Brooklyn’s Diwali Celebration Shines Light on Family Separation at the Southern Border

Words and photographs by Katie Herchenroeder

Tea lights illuminated Brooklyn Borough Hall Tuesday night as interfaith community members celebrated Diwali, a festival of lights observed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists. 

They were praying for something specific this year: an end to family separation at the Southern border. 

Treats could be found around the hall as attendees discussed their personal experiences with Diwali in the past.

Following a rampant increase of children being separated from their parents at the border by the Trump administration, progressive faith organizations and the New York City Commission for Human Rights teamed up to dedicate Diwali to this cause. The theme also corresponds with an increase of Indian immigrant apprehensions over the past couple of years.  

“We want to merge values at the heart of social justice that we believe are also at the heart of Hindu,” Aminta Kilawan-Narine said. Co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, Kilawan-Narine helped organize the event and hopes to encourage immigrant communities in Brooklyn to channel Diwali’s celebration of light to fight darkness across the country. 

Musicians perform a traditional Diwali song in the historic Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday.

The organizers’ advocacy went beyond praying and included legal advice about immigration status. 

Tabling around the perimeter, New York City Immigration Services and the NYCCHR provided information on everything from ID NYC, a free identification card for residents, to how to protect yourself from discriminatory hiring. 

Widad Hassan, the lead advisor for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities for the NYCCHR, largely arranged the education portion of the evening. “We wanted to work really hard to show New Yorkers they’re protected,” she said.

Widad Hassan is the lead advisor for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Communities for the New York City Commision on Human Rights. She wants New Yorkers to leave being hopeful that local government “has [their] back.”

The night’s governmental support and historic venue was intentional, according to Hassan. “By doing this event here, it is really celebrating the Hindu community in Brooklyn,” she said. This is the third year organizers’ have held the event, the second time it has been hosted at Brooklyn Borough Hall, and the first time they have focused the night on family separation. 

Moving forward, Kilawan-Narine’s organization plans to continue advocating for immigrants at the Southern border. She hopes to use her, and her peers’, faith to “Not just pray in a vacuum, but with a purpose.”

On this point, she is not alone. 

Sanjai Doobay, a lawyer at a Long Island firm, offered a metaphor to the crowd. Diwali’s focus on light, literally translating to row or series of lights, he suggested, represents how communities can highlight issues around them.

Lakshmi is the goddess of fortune, prosperity, wealth, and abundance. As wife to Vishnu, second god of the Hindu trinity, she is revered by many and is deeply connected to Diwali.

He asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine that they too are lights in this world. You can’t tell these lights, he said, to shine solely on the Southern or Western parts of the sky. So, he concluded, the sun ought to shine equally on the border as it does in Brooklyn.

“Light doesn’t discriminate,” he said, adding, “we shouldn’t discriminate either.”

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