Bronx group helps South Asian women fulfill dreams

When Rila Choudhury’s husband died in 2017, she didn’t know how to go on.

With no family nearby, Choudhury was alone in New York City. A 43-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh with limited English-speaking skills, Choudhury needed someone to help her move forward.

Fortunately, she found the support she needed at Sapna NYC, a non-profit organization located in Parkchester’s South Asian immigrant community. Over the past decade, Sapna has helped thousands of low-income South Asian women through English classes and health programs, to increase their socio-economic capital and access to opportunities.

“Most of the time these women have a lot of potential, but they don’t know how to access the resources that will make them successful – that’s where we come in,” said executive director Diya Basu-Sen.

The organization blossomed out of a small mental health study of South Asian women and grew to accommodate the varied needs of the growing South Asian community. Sapna says most of the women who use their services are Bangla and from Parkchester, where nearly half of the Bronx’s Bangladeshi population lives.

Limited English proficiency and traditionally gendered roles often make the women at Sapna financially and emotionally dependent on their husbands and children. The non-profit reduces this dependency by educating the women in basic skills, such as CPR and how to communicate in English.

“Because I took Sapna’s classes, I benefited and can have jobs,” said Choudhury. The organization trained her as a babysitter, and now she sometimes cares for other women’s children.

Sapna teaches both beginner and intermediate ESL classes, and also offers a U.S. citizenship test preparation class. Additionally, the group offers health education. As part of a new research study, new mothers learn to change feeding habits to prevent risk of pediatric obesity and dental caries in their children.

Sapna looks like a regular brick house in the Parkchester area. Shoes line the entrance foyer and the landing of the narrow stairway to the basement, where classes and programs are held. Chairs and desks are arranged in the basement classroom, and signs list class rules. In one corner is a computer lab, and colorful paintings made by the women decorate the walls.

Farida Akter, 37, is one of Sapna’s clients. She immigrated to America three years ago and comes to learn English and take computer classes that the women requested.

“Sapna has helped me in many ways, but first and foremost it taught me English,” said Akter. “Now, I’m not dependent on others – I can take the subway and go to the doctor’s office myself.”

Assistant director Saba Naseem’s mother was also an immigrant and faced many of the same struggles. She notes that culturally, South Asian women are accustomed to putting family ahead of themselves.

“I think it’s important that Sapna is a place the women are putting themselves first,” said Naseem.

Dr. Parvin Banu, a professor from Calcutta National Medical College, visited the basement classroom recently, and explained the details of menstruation. While she spoke, a dozen Bangladeshi women, dressed in scarves and traditional clothing, painted on canvases, glancing up occasionally. The program allowed them to paint while learning something worthwhile.

“In Bengali, ‘sapna’ means dream,” noted Banu. “Maybe these women are dreaming something; I want to teach them so they can chase their dreams.”

(Hafsa Quraishi, half Pakistani and Indian, was born and raised in Jacksonville, FL. She currently attends the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Hafsa wants to be combine her love of audio and digital journalism and work as a radio reporter. She is focused on bringing to light issues that impact Muslim Americans and the South Asian diaspora community in America.

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