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Lost identity: The incredible story of Kamran Rizvi

Kamran Rizvi is 55 and looks a decade older. It has taken a while to meet him. He has a day job at a Hess gas station, and during the evening he works at a department store. The years of 18-hour workdays have taken their toll. Rizvi lives in a small house on Long Island. The furniture is aging and worn. He prefers to meet with visitors outside of his home. He fears that his wife might interrupt and voice her displeasure about their fallen circumstances.

In the late 1990s, Kamran Rizvi was the human rights advisor to the prime minister of Pakistan. He and his family lived in an eight-room house and had a chauffeured car. His wife taught international relations at the Quaid-e-Azam University, one of the best colleges in Pakistan. Their daughter went to private school. He traveled widely, attending human rights conferences in Europe and the United States. The Rizvis were regulars in gatherings of the capital’s intellectual and political elite.

It is a cloudy, chilly day. Rizvi walks slowly into a coffee shop and sits down, his balding 6-foot-3 inch frame hunched over the table. He smiles faintly under his bushy moustache. Dark circles under his eyes reached almost to the frames of his glasses. The café feels like an old and pallid version of a Starbucks.
I ask, “Do you like this place?”

“I’ve gotten used to it,” he says. He sits with his rather large hands spread on the table. The fingertips are frayed, a sign of physical labor.

This is a story about how a bunch of fundamentalist elements engineered the fall of one of the most respected human rights activists in Pakistan. From a position of power and prestige, Rizvi was reduced to wondering where the next meal is going to come from. In 2001, when the United States embraced Pakistan as an ally in its war on terror and denounced the human rights abuses by extremists, one of the most prominent defenders of those rights was sitting in Chicago where few people knew of him and fewer still entertained him.

In 1995, when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, Rizvi wanted to dilute the provisions of the blasphemy law under which any perceived insult to the Quran could mean a jail term for years, and was often misused by people to get rivals out of the way. A court had recently sentenced three Christians to death under this act. Among the convicted was a 14 year old. The case got wide media attention, including in the international press.

“We must save these guys,” Bhutto told Rizvi, on a hot summer day in May before she left for a tour of Europe. He agreed. There was ample evidence that the local land mafia had created a fictitious case against these hapless Christians. With connivance of the local police, these elements wanted to get the three out of the way to grab the land and build a mall. The charge was that they had insulted Islam, a broad allegation without evidence.

Rizvi worked with government lawyers to file an appeal. A couple of months later, just as he was about to leave for lunch, he got a call. A group of German officials from the embassy wanted to see him.

He decided to make it quick. Instead, that meeting went on for more than an hour. The Germans had decided to offer asylum to the three men. They were especially concerned about the boy.

Rizvi went home after that to have a quick lunch with his wife, Naseem. He decided to ask her opinion, as he had on several occasions. “What do you think will happen at the courts? They always convict people accused of blasphemy. If you want to save them, let them go,” she said. Rizvi agreed.

Discretion was key – otherwise, extremist elements would try their best to stop the three from getting out of Pakistan. The government lawyers had succeeded in getting bail for the three people – and they had been given police protection during this time. Rizvi had also urged the complainant to withdraw the case.

Rizvi called up his driver and instructed him to go straight to the German embassy. A plan was made – the three men would board a flight to Frankfurt in a week. On that day, Rizvi’s secretary, Tauqir Khan, went to the house where the three were put up and took them to the airport. They were put in the plane. Rizvi had earlier talked to Bhutto – she had agreed to the plan. Before leaving the boy hugged Rizvi. “You saved me,” he said and then was off. Moments later the flight took off to Bonn. He’s certain that his involvement saved their lives. “It was,” he says, “a very satisfying feeling.”

More than an hour has passed and Rizvi hasn’t touched his food at the café we are at. He looks out of the window, staring into space. It seems that memories have come flooding back, like a gas nozzle turned on. I let the moments slip by, to allow him to gather his thoughts.

He did not realize it when he helped the three people escape, but this was where Rizvi’s life took a turn. The case itself was barely discussed in the papers – the appeal hearing was due a year later and the media did not focus on this event. Rizvi was confident he was safe.

By 1997, Bhutto was out of power after losing in the parliamentary elections to rival Nawaz Sharif. At the time Rizvi was heading a human rights organization called “Society for Promotion of Non-Violence and Tolerance”. Papers had by now reported on the “disappearance” of the three accused and then found out they were in Germany. But no one had been able to connect that with Rizvi directly. They blamed Bhutto – and she was safe in England after fleeing the country. A few years later tragedy would strike – she was assassinated on her return to Pakistan.

It was October, and Rizvi went to the local market in the morning with his wife to buy groceries. It was a change from his routine – normally one of the maids would shop. But it was a gorgeous autumn day and the couple wanted to spend some time together. As Naureen haggled over prices with a vegetable vendor, Rizvi stopped to pick up a local Urdu daily. He froze when he saw the headline. “Mullah says Rizvi must pay for helping escape.” A mullah is a Muslim religious leader and radicalized youth follow his orders. Someone had talked. Another paper repeated the story three days later. Then another. In five days, everyone knew Rizvi was the man who helped them escape. And the radical organizations issued a fatwa to punish him.

I meet Rizvi at the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. His wife has an administrative job in Open Society, George Soros’ philanthropic foundation, located close by. Rizvi recalls being here many years ago at the restaurant upstairs. We sit in a café instead, as he would prefer lunch with his wife later. I ask him about his earlier life – before he became famous.


Kamran Rizvi, in New York

Kamran Rizvi, in New York

Some history of the country will help understand the circumstances of his early life. Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was a left-leaning populist who led Pakistan from 1971 to 1978. He was a charismatic and popular leader, and founder of the socialist Pakistan People’s Party. Rizvi’s father was a senior civil servant in the elder Bhutto’s government and held the post of deputy accountant general before his retirement.

Pakistan’s political scene changed in 1978 when General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the army chief of staff under Bhutto, took power in a military coup. He promised elections within a year. Instead, Bhutto was hanged in 1979, and Zia continued his rule for a decade. Rizvi blames Zia for the increased Islamization of Pakistan, including the flourishing of madrassas, the religious schools where the main curriculum is memorizing passages from the Quran. Post 9/11, they have been accused of fostering fundamentalist thoughts among kids, many of whom have joined the Taliban.

Rizvi had a privileged upbringing. He went to private school in Lahore where classes were taught in English. By the time he started college in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, he was already active against Zia’s government by organizing protest marches, designing and distributing leaflets and drawing graffiti across the city walls. The military government noticed – and his parents and sisters were taken to the police station and interrogated for several hours. But Rizvi paid the heaviest price.

In May 1981, police and military officers burst into a student hostel near Rawalpindi and arrested the 22-year old Rizvi. He was among 18 taken into custody. Thirteen were later released. But Rizvi was among the five accused of conspiracy against the state. The police said they found “anti-martial-law” elements. His family said they were political pamphlets and poems written by a supporter of the elder Bhutto. The government charged Rizvi with plotting against Zia’s regime by collaborating with Libya, a charge that Rizvi describes as “utterly baseless and ridiculous.” A military court sentenced him to ten years of rigorous imprisonment for distributing pamphlets. Four years later, another military court sentenced him for cospiracy to a further 25 years in prison with no chance of appeal.

Rizvi spent most of his jail term in Lahore, where he had studied. “Those were the darkest days of my life,” he says. He was kept in solitary confinement in a roofless cell, and shackled in chains for two years. His only company were birds that would alight on the wall and chirp. He made sure he saved some food from his meager rations to feed them, so that they would come back. “They were the only friends I had.”

By the late 80s, there were widespread protests against the military regime, and its torture of political prisoners. Rizvi was allowed to mingle with others, and given a better cell. He used this time to gain two masters degrees – in political science and history – while still shackled. Amnesty International organized a campaign to free him. The Washington Post called him “one of the most prominent political prisoners in Pakistan.” Two years later Rizvi was released from prison. In 1989 he became an aide to the new prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had assumed leadership of the party her father had founded.

Rizvi has again, not touched his coffee. The surroundings are much brighter and ostentatious with shiny mobile phone stores and expensive designer shops. On adjacent tables couples are talking excitedly about the new Tom Hanks play on Broadway. I ask Rizvi about the implications of the newspaper article.

“My life started falling apart then on,” he says. You can feel the weariness in his voice, of a man who has had to work too hard for too long. After the story came out, one of the judges was killed. Ironically, the stories started coming out after another dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, had called for changes to the blasphemy law to make it less stringent. This prompted local journalists to report on the major cases where the law was applied. One of the journalists spoke to the leader of the Sunni Muslim sect that had brought the case against the three people Rizvi helped escape. The leader, a mullah, said that they had come to know that Rizvi was the culprit.

A couple of fatwas (religious edicts) were issued almost immediately, and death threats started morning and night. Rizvi and Naseem debated leaving their elderly parents. Yet Rizvi was confident that they would be back soon, and would be able to re-join their existing jobs. While they were pondering, armed men broke into their house one day while they were out, and threatened a servant. The Rizvis realized that waiting longer would be very dangerous.

In May 2000 they and their daughter, Yumna, boarded a plane for the U.S. Rizvi had an existing visa which was valid for year, and covered his family. They landed in New York and went straight to a friend’s apartment who had agreed to put them up till they found their own place.

“I came with little money. The plan was to go back to Pakistan in a few months,” says Rizvi. Instead, the situation got worse back home, with rising extremism and Rizvi was forced to stay on. By April next year he decided to apply for asylum, or else the period of their visa would have run out. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights assigned his case to the large New York law firm, Davis Polk & Wardwell on a pro bono basis. The attorneys at the firm worked with a few students at the asylum clinic at Columbia University to prepare the case. “The facts were easy to verify because it was extensively covered by the local and international press,” says Bernadette Bernard, who was the lead attorney on the case.

Rizvi was granted asylum in June. By that time the Rizvis were destitute. They abandoned New York for Chicago, where they have relatives and friends. They arrived a week before September 11, and settled into a one-bedroom apartment. Rizvi immediately began looking for a job, but none of the human rights organizations he contacted offered him a position. “They said you are overqualified for the positions we have. That was so weird,” he says. “It seemed like excuses to not hire me,” he says.

By November the family was so desperate for funds that Rizvi took the overnight cashier’s job at a 7-Eleven near his home. “I had to do something for us to survive.”

Their situation gradually improved: in January 2002, Rizvi landed a job handling medical records at a Chicago hospital. His his pay was twice what he made at the 7-Eleven. His wife was lucky too: Scholars at Risk, a University of Chicago-based network for persecuted academics, helped her find a part-time job at Loyola University, to teach a course on the history of Afghanistan. Friends and relatives helped the family with furniture, and clothing.

By September 2004, when the Rizvis were getting over their feeling of despondency and had regained some stability, the hospital laid off people. Rizvi was one of them. His wife’s job was contractual with low pay and not enough to support them. His relatives continued their support but he was feeling unworthy. “How long can you live on someone else’s largesse even if it’s your sisters’?” he asks rhetorically. Yumna was 9, and in school. Rizvi got some odd jobs working in department stores but nothing beyond a few weeks’ contract. He decided that New York would offer more opportunities. And so the Rizvis came back to the same city they had left as destitute and much the same position. “My wife told me that I had repeatedly destroyed her career by my actions,” he said. “I did not show it, but I was shattered within.”

Human rights activists in New York say Rizvi’s experience is not unique. “Activists from other countries come here and expect to find similar jobs in organizations here,” says a human rights activist, also from Pakistan, who has lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years and knows about Rizvi’s hardships. “But most of them have limited resources. So, unfortunately, the attitude is that you have to fend for yourself.” She says that American human rights groups often help other activists escape oppression in their countries, but are not able to help them once they arrive.

Yet, one would expect more opportunities for him, given the 40,000 strong community of Pakistanis at Coney Island Avenue. However the community is fragmented between various sects, and is largely conservative. A local human rights activist, who works in the Allama Iqbal community office, tells me that there are more than a few members who are against Rizvi. “They would argue that he was too liberal in his beliefs, and went against Islam.” he says.

Rizvi’s last job was working at Popeye’s Chicken in Chicago, where he thought he would go crazy. “I was like where the hell am I?” he said. “What am I doing among these chickens?” But the same job provided a place to start in New York. His old manager called up another in the city and Rizvi was back at Popeye’s. He hated it. But then his luck changed. A Pakistani-American whom he met through a mutual friend hired him at Montgomery Capital, a mortgage company in New Jersey, to manage paperwork related to mortgage applications. It was tedious, but it got him out of working at the food joint. He worked there till 2007, managing to earn enough to move to a two-bedroom house in Brooklyn near 18th Street. Meanwhile he had become good friends with Malik Naveed, who ran a real-estate business near Prospect Park.

Naveed convinced Rizvi to join his firm. “You are qualified and respectable,” Rizvi remembers Naveed telling him. Rizvi began his new job seeking tenants for rental properties in Brooklyn. Around the same time, his wife decided that their daughter’s school was not good enough. She had gone to Long Island to visit a couple of Yumna’s friends and meet with their parents, who said that the school there was much better in terms of teaching and facilities. They moved there in 2008 and rented a $1600 a month apartment. Naveed promised that Rizvi would get a raise soon.

Instead the company went bust as the recession hit and housing prices crashed. Rizvi was out work. Again. The family had just bought a car. His credit card debt had soared to over $18,000. “I tried to be strong but it was like bad fortune had gripped me, sometimes easing its grasp only to throttle me later,” he says in an even, baritone voice.

The café has gotten noisier as more customers have crowded in and it is harder to hear him speak. I can see people waiting in line, hoping that some of us will leave. It has been over an hour. Rizvi’s coffee cup is still half-full.

Rizvi started working at a Hess gas station near Massapequa, in Nassau County. He was luckier this time. Lisa Tour, who was the district manager, noticed the older man filling gas and asked him his story. After verifying his credentials, she decided to make him a manager and assigned him the gas station. Suddenly, his pay was doubled to $30,000 a year. Meanwhile, his wife had found a job with the Open Society and their combined income was over $60,000. For the first time in 12 years, the Rizvis told themselves that they had restored some semblance of the life they had left behind. He has repaid more than half of his credit card debt and his priority is to pay off in full by August this year.

I ask him if he is happy now.

“Well, it’s okay, at least I am stable. But if the situation in Pakistan were better, I would go back in an instant,” he says. The Rizvis are now American citizens, and their daughter is going to Georgetown University in the fall, to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree in international relations which includes a course on human rights. She seems to be interested in both of her parents’ disciplines. Rizvi flashes a broad smile when I point this out. “She has a much brighter future inshallah,” he says.

Rizvi is planning to go to Pakistan soon, but with the duties of the gas station beckoning 24/7, it’s hard to plan. His wife and daughter are going sooner – they will be there after the May 11 elections. Naseem will be back soon after but Yumna will stay for three months. She plans to work with local journalists and human rights organizations to understand their problems and challenges in the field from ever-rising extremism. She plans to be back before university begins in the fall.

“I was a fool – I did not have a financial back-up plan in Pakistan,” he said. “I told my daughter that she should never fall into that hole. You can be a human rights activist there, but need a day job to take care of your bills. We were just idealists, not realists.”


Contact the Author: www.anirvanghosh.jux.com | Twitter @anirvanghosh

Demolished But Not Forgotten


Birds sing in the broad sycamore that stretches over a forgotten block on Manhattan’s East 19th Street. Not far away, at the end of the block, the impenetrable brick wall of Stuyvesant Town’s towers rises up where once the street continued on to the East River. On both sides of the street several bleak brick buildings, bearing no ornamentation but rusty fire escapes, stand amidst the row of corniced town-homes that have inhabited the block for the better part of a century. And on the north side, wedged between the tidy shutters of a brownstone and a sleepy terra-cotta colored tenement, is an empty, debris-strewn lot where not so long ago the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.

In New York City, and particularly on Manhattan’s East side, which is renowned for its impetuous race to constantly reinvent itself, the church’s congregation had long since learned that almost nothing in Manhattan lasts forever. For nearly six years the crumbling stone arch of the church’s front facade stood amidst the mostly demolished building—a tombstone for the congregation that once called it home. But earlier this year, in the solemn dead of winter, the sounds of hammers and chisels pounded away at its stones, and the arch faded into the shadows of the neighborhood that once raised it.

Rev. Brooke Swertfager led the Christ Lutheran Church congregation for the last 10 years before it closed its doors forever. Now in her 50s, the witty, auburn-haired Swertfager carries herself with grace, but as she speaks she seems haunted by the loss of her congregation’s home. In her office in the Lutheran Seafarer & International House by Union Square, Swertfager leaned back in her chair and rested her chin on her fingertips as she looked back on her life at the small church on 19th Street.

Due to financial troubles and declining attendance, Swertfager’s last few years at Christ Lutheran Church had been a gradual but difficult realization that the once great congregation’s time was coming to an end. For Swertfager, saying goodbye was a bittersweet moment.

“Frankly, I’m so glad that they did it,” said Swertfager, her malachite-colored eyes moist despite her stolid voice. “It was kind of like a scab on a wound.”

For 125 years the Lutheran congregation had called East 19th Street home—although, even during those years, it wasn’t the first time they’d had to watch one of their houses of worship demolished before their eyes.

In 1868 a group of German and English immigrants—led by German-American George Unangst Wenner—founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ above a blacksmith shop near the corner of 5th Avenue and East 14th Street. In those early days, Wenner used an anvil for his pulpit and the congregation numbered less than a dozen. But as waves of immigrants continued to pour into the area, the congregation steadily grew.

For over a decade the congregation migrated from one place to another as it matured, finally finding a more permanent home in what was then New York’s “Little Germany”—a vibrant neighborhood that stretched along the East Side of Manhattan.

“At the beginning of the ‘70s, after a decade of continuously rising immigration, Kleindeutschland was in its fullest bloom,” wrote historian Stanley Nadel. “Kleindeutschland, called Dutchtown by the Irish, consisted of 400 blocks formed by some six avenues and nearly 40 streets,” and was lined with covered-markets, beer halls, and oyster saloons. The neighborhood also had its own amusement district that featured puppet shows and classical drama performances.

Here the congregation found a home at 406 E. 19th St., the Chapel of Free Grace. The impressive gothic revival church, with its gabled tower, elegant chapter house, and stained-glass rose window, was a symbol of its quickly growing social and cultural significance in the community. But despite the Lutheran immigrants’ relief at settling down, after years of transience, their troubles were far from over.

“The extraordinary conditions of a rapidly expanding metropolis, with its nomadic population, together with our special drawback of congregations divided among various races and languages as well as conflicting schools of theological definition, make our tasks heavy and confront us with problems of grave difficulty,” wrote Rev. Wenner, in his 1918 book, “The Lutherans of New York: Their Story and Their Problems.”

His congregation had finally found a home on the East Side, but New York City’s race to modernize as it approached the turn of the 20th century was creating a kind of urban diaspora that was slowly tearing his congregation apart and redefining the neighborhood around it.

“The completion of the Elevated Lines in 1879 and the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 changed the course of history for our Lutheran congregations,” wrote Wenner. “It was hard for those of us who still held the fort on Manhattan Island to see the congregations we had gathered with painstaking effort scattering in every direction, especially to lose the children and grandchildren of our faithful families.”

But the problem was one that had only just begun when Wenner wrote these words. The neighborhood around the Lutheran church was to become an increasingly transient place in the decades to come, and by the time Rev. Swertfager arrived nearly a hundred years later, there was already little left to salvage.

While walking his dog below the leafy sycamore on 19th Street, John Donnelly glanced back at the blue scaffolding around the empty lot where the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.

“I guess the church didn’t have a congregation anymore, so they sold,” said Donnelly, who has lived in one of the apartment buildings across the street from the church for the past 15 years. He said that, although the neighborhood traditionally has a high turnover rate, its deep-rooted community has dissolved even more so in recent years.

“Most of these buildings are rentals,” said Donnelly. “Over the years it’s become a lot more transient because you have a lot more college kids moving in.” He said that many of these rentals have replaced homes in the area and that the new, younger tenants are probably less invested in neighborhood dynamics.

The changing demographic was also one of the reasons that Swertfager said contributed to the decline of her congregation during the years that she served as pastor at Christ Lutheran Church.

“When I came there in 1991 several couples retired and moved away,” Swertfager said, “and I was left with primarily single, elderly women.” It was a sobering realization for Swertfager, but by the time she arrived, the Evangelical Lutheran community which had grown in vast waves during the late 19th and early 20th century, had almost completely vanished from the East Side of Manhattan.

One of the major blows to the neighborhood’s sense of community came in the early 1940s. As World War II came to a close and soldiers began returning from overseas, city planners searched for solutions to New York City’s housing crisis. At the time, one of the most prevalent strategies, which was championed by city planner Robert Moses, was known as “slum clearance”—a program in which entire neighborhoods were demolished and replaced with towering apartment complexes.

“You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate,” Moses said, referring to his methods, “but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.”

Although the neighborhood around the Lutheran’s Chapel of Free Grace was home to some 3,100 families in the early ‘40s, this was one of the neighborhoods chosen for “slum clearance.” Throughout the early part of the decade almost all of those families were evicted to make way for a new housing project known as Stuyvesant Town.

The New York Times wrote that the large-scale eviction of the tenants living in the Stuyvesant Town area was, “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York City’s history.” It was the beginning of the end for a once unified community that had long called the neighborhood home. It was also the beginning of the end for the Lutheran congregation that had made its home there 66 years ago.

“In Stuyvesant Town, because of design, they became semi-autonomous and turned away from the rest of the neighborhood,” said David Smiley, a professor of architecture and urban studies at Columbia University. In what had once been a tightly-knit neighborhood of New York that blended seamlessly with the city around it, was now a looming brick colossus of 56 towers fenced in a 16-block area, and separated from the world around it.

Not only did the construction of Stuyvesant Town, and its twin development of Peter Cooper Village, isolate its residents within, it also fragmented the neighborhoods around its borders. After the Chapel of Free Grace was demolished to make way for the huge developments, the congregation constructed the Christ Lutheran Church at 355 E. 19th St.—a block away—but only to discover that most of its congregation had disappeared, scattered throughout the city and across the nation.

Over the following years the church fell farther and farther into disrepair, slowly running out of funds as its community dwindled away.

“It was an albatross—we couldn’t maintain the building and there was constant damage,” Swertfager said, adding that she spent most of her time keeping up with repairs herself in the moldering building because of the church’s financial troubles.

“We saw ourselves running out of reserves,” said Swertfager. “We sold while we could still get good money for it and before it crumbled into oblivion.”

In 2006, after two years of research and consultation with a real estate lawyer who had recently negotiated the sale of another church by Washington Square Park, Swertfager found a buyer she trusted—a couple with plans for altering the property, but who shared her vision of preserving the legacy of the church.

“We left it with the Goulds,” Swertfager said, “and they had architects coming and going and we had a very special relationship.” But over the course of the next few years, Swertfager noticed that although portions of the church had begun to disappear, little progress had been made.

Jonathan Gould, the developer who had purchased the property, hired architect Garth Hayden to design a low-rise luxury condo tower that would adaptively fit on top of the church while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the church’s facade. Hayden spent the next two years personally surveying and measuring every beam and wall of the church, and designing architectural models of the planned renovation. But things didn’t turn out the way that Swertfager and he had expected.

“We proposed alterations to the church and it was approved and ready to go,” Hayden said, describing the tedious process for obtaining construction permits from the Department of Buildings. However, after working on the project for over a year, he said that for undisclosed reasons construction was halted. Then, after several more months, structurally weakened and exposed to the elements, the arch of the Christ Lutheran Church that had stood at 355 E. 19th St. since 1948 collapsed.

“It was really unfortunate,” said Hayden, who had been very enthusiastic about the project, “because of the historical importance.”

Although Gould was unavailable to speak to current plans for the church, Stanley Vickers, who owns the property next door and sold air rights—the rights to build additional stories on the lot—to Gould, said that the deal was terminated because of financial difficulties.  In 2012 the lot was then sold to Yosi Cohen, a developer who recently began construction on a seven-story apartment building that will soon rise above the remaining town homes beside it.

For five years the crumbling stone walls of the lot had sat derelict—a melancholy reminder of the old Little Germany—soon to disappear into the ever more transient neighborhood.  The church had been part of the community for nearly 60 years, and although most residents didn’t know why it had been torn down, the few who had long lived on the street were sad to see it go.

“The community didn’t know,” said Swertfager. “There is no community there, really.” The neighborhood where Rev. Wenner had founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church nearly 150 years ago was gone, and the congregation that he had worked to bring together was nowhere to be found. Little by little, the buildings and the residents that had once inhabited Little Germany had been replaced.

After closing their doors in 2007, Swertfager’s remaining congregation joined the Lutheran Seafarer’s & International House, a guesthouse for travelers and asylum seekers, half a mile from the old church on 19th Street and right beside the transit hub of Union Square.

“We’ve done better since we moved over here because we get people from every borough,” Swertfager said. The very trains and bridges that had torn apart Rev. Wenner’s congregation more than a century ago were now bringing together a splintered community in the neighborhood that it once called home.

While New York City continues its perpetual reinvention all around her, Swertfager continues to lead the remnants of her scattered congregation, only one block from the blacksmith shop where the congregation first came together. And after all of the years of searching for home, for now, the congregation has found one in the Seafarer’s & International House, whose motto is, appropriately, “Because nobody should be isolated or forgotten, whether at sea or ashore.”

Death and Life in Brownsville

I saw a memorial in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and felt as if I had been transported to a different time and place. Here, on a street corner in New York City’s most dangerous neighborhood, people chose to stop their daily routines and remember someone killed during hers. Purple balloons hung from a deli’s display window and a large framed picture of the murdered woman stood at a table next to pages of memories from her loved ones. Her orphaned children wore T-shirts emblazoned with her photograph. Others attending wore pins and ribbons, each a remembrance in some way. The crowd swelled to about 150 people and the memorial service began. Speakers talked about the woman’s life and what a wonderful mother she was. As they spoke, I found myself in another world where death was quick and random—Kashmir.

Two years before walking through the streets of Brownsville, I was in Kashmir, where in the summer of 2010, 117 boys were killed by the Indian military. This valley in the Himalayan mountains, a place of great physical beauty, has been locked in a seemingly endless war that has left 70,000 Kashmiris dead.


In 2010, there were government-imposed curfews, a government ban on all media, random arrests and high emotions everywhere you looked. As news of each killing emerged, more people took to the streets to protest. But eventually, the protests ebbed. As they did, Kashmiris slipped into a life of resignation and with it, apathy, as if to say, what can be done? As the death toll rose, Kashmiris stopped collectively pausing to remember each individual that died. There were simply too many. It was simply too much.

But things were different in Brownsville, at least on this day. Over the course of two hours, police officers, clergymen and women, friends and family spoke of the murdered woman.

So much of Brownsville reminded me of Kashmir—the constant patrolling of security forces, the ever-present fear that life was fragile, and could end painfully in an instant. But that moment in time, of pausing to remember the dead—that felt different to me. And as I spent time in this Brooklyn neighborhood, I began to see that unlike the growing weary resignation that I had felt that summer in Kashmir, people in Brownsville coped with the random death around them not by turning inward—but by turning to each other.

She was everywhere you looked—on the living room walls, the kitchen fridge, the rooms where her children slept. She was on custom-made T-shirts and lapel pins her children still wore. She was in her fiancé’s poetry that sat framed in the narrow hallway, in hundreds of cards and notes from friends and strangers, some taped to the walls, others waiting to be put up. Zurana Horton is here, in this tiny Brownsville, Brooklyn apartment that seven of her 13 children called home. She was everywhere you looked, and yet, she is nowhere to be found.

“Your children are not supposed to go before you do,” said Denise Peace, as her eyes welled up with tears. “I couldn’t believe my baby was gone.”

Zurana Horton was 34 when she was shot dead in broad daylight. On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2011, she was walking home after picking up one of her daughters from elementary school. As she, her daughter and other children passed a supermarket, gunfire cut through the air. People screamed and ran for cover. Horton stood in front of the children, shielding them. Twelve shots were fired. One hit a woman and another hit an 11-year-old girl. They would both survive. Another struck Horton in the chest, and seconds later, she fell over into a pool of her own blood.

This wasn’t the first time there was gunfire at the corner of Pitkin Avenue and Watkins Street. Just a week earlier, witnesses said there was an unexplained gunfire exchange that left a bullet hole in the supermarket window, but injured no one.

This wasn’t the first time Peace lost a child to gun violence, either.

Denise Peace, who is 56, was left to ponder the unfathomable loss of yet another one of her children to gunfire.

“The hardest thing for me this time,” she said, “was burying another child again.”

In 1991, she lost her 16-year-old son, Quan. He was shot in a robbery in Bushwick. Another son, Zacquran, was shot and killed in the same neighborhood in 2010.

“Immediately after Zurana passed away, I was really angry,” Peace said. “So angry that I got numb. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know what I felt. All I knew was that I couldn’t break down. I had to be strong for my grandchildren.”

“Some of the children still don’t know what happened to their mother. When you ask the two babies who their mother is, they’ll point to me.”

The oldest of her children was 18, the youngest just a year old.

“She gave her life for those kids, and she would have done it all again because that’s just the kind of person she was,” said Horton’s ex-boyfriend, O’Niel Vaughn, 43, the father of eight of her children.
Horton was planning to marry her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day in 2012.

Everyone you meet in Brownsville seems to have a story, or rather a variation on the same story—being part of a gang, or knowing someone, always younger than 25, who was, or is. Brownsville is the murder capital of New York City and has been for years. It has the highest concentration of low-income public housing in the United States, and is that rare Brooklyn neighborhood untouched by gentrification. There are spots in Brownsville where it is impossible to see anything but the looming projects of the New York City Housing Authority. Brownsville is a labyrinth of these housing projects, which are home to some 21,000 people. In a sense, it has always been so for Brownsville, which decades ago was a predominantly Jewish, working-class neighborhood that was also home to the notorious Jewish crime syndicate, Murder, Inc. Such was Brownsville’s unsavory reputation that its residents would claim they lived in adjoining East New York, which today is no safer.

Decades later, Brownsville experienced a shift in population, as white people moved out and black people moved in. In 1968, the rising racial tensions between the black residents and white teachers boiled over into a contentious teachers strike. Today, Brownsville feels like the Brooklyn that time forgot. Even once dangerous Bushwick is having a renaissance—a place of gun violence, joblessness, entrenched poverty, made all the worse, and more deadly by turf-fueled gang violence originating from inside 18 large public housing complexes, built side-by-side through the middle of the neighborhood.

The man recently convicted of killing Zurana Horton was part of a loosely knit gang. At the time of the shooting, Andrew Lopez was 18 years old. He had not been aiming at Horton—she happened to be standing in the way as he stood on a rooftop and tried to shoot at a rival gang member.

Lopez’s Young Guns gang and its rival 8 Block are part of a new generation of gangs in Brownsville, two of the 300 across the city that the NYPD keeps tabs on. Some of the gang members are as young as 10. Police say they are violent, unpredictable, emotionally driven, and armed. The Young Guns and 8 Block live in and around two housing projects, Glenmore Plaza and the Howard Houses. Their grip on the neighborhood is so powerfully menacing that people are too scared to call the police, and feel themselves in danger whenever they step outside.

“It used to be that I never wanted to go out at night because it was too dangerous,” said a woman who chose to remain anonymous. “But Zurana was killed in the afternoon, in broad daylight. There is no safe time here anymore. There is no peace of mind anymore.”

For every hour that passed in Brownsville in 2012, a crime was committed, according to the Brownsville Police Department’s annual crime report. And since January of 2013, there have been three murders, 14 rapes, 120 robberies and 174 assaults in this particular neighborhood. In just the past few weeks, a woman was stabbed in the early morning hours, a man was shot inside the supermarket he worked at, and another was found dead outside a church on a Sunday morning with three gunshot wounds to his back and one on his shoulder. In 2011, Brownsville’s 73rd police district reported the highest murder rate in the city. Brownsville also has significantly higher dropout rates and incidents of violence in its schools, in addition to low test scores and high truancy rates.

In a place so consumed by violence and the harsh realities that come with it, the people of Brownsville look to one another—for safety, for strength in numbers—in good ways, and sometimes in bad.

The young boys that join Brownsville gangs often say they do so for protection.

“I didn’t exactly have the best childhood,” said one former gang member. “And some of my friends came from abusive homes. A lot of us had no choice but to join one gang or another.”

Said another, “They’re my brothers. They’ve got my back. I know they will look out for me.”

The mothers of the slain children look out for one another, too, even as they resume the myriad tasks of parenting—this time for the grandchildren left behind.

The grandmothers gather at a small playground tucked between the projects. The children play on swing sets and slides, and their grandmothers keep an eye out.

“If we don’t watch over them, they will end up in the same places as those that killed their parents—in jail, or in one of the gangs here,” said Inez Rodriguez, a grandmother. “And the way this neighborhood has been over these few years, I know I wouldn’t trust anyone else with these young minds anyway.”

To live in Brownsville often means having to defy—and in some ways redefine—traditional definitions of family, of social life, of what it means to be part of a community. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that the number of grandparents who are primary caregivers to grandchildren has risen 12.8% since 2000, from about 2.4 million to more than 2.7 million. Between 1990 and 2000, census figures indicate the number of U.S. children being raised by grandparents rose 30%.

In Brownsville, there are so many women caring for their grandchildren that they have a support group. In 2010, the NYPD and Brooklyn clergy came together to create Grandmothers Love Over Violence. The grandmothers share stories, compare legal and parenting advice, cry on a friendly shoulder, pray and simply let off steam. The program makes it easier for grandmothers to learn how to work with their grandchildren, and makes it comfortable for them to relate to police officers and get help.

“We’ve become a group like no other,” said Rodriguez. “It is one thing to know you will never see your children again. It’s another to be reminded of that every day, every time you stare into the eyes of the young kids they’ve left behind.”

“It’s been my place of comfort,” said Denise Peace. “Because of them, I know I’m not alone in this.”

Every month, the grandmothers walk through the doors of Mt. Sion Baptist Church on a busy corner near a loud highway overpass. Some lean on walkers and canes, some are in wheelchairs. Some have toddlers in their arms. These are the moments for the women to think about themselves, and one another; their grandchildren and great grandchildren are in daycare, at school, or being cared for by babysitters or relatives.

“I thought I was done taking care of babies, and now I have this little princess,” said Daphne Georgalas as she held her infant granddaughter in her lap. “If this happened to me years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it. But now I know God is watching over us, and he’s helping me watch over her. On my worst days, or when my shoulders ache from the exhaustion of taking care of the kids, I just pause and think about that. Take a deep breath and carry on.”

“I believe I’m stronger today because I know what my purpose is in life now,” said another grandmother choosing to remain anonymous. Like other grandmothers here, she explained that her faith helps her get through every day.

“It’s hard, but it does feel good to know I belong to a strong community.”

A short walk away from the church, a group of teenage boys exchange greetings and fist bumps. They are part of a gang, but one that is relatively new, and they’re still deciding what to call themselves. Gangs in Brownsville aren’t the way they were back in the 80s and early 90s—massive, corporate-style drug organizations were driven out years ago from the streets of Brooklyn by aggressive policing and the prospect of finding jobs. Left behind is a fractured drug market filled with unstructured and crowded clusters of close-knit, hard-to-identify gangs. They’re still gangs, but the label is often more stylistic than organizational. Instead of a couple of big gangs, there are dozens of small ones, often made up of cousins and next-door neighbors. And for many, joining one of these gangs is like a social acceptance shortcut—it provides boys who are young and unsure of themselves a prepackaged identity, and built-in friendships.

“It made me feel important, made me feel I was somebody,” recalls Greg Lamar, a former gang member. “There was nothing else to do here, there still isn’t. I was young, restless, bored. Joining a gang seemed like a quick fix for everything that wasn’t working for me.”

There are others paths. Sonny Townsend is one of a growing number of people in Brownsville who has picked up a video camera instead of a gun. “I belong here,” he said. “No matter what goes down in the ‘Ville, it’s my ‘Ville.” Townsend will walk through the projects with his friend Money, and interview residents on camera about their hopes and fears for Brownsville. And often, they get people to open up in ways no journalist has been able to. On his YouTube channel, Townsend has about 70 videos—some are part of a series he calls the “Walk thru Brownsville projects,” which include the interviews as well as footage of them walking through the projects and explaining what life was like before.

Townsend says this is his way of “showing Brownsville from the inside.” It is something he chose to do because of his own frustration with life, and frustration with the way the media covers Brownsville.
“Journalists come here only when someone gets shot,” he said. “Well what about what happens before that and after that?”

“Some people, they’re afraid of change,” Townsend said. “They don’t want to change their hoods, don’t want to change their lifestyles, even if it benefits them and their children. They will complain about what they see, but they fear change.”

For some, however, the violence is overwhelming; they are ready to move out.

“The projects are just like one big prison in my view,” said Darryl Odom, 49.

Odom knows what real prison is like—he served 13 years for armed robbery until his release in 2010.

“When I got out, I wanted to be a new man, a better man. But no one knows how tough that is, especially when all that’s around you is pulling you in the wrong direction.”

Odom is currently unemployed, and said he is increasingly frustrated with life in Brownsville. At the end of the month, he is packing his bags and getting on a bus “to anywhere but here.”

Danielle Johns is only 10, but she speaks as though she’s much older.

“What goes on in Brownsville? Looting, shooting, raping, and killing. There’s nothing else here,” she said. “My Mom says we’re leaving this place and moving to North Carolina.”

“You can get a gun like a box of diapers around here,” said Josephine Spearman, 60, whose 31-year-old son Maurice was shot dead in 2010. “Like a box of diapers. Think about that. Nothing makes sense here.”

“There are too many kids raising kids. When I was growing up, if the neighbor saw we was up to something, she’d whoop my ass. It ain’t nothing like it used to be,” said a woman who asked to be identified only as Doll.

“All our men are locked up or dead. There is no future. Nobody cares anymore. There is no love.”

As she sits in her apartment living room waiting on her grandchildren to come home from school, Denise Peace wipes off the dust from a photo of her daughter Zurana Horton.

“I’ve thought about leaving this place, lots of times,” she said. “But if women like me move away, what’s going to happen to Brownsville? What’s going to happen to all the other children who can’t leave? This place is in desperate need of attention, in desperate need of love. We can’t look away anymore.”

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