BY JON CRONIN
In the late 1960’s, after Guyana gained independence from Great Britain, citizens began seeking lives and careers in other countries with more stable economic and political climates that Guyana had at the time.
The Guyanese Diaspora led many to the West Side of Manhattan in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when rent was cheaper, then later to South Queens.
In the 50 years since, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park have earned the title “Little Guyana.”
Aftab Karimullah, a Guyanese immigrant and Ozone Park resident said 50 years ago, the initial immigrants were the pioneers of their community and then slowly their families and more immigrants came.
Karimullah immigrated to South Queens in 1984.
“There were only a few Guyanese stores on Liberty Avenue then,” he said, adding, “That was the essential ingredient to why [immigrants] gravitate to a certain area.”
He noted that Sybil’s Restaurant, a cultural touchstone for many in the Guyanese community came in the early 1990s and was then on Hillside Avenue. “I think that is when the the momentum got going,” said Karimullah.
“Then Liberty Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard became a central gravity for that community,” Karimullah said.
As the stores and restaurants representing parts of their culture came into the community, so did spiritual centers representing the religious diversity of Guyana. “The Mandirs and the Mosques became a necessity in that community,” he said, which is representative of Guyana’s African, Indian and Caribbean influences.
Today, the Guyanese represent the second largest immigrant population in Queens and the third largest in New York City.
A number of notable New Yorkers trace their roots back to Guyana, including the first black woman elected to Congress, former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who represented Brooklyn from 1968 until 1983. More recently, former Borough President Helen Marshall, State Sen. Roxanne Persaud (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens), all with Guyanese roots have all served in political office.
Queens County Supreme Court Justice Pam Jackson-Brown also hails from Guyana. She was raised and educated there, immigrating to the United States in 1973.
Det. Randolph Holder, an NYPD officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty last Autumn in East Harlem was a Guyanese immigrant and grew up for a time in Far Rockaway.
Civic leader Richard David, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 10, noted the country’s religious diversity; his mother is Muslim, his grandparents are Hindu, and his father is Christian. “That’s not uncommon in Guyana,” he said.
Today, Hindu culture has become part of the great melting pot that is the world’s borough. Every spring thousands flock to Richmond Hill to be part to the Phaghwah Parade, a celebration of the Hindu holiday Holi, which commemorates color coming back into the world after a dreary winter with the throwing of colorful abir powder. “It has become a signature event,” said Karimullah.
Part of the genesis of the Guyanese culture in Queens is the inclusion of cricket, “It’s like a religion back home,” noted Karimullah. He said today in Queens there plenty of leagues that use either a hardball or softball. “It’s kind of like a picnic event for the family,” he added.
David noted that many of the adult children that attended these picnics either did not grow up in or have never been to Guyana, but, “It’s kinda like Christmas or Thanksgiving,” relatives may not want to spend that day with family, “but you have to,” said David.
Other cultural family events are the Guyanese village days, possibly hundreds a year, where relatives and former residents of the small villages of Guyana meet with old neighbors and friends in Flushing Meadow Park, picnic, barbecue, play cricket and enjoy each other’s company.
Part of these park events is a kind of charitable outreach for the villages of their native country to raise funds for churches, schools and orphanages.
Karimullah pointed out as the community here grew economically they were able to send money home.
David and Karimullah noted that Guyanese-owned businesses are thriving in Richmond Hill and that the growth of these restaurants, bakeries and catering halls added to cultural cohesion.
David’s parents were in the U.S. without their three sons for eight years before they were able to afford to send for their children. He said in 1995 he came over with his 11 year-old brother and his 16 year-old brother had to wait another year before immigrating.
One of the reasons the Guyanese fled to the U.S. is for its political stability, yet as Karimullah mentioned, “Guyanese individuals who ran for office [here] were largely unsuccessful.”
CB 9 Chairperson Raj Rampershad is the first community board chairperson of Guyanese descent in New York City. The second was elected this year in the Bronx.
Rampershad said his father, Cliff, left Guyana in 1969 at 18, just after graduating high school and marrying his girlfriend, Veda. He came to Manhattan with $40 in cash, a $150 Travelers’ check and a short list of friends he could stay with. He found work and enough money to send for his young wife a year later.
He worked low paying jobs for many years before working for a private busing company called Liberty Lines and then joining the Air Force in 1978.
Veda and Cliff Rampershad opened a meat and grocery store with a partner on Liberty Avenue in 1991 and were able to make a living until their retirement last year.
“I owe it to them. They created something from nothing. It’s the American dream,” Rampershad said.
David also noted that as a 10 year-old, he was excited to leave Guyana, mainly because he avoided taking a major exam that determined whether or not he could enter high school.
He also recalled that the government openly discriminated against Guyanese of Indian descent in the early 1990’s.
David credits Guyanese immigrants with recreating parts of South Queens.
“If you look at Southeast Queens they bought real estate that was dilapidated and transformed it,” said David and added, “Richmond Hill and Liberty Avenue are thriving because of their contributions.”
He also pointed out that this immigrant community has thrived despite no government aid. He said of all their festivals and street fairs, none have been funded by the government nor has the city given them a community center.
David stated that the Indo-Carribbean Alliance is given $5,000 a year by City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park).
“But that’s a drop in the bucket,” he said and added, “It’s very discouraging.”