Mohammad Razvi is the Executive Director and founder of the Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), based in Brooklyn, New York. Mohammad, a Muslim born in Pakistan, emigrated with his family to the United States when he was six years old. He grew up in a community that had very few South Asians, but contained many other families who had also come from other countries in search of the American dream.
When Mohammad grew up, he joined his father in developing businesses needed by the Pakistani community in Brooklyn. Together they opened one of the first Pakistani grocery stores in the neighborhood. The store became a place where people felt comfortable, and as Mohammad says, it was one of the first social service agencies in the community. If someone didn’t have cash, the store allowed them to take food on credit. Mohammad and his father were often sought after for advice on cross-cultural issues, such as how to handle a problem with a child in school.
After the attacks of September 11th, many people in the Pakistani community came to Mohammad and his father with a different kind of request. Men in their families had been picked up by the FBI because the U.S. government was trying to find anyone living here who might have ties to terrorist activity. Mohammad approached the FBI and elected officials and asked why they were picking up people and what the charges were. He acted as an intermediary between families and government agencies.
Mohammad realized that his community needed to strengthen its ties to the larger New York community in a variety of ways. He formed COPO, a non-profit organization, to provide legal assistance, English language classes for adults, and afterschool programs for children. On the first day the organization offered the English classes, 300 people signed up.
Meanwhile, stores on the block were being vandalized, and people were calling Pakistanis and other South Asians “terrorists.” Parents coming into COPO’s classes began talking about their children’sexperiences of being bullied in school. Since many people in this community dress similarly to people from Muslim countries, they were targeted by people who misplaced their anger at the terrorists.
Mohammad worked with the Mayor’s Office, the NYC Commission on Human Rights and other groups to develop a discrimination survey to assess the types of harassment experienced by Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in New York City. He continues to build bridges between his community and other religious and ethnic communities in New York City with the belief that when people better understand each other, they can then respect each other, prevent further violence and live in harmony.