relief Organization, which she started in 1996.

Sheth, 35, is a caseworker with St Christopher-Ottilie Family Development Center in Jackson Heights. She juggles Parivar with the demands of her day job as well as the needs of her two small children, Sajjan, 5 and Sanam, 2. When most 9 to 5 workers are unwinding before the TV or getting ready for bed, she is busy working the phone with needy south Asians in crisis.

In fact, Parivar doesn't have city funding or a big staff -- it consists basically of Sheth, her husband Manoj and a handful of volunteers.

Fortunately, Manoj, who is a distributor of Arabic periodicals, has a flexible work schedule and often baby-sits the kids or helps out with Parivar's clients. According to Sheth, from 1997-99, Parivar has helped 110 families, guiding them on matters of domestic violence, employment, food stamps, Medicaid and housing.

Sheth has been with St Christopher-Ottilie hardly four months, but she's been such a hands-on player that Thomas D Cocks, program director, observes that it seems like four years. Hiring her was a new initiative to serve a new population as the demographics in Jackson Heights have changed. Since Sheth speaks Hindi and Gujarati besides English, she is able to communicate fluently with people from south Asia.

Although the south Asian community is one of the most affluent in the US, many newer immigrants struggle and some fall through the cracks. Sheth says that though south Asians are touted as a model minority, they too have their problems like every other community.

"I have personally seen maltreatment, physical and sexual abuse in our south Asian families. But they don't come forward, and they are often ignorant about the help that is available. They don't know how to use the system."

Many south Asian immigrants are reluctant to ask for help, especially from mainstream organizations. Having worked as a social worker in Bombay, Sheth understands why.

"Among Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, there is great emphasis placed on family honor and not losing face. Even if families are undergoing problems, they do not want people to know."

By speaking out on these issues in the ethnic media and at community gatherings, Sheth has got the word out. For a while, she even published a free community newspaper in Gujarati to reach out to people in need.

Observes Cocks, "Sandhya has provided us a window on the community. It is totally on her own that she came up with the concept of Parivar Relief. We need to do things like that. People are calling her and finally asking for help."

Sheth's new job at St Christopher-Ottilie dovetails nicely with her work for Parivar, especially in the realm of foster care. She finds that when children are removed from abusive South Asian families, they have to be placed in African-American or Hispanic homes, since there are no south Asian foster parents.

Many people from the sub-continent are not familiar with the concept of foster care, and it is Sheth's goal to educate them and find homes with the same cultural heritage for uprooted children.

"Sandhya has brought a lot of ideas and enthusiasm to our office," observes Floria Ladja, Sheth's supervisor at work. "She's definitely out there, constantly making presentations to the south Asian community and religious organizations."

Sheth tirelessly meets with the south Asian community and has also set up a web site to aid the cause.

In south Asia, people rely heavily on the extended family for support, and that is what Sheth offers to her clients -- as a person who speaks their language and understands their cultural dilemmas, building an element of trust.

Take the case of Maya. She is a volunteer with Parivar but first came to Sheth for help in a classic case of cultural misunderstanding. In the Indian subcontinent, large joint families are common, and in the same spirit, Maya was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with two elderly aunts, her husband and two children, to save expenses.

Neighbors complained, and when it was found that the brother and sister, aged 6 and 9, were sharing a bedroom, a worker from the Agency for Children's Services took them away and placed them in foster care.

Meanwhile, Maya's marriage unraveled. She was alone and shell-shocked when she turned to Sheth, who got her a job and is fighting to get back her children. Maya is working two jobs and hopes to get a two-bedroom apartment soon so that she can have an acceptable environment for the children.

"I didn't know any of the rules. I was like a frog living in a well," she says. "Now, because of Sandhya, I have the courage. I don't get scared any more."

Sheth's heart goes out to many struggling immigrants who are working for a pittance, are not eligible for food stamps or housing, and don't have medical insurance. She is planning to get assistance from restaurants to provide leftover food to these families and is also trying to recruit doctors who will see patients gratis.

On a recent day, one of the people she is helping dropped in. Chaudhry Sharif is 65 and a green card holder but his application for social security benefits was recently denied. Sheth plans to pursue it further for the courtly old gentleman who saw good days in Pakistan is disabled, can't speak English or get a job.

He says in his flowery Urdu, "This child has tried very hard for me and has had the courage to pursue this."

He finds it noteworthy that they come from different countries and religions, and that she helps him even at a time when their two countries see each other as enemies. He says, "She says to me, 'Chacha (Uncle), the greatest religion is humanity'."

As her visitors get ready to leave, Sheth brings out mugs of steaming hot chai with milk and spiked with cardamom. The soothing milky brew creates a sense of well-being and warmth. Much like Sheth does.

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