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Votes

Speaking Out, Being Heard

Pakistani Americans find voice in local politics.

<bt>When eight Pakistani-Americans gathered in the Kings Park Library meeting room this past Saturday, the meeting was in stark contrast to the 30 Pakistani-Americans who had attended the first meeting of the Pakistani American Democratic Committee (PakAmDC). However small the group, to Dr. Manzur Ejaz even the presence of eight people was a sign of progress.

"Two or three years ago, if we organized such meetings, no one (Pakistani-Americans) would come out," Ejaz said.

Ejaz is part of group of Pakistani-Americans who formed the PakAmDC in response to the wave of fear and anxiety that swept through the Northern Virginia Pakistani community in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Our rights are jeopardized by the Patriot Act and because of the misconceptions created by 9/11," Ejaz said.

According to Ejaz, this is the time to bring Pakistani-Americans into mainstream politics so they can make their voices heard. The first and most widely attended meeting, which took place on Jan. 27, 2003, brought together Pakistani-Americans from all walks of life including businessmen, government workers, taxi drivers, housewives, high school and college students. The majority were Pakistani Muslims who had been living in Fairfax County for most of their lives.

Although all agreed that Pakistani-Americans needed to be more involved in government, some questioned whether they wanted to align themselves with a specific party. However, Ejaz asserted that supporting the Democratic party was the most logical step for a minority group hoping to find its voice in the political arena.

Since the first meeting, the committee has sponsored a fund-raiser and gained a spot on a Fairfax County Board of Supervisor committee for one of its members. Business owner and PakAmDc member Altaf Khan, who has lived in Fairfax County for 25 years, hosted an Aug. 19 fund-raiser for Board of Supervisors chairman candidate Gerald Connolly (D). The event drew 50-60 Pakistani-Americans and raised an estimated $4,000.

"I wanted Gerry Connolly to know that we are a group in Fairfax County that carry some votes and that we would support him," Khan said.

Khan said that the committee's target should be creating a presence in local government. "Our first focus should be at the local level. At this time, our concerns are more local."

RACIAL PROFILING, federal investigations targeting Muslims without cause, hate crimes and religious discrimination are some of the concerns of PakAmDC members. Members brought these concerns to the attention of Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), who spoke at the March 26 PakAmDc meeting. Bulova advised the committee to reach out to the community and make an effort to get to know their neighbors.

"When people feel that they are being looked at differently, they should reach out to the community, and this is exactly what they [PakAmDC] are doing," Bulova said.

Bulova, who said she was very impressed with the committee members, appointed PakAmDc member and businessman Rashad Khan to the Board of Supervisors Criminal Justice Advisory committee.

Although, active participation from members has fluctuated and the committee has suffered from long intervals of inactivity, Khan thinks that political interest has been sparked in the community and expects a high Pakistani-American voter turnout at the Nov. 4 election.

"Nine-11 was a kind of jolt [for Pakistani-Americans] that they have the right to vote," Khan said. "[The committee] is a great way to let people know that their vote carries weight."

Ejaz also expects a number of Pakistani-Americans to come to the polls for the first time this year. After two months of inactivity, the committee is swinging into action for the upcoming election.

Ejaz asked members at the Oct. 25 meeting to encourage family and friends to go to the polls and vote. The committee will also distribute fliers promoting the Democratic vote at the upcoming Friday prayers attended by the majority of Pakistani Muslim males. PakAmDC members, in conjunction with the Springfield Democratic committee, will be volunteering at the polling places on Election Day. In addition, PakAmDc member Javed Kauser is organizing another Connolly fund-raiser, on Sunday, Nov. 2, at 6 p.m., at Oh's Place in Arlington.