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NRI leads crusade against racism

At an age when career in corporate world would have been attractive, Sampat chose to be social activist.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2006 10:46 IST

A 23-year-old Indian American is making a name for himself among the immigrant community by campaigning against discrimination and racism.

It was after 9/11 that Prateek Sampat began hearing about Pakistani Americans who were deported en masse.

He soon found that racial profiling encompassed all South Asians and not just Pakistanis or Muslims.

"At that time I had a bit of a beard and I noticed people moving away from me on the streets or in trains," Sampat told a news agency in an interview.

Once the police stopped him when he was riding his bicycle. "They questioned and frisked me, looking for burglary weapons like a screwdriver," he said.

At an age when a career in the corporate world would seem infinitely more attractive, Sampat decided to become a community activist.

After volunteering for several months, he is now the Outreach Coordinator with New American Initiatives for the Albany Park Neighbourhood Council (APNC).

APNC's constituency is primarily South Asian and Latino immigrants.

Attitudes towards immigrants hardened after 9/11 when planes commandeered by terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Sampat said.

"The government is making it tougher for immigrants to become US citizens -- the application fees have been raised and citizenship tests have also been changed.

"There is definitely an environment of fear among Muslim immigrants, although it may be less than it was immediately after 9/11," Sampat said.

Muslims, he said, are at an apparent disadvantage in the citizenship process.

"It takes more time for Muslims to get citizenship. The waiting process can be nerve-wracking (for them)."

Racism, in Sampat's opinion, was more often than not subtle and therefore more insidious.

"We rarely ever see the Ku Klux Klan. The perpetrator is more often the president of a college or a corporation who would deny ever being a racist."

In the US, said Sampat, racism was a system that "has institutionalised one race over the other. It should not be an option that you can exploit one class of people more than the other".

At the APNC, New American Initiative sets new immigrants on the path to citizenship.

"Our long-term goal is to build political power in the immigrant community," said Sampat.

He conceded that it was difficult to motivate the South Asian community towards a larger goal.

"We approach them with issues which affect them personally. We take care of these first," he said.

As part of their political empowerment, he accompanies immigrants to Springfield, where they meet with lawmakers and learn about the political process.

Sampat also works with the Non-Military Alternative Project, which targets high school students to impress upon them that military service is not the only way to finance an education.

"As resources for schools are being reduced, the military is being presented more and more as an option. We guide students to other ways of paying for college tuition."

Two communities, especially, had got a raw deal, he felt.

"African Americans and Native Indians are the people on whom America is built. Without the free labour and the free land these two provided, America would not have been anywhere as prosperous as it is today and maybe we, as immigrants, would not have had the incentive to come to the US," Sampat said.

"It is high time that both these communities get their due, and their contributions are acknowledged. It is very important that new immigrants learn about Native Indians and African Americans."

First Published: Mar 13, 2006 08:43 IST