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|February 25, 2000|
Indians and Pakistanis in Houston mourn slain store workers
R S Shankar
In contrast to the clashes last year between Indians and Pakistanis over Bollywood star Aamir Khan's show in Houston, nearly 1,200 Indians and Pakistanis met at a downtown plaza on Wednesday for a multi-religious memorial service for two Indians, two Pakistanis and one Lebanese. The five convenience store workers were slain in just one week. The police have three men in custody. The rally brought assurances from Mayor Lee Brown and several officials that police patrolling will be intensified.
Community leaders said because they had put behind their differences and joined hands, their memorial service was taken seriously, and was attended by, among others, Sheila Jackson Lee, a Congresswoman from Houston.
Last year, Pakistanis, angered over Aamir Khan's support for the Kargil war effort and acting in the film, Sarfarosh, had asked the community to boycott a screening of the film.
Angered, the Indian community pledged support for the event and turned it into a sold-out performance. It was one of the many episodes that created festering ill will between the two communities. When a young Muslim allegedly kidnapped his former Hindu girlfriend a few days ago, the situation turned into a Muslim versus Hindu debate.
But this week leaders of the two communities united to seek assurances from the authorities that "defenseless" immigrant workers would be protected. They also thanked the police for the prompt arrest of three suspects who are held without bail.
Though the police say the five slain workers were victims of armed robberies, Indians and Pakistanis feel race is a factor in the attacks. Robbers take for granted that immigrants do not complain, said one participant at the memorial service
"Some of these robbers think we are all illegal immigrants and we won't report crime because of that," a mourner said.
"Naturally they think they can get away with murder -- literally," he fumed.
Houston is becoming like New York, he said. "There Indian and Pakistani taxi drivers are robbed and beaten up, and here it is the store clerks."
The Islamic Society of Houston, the Pakistani Association of Greater Houston, the India Culture Center and the Malayalee Association of Greater Houston were the organizers of the memorial service which went beyond two hours.
Achamma and Thankachan Mathai, Khalid Masroor, Syed Mehdi and Jamal Labdi were killed by armed robbers in five days span. One worker was killed after a 10 cent dispute over a pack of chewing gum.
Eyewitnesses say if Mathai's hands had not shaken, and had he opened the cash register quickly, his own life and that of his wife would have been saved.
'Combat the recent rise in attacks against Pakistanis and Indians' and 'Prosperous Houston needs safe businesses' declared some of the placards.
'Work is not crime,' read another placard. 'To work does not mean we have to die.'
A young man carried a sign: 'We are part of America too.'
Houston and its surrounding towns have nearly 3,000 convenience shops, most of them owned by Pakistanis. Many of the stores are open 24 hours.
Among the mourners was Pritam Toor, the owner of several convenience stores, who remembered the more peaceful days when he began his American life as a worker at a Houston shop. Life began to become scary for the convenience store workers in the past 10 days, he believes. His nephew was killed behind one of his store's counter six years ago, he says.
"If any emergency happens we run there (to the stores) for a diaper, for medicine," Meera Kapur, president of the India Cultural Center, said. "It should not be a dangerous job -- it is necessary."
"We are doing a thankless job," said Anwar Husain. "We keep the shops open seven days a week and every hour of the day. But Americans do not appreciate us."
Salim Surmawala, another store worker, said the police know where these stores are located, but their patrolling is not sufficient. The situation turns more dangerous on Friday and Saturday nights when drinking binges start, he said.
"I am dismayed that hard-working citizens are put at risk just for doing their jobs," Brown, a former police commissioner in New York, said. "It is my prayer that we can learn from these tragedies and learn to come together."
Sheila Jackson Lee said convenience stores are to be "'cultural and neighborhood treasures, places where people come to meet, not just to buy things."
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