Agency reaches to youth leaders

August 4th, 2007

A recent initiative by the Department of Homeland Security would expand communication between its agencies and Arab, South Asian and Muslim youth in America.

A conference on the issue, called “Roundtable on Security and Liberty: Perspectives of Young Leaders Post 9-11,” is being hailed by participants as a positive first step in repairing years of mutual mistrust.

“We’re dealing with profiling within our communities, and this provides us with a voice to change these problems,” said Rajbir Singh Datta, 25, of the Sikh American Legal Defence & Education Fund (SALDEF) of Washington, D.C., who participated in the conference. “When you’re a high school or college student, you are always dealing with these problems, but not sure how to solve them.”

Datta, who lives in Washington, was one of 30 or so young leaders from a wide range of backgrounds who met with several government and law enforcement agencies at the conference, held at George Washington University in Washington in late July.

“The youth want — and got access to — government people,” Datta said.

Panel discussions ranged from “The State of Arab, Muslim, South Asian, Sikh, and Middle Eastern American Young People Today,” to how to get a job with the federal government.

Datta said the best part of the conference was the frank discussions that took place between government officials — including Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff — and participants.

“These are youth leaders within communities that are not already integrated with organizations that have a national voice,” Datta said. “You got an un-political response to questions from the government such as ‘How are we doing?’ ‘You’re doing horrible’; they knew they’d get a straight answer.”

Datta’s group conducts educational outreach and sensitivity training about Sikhs — a group of non-Muslim South Asians that suffered intense post-Sept. 11 backlash as visible targets because of their traditional turbans. He said there are many positive steps the government has taken to improve community relations, but young people don’t seem to be aware of them.

Hesham Mahmoud, of the New Jersey chapter of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, said his group regularly meets with law enforcement and government officials to try to improve relations.

“We try to do as much as we can on the local level,” he said. “We meet to communicate our concerns when specific issues occur, and to keep lines of communication open.”

Mahmoud said such relationships can benefit both groups — law enforcement feels they can build trust in more insular communities, and members of those communities feel their concerns are being heard.

“It’s more a two-way communication,” Mahmoud said. “We always make it clear we are not spies in the community, but if we see something in the community of concern, we’ll definitely enforce the law.”

Brett Hovington, chief of community relations for the FBI in Washington, one of the agencies that participated in the recent youth roundtable, said the agency is paying more attention to young people, especially in light of increasing radicalism among young immigrant groups throughout Europe.

“For the FBI, it was an overall change in our mission, where we started to realize the importance of having a better understanding of the demographics in this country as they started to change,” Hovington said in a telephone interview from Washington Friday. “The community definitely wanted more communication with government, and at the FBI, we realized we had to make inroads into those communities — it was on both fronts.”

Shaarik Zafar, of the Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which organized the conference, said it was refreshing to hear new perspectives on what it’s like to grow up as a Muslim, Arab-American or South Asian in a post-Sept. 11 world.

“It was a very frank and constructive conversation with young people about the issues they face,” he said. “And we look forward to continuing the discussion.”

Reach Samantha Henry at 973-569-7172 or henrys@northjersey.com

[http://www.northjersey.com/]

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