SAYA! featured in New York Times
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(From The New York Times on May 22, 2012)

A Charity for Children of New York’s South Asian Working Class

Courtesy of South Asian Youth ActionAttendees talking with volunteers at South Asian Youth Action’s annual career fair held on April 21, 2012 at the Elmhurst center, New York.

NEW YORK–Like a number of charities in the United States, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA) seeks to help needy South Asian children, but not in some distant land like India — these youths are in its backyard in New York City.

According to the United States Census Bureau American Community Survey from 2010, more than 1 out of 20 youths (between the ages of five and 19) in New York City are South Asian, and a quarter of this population lives at or below the poverty level. In the New York borough of Queens, where SAYA is based, one out of eight youths is South Asian.

These are the children of the people wealthier New Yorkers cross paths with multiple times a day: taxi drivers, the deli and newsstand workers, the fruit and food cart vendors. Their children often attend overcrowded public schools, and the parents work long hours and may be unaware of the issues students face at school, like the pressure to join gangs or try drugs.

Founded in 1996 by Sayu Bhojwani, a Queens resident who saw a lack of resources for South Asian children in New York, SAYA offers more than a dozen sources of support. On the academic side, students can get tutoring and help with the college application process through the Chalo College program, which includes campus visits and information on financial aid and scholarships. For personal development, there is a leadership program for girls, a basketball program for boys and counseling for emotional issues.

The nonprofit organization has a presence in seven schools, which are all in Queens except for one in Brooklyn, and a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, but its main base is a community center in Elmhurst, a Queens neighborhood, where kids can come after school or on weekends to play basketball, get tutoring, do their homework, meet with counselors or simply hang out.

The majority of SAYA youth are of Guyanese, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani descent, said Udai Tambar, SAYA’s executive director, and each of the organization’s sites reflects the ethnic subgroup that is largest in that neighborhood. SAYA offers ethnicity-specific counseling, and it bills itself as the nation’s only secular youth organization for South Asians.

“If you think of identity as a Venn diagram where the different circles represent the different parts of their identity, SAYA creates a safe space for youth to explore how these circles overlap,” Mr. Tambar said. “By being a secular space, we allow youth to explore what their religion and its overlap with other parts of their identity means for them.”

So far, about 7,700 youths have participated in SAYA’s programs. According to Mr. Tambar, 100 percent of those who have participated in its Chalo College have gone on to enroll in a university, including top schools like Barnard and New York University.

At SAYA’s annual career fair in late April at the Elmhurst center, South Asian youths had the opportunity to learn about different industries like business, education, communications, government and law through conversations with professionals in those fields. The 75 young people who turned out this year spoke to volunteers like Krishna Veeraraghavan, a partner at the New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell; Jehangir Mehta, a chef who was the runner-up on “The Next Iron Chef;” Raj Venkataramani, a Goldman Sachs managing director, and Pappudu Sriram, a partner at Boston Consulting Group.

Ms. Sriram, who is a SAYA board member, also brings young South Asians into the BCG offices in Manhattan as part of a power lunch series so they can speak with interns and recent graduates about life at the consulting firm. “There is a shocking unawareness about the needy South Asian youth here, but it’s a mission I am moved by and want to help in any way I can,” she said.

Saad Abbasi, 15, who lives in Queens and is of Pakistani descent, said the career fair gave him a chance to learn about the basics involved in different jobs. The sophomore at Townsend and Harris, a school for gifted children, said he has been coming to the center for the past two years to play basketball and do homework. “SAYA gives me a safe place to come and do fun stuff and also my schoolwork,” he said.

The benefits for SAYA’s participants don’t stop after high school. Khwaja Hassan, 28, said he started going to the center when he was in high-school for SAT prep, English writing classes and counseling. Mr. Hassan said he grew up in a three-bedroom house in Elmhurst with his parents, sister and up to 15 other relatives and roommates. His parents, who emigrated from Bangladesh and never went to college, both worked as cashiers, earning low hourly wages, and didn’t have the knowledge to guide him through school.

“SAYA changed my perspective and made me ambitious about life ,” he said. “If I didn’t have them to help me with my college applications and talk to me about issues I went through as a teenager, I wouldn’t have that desire to succeed.”

Mr. Hassan ended up earning a scholarship to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and now works at Bloomberg in Midtown Manhattan as an account manager. He earns a six-figure salary, he said, and supports his parents in addition to having his own home, where he lives with his wife.

“When you get a taste of what is out there which is what I got with SAYA, you get hungrier and hungrier, and right now, I am living in a dream,” he said.