In the last week of June 2017 on the night before Eid al-Fitr, the annual Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the streets of Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue were festive, filled with women, men, and children who came out to celebrate the end of the holy month of fasting and the arrival of Eid. Here, in the heart of a neighbourhood known as “Little Pakistan,” locals broke the final fast together, and then made their way to the many stalls lining the streets. They bought bangles and jewellery, got henna on their hands, and savoured sweets and savouries from the stalls. It was a night of uplifting music and merriment in the immigrant-rich, tight-knit community.
But amid the street party scenes, wedged between the stalls heaving with sweets and succulent and spicy kebabs, another stall was showcased and getting a great deal of attention from local merrymakers: A funeral home’s stall.
Its presence on the streets during this holiday might seem jarring, even unseemly, to visitors unfamiliar with Little Pakistan. But not for local residents, virtually all of them Muslim and low-income, who are acutely aware that their struggles don’t end with death, but in some cases become manifold challenges for family and friends left behind.
As with other stalls, people stopped at this sombre one too; asking a litany of well-informed questions, from the lowest rates for body embalming to the cost of being driven to the mosque where the funeral prayer would take place and then to the airport for the final journey home. The Pakistanis who stopped at the stall did not recoil because members of this financially struggling immigrant community regard burial in their homeland and making dignified arrangements for that time as a necessity; a part of life.
Not only is there the strong emotional pull to be buried as quickly as possible on native soil for religious and cultural reasons; for years, the practice of the deceased being flown back to Pakistan was the least expensive option. While an American burial was out of reach for many low-income immigrants, returning a dead body on a direct flight to Pakistan was free. Fourteen years ago, Pakistan’s national airline began transporting the country’s dead back to their homeland free of cost.
But last fall, the Pakistani airline abruptly ended its flights to the United States, saying it had become too costly. The decision has left local Pakistanis in a desperate bind when tragedy strikes.
In this South Asian New York neighbourhood of mostly daily wage earners, some undocumented and with limited English proficiency, there is often comfort found in living lives under the radar. But the community now finds itself facing the issue of repatriating their loved ones in an ad hoc, haphazard manner rather than in the cohesive way of a more organised immigrant community.
For 14 years, the Pakistani immigrants in New York City only had to gather money for body embalming and the basic funeral services of getting picked up from the hospital or home, driven to the funeral home and finally to the airport. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the national carrier of Pakistan, transported the bodies of the country’s deceased citizens back to Pakistan free of cost. But on October 28, 2017, PIA flew its last flight from John F. Kennedy Airport, leaving the immigrants in New York beset with worry and fear of what to do when a loved one who wished to be buried in Pakistan dies.
From now on, aside from the approximately $1,500 to $1,800 needed for the funeral services and embalming, a process mandatory for a body being transported to another country, the immigrants will also have to scramble to find money for the air travel. PIA operated a direct flight from New York to Lahore, which meant that a body would reach its loved ones in 12 hours; the other international airlines that go to Pakistan all have layovers at their respective base cities.
Bazah Roohi, founder of the American Council of Minority Women and a humanitarian worker in Little Pakistan, has seen how the airline had a tremendous impact on the financially struggling Pakistani population, making a difficult time easier.
“We could inform PIA officials a night before a body had to be transported,” said Roohi. “But now, we don’t know what the protocol will be and what more we will need to do in an already desperate situation.”
The practicalities of body repatriation are a constant stress among Pakistanis, who are barely earning enough to make ends meet as it is. Now the airline’s recent decision has greatly magnified the problem, said Roohi and other activists who work with the community. Aside from the added costs, it will take much longer for the body to reach Pakistan, which is problematic according to the Islamic faith which states that a body must be buried as soon as possible - something which has become a distant dream for the low-income immigrant community in America.
End of PIA’s free direct flights for the dead
PIA operated its Lahore to New York flight twice a week. When flying into the United States, the flight stopped in Manchester for security clearance as the United States does not allow for direct flights from Pakistan to the United States. However, the eastbound flight was nonstop. PIA was the only airline that offered a nonstop flight between New York and Pakistan. Other popular airlines that operate on this route are Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Turkish Airlines; each of these have a stopover in their base cities: Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, and Istanbul, respectively.
Musharraf Rasool, the CEO of PIA, stated that the New York to Pakistan route had been incurring losses amounting to more than $10 million and the flight had not been profitable for at least a decade. The route closure was part of a larger decision regarding the closure of a number of unprofitable routes.
“Looking ahead, we as an airline will keep looking at the possibility to start flying back into JFK as soon as possible,” said Rasool. “However there are several hurdles with TSA being the biggest one.” According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) any flight from Pakistan cannot fly directly into the United States and must make a layover to get a security clearance. “Because of this, our product is not competitive in the market and we just couldn’t go on with it any further,” said Rasool.
However, the new airport in Islamabad, the capital city, will have all necessary security facilities that are currently not deployed at Pakistan’s other airports. “Once that airport is commissioned, we will begin our negotiations with America again,” Rasool said. The airport was expected to be inaugurated in December 2017, but the opening was delayed until May 1.
Some Pakistani immigrants are lobbying to get the Pakistani airline route restored so bodies of families and friends can return home with dignity. Members of the Pakistani American Council New York, an organisation aimed at organising the community, met with the Consul General of Pakistan in New York, Raja Ali Ejaz, to discuss the hardship the community is and will keep facing if PIA service is not restored.
On November 16, 2017 the delegation submitted a petition signed by New York’s Pakistani organisations stating that laid out two choices: either the Pakistani government restores PIA’s service to the United States or the government of Pakistan pays for the shipment costs of sending back deceased citizens through the community fund the New York consulate manages. No action by the Pakistani government has yet been taken.
“While I understand the sentiments of the Pakistani immigrants here, I also feel that the community should take up the responsibility of organising themselves as well - there is only so much a state can do,” said Counsel General Ejaz.
A community organises to help those in need
Nadeem Ishaque, a general contractor in New York City, founded a non-profit organisation - One Nation US - in 2016 when he realised how difficult it is for people to get a dignified burial or even just raise enough money for body embalming if a body was being sent to Pakistan. One Nation US, a Long Island-based company, funds the funeral services of impoverished families. “Initially it was just for Pakistanis but soon we realised this is a problem amongst all Muslim communities, which is why we cater to all of them now, irrespective of nationalities,” Ishaque said.
Today, One Nation US has a funeral home in New York and more than 100 general members. When someone calls informing of a death, a team of evaluators assesses details pertaining to the financial situation of the deceased and his family. Once the team decides that a family or person requires financial assistance, One Nation US pays for the entire cost through their treasury.
“While other funeral homes charge up to $3,000 for their services, without the burial cost, we charge $1,300 for the same services, irrespective of whether someone just needs assistance or financial help,” said Ishaque.
Funeral services only include picking up the body from the airport, taking it to the funeral home for preparation, and then taking it to the graveyard, he explained. The costs of the cemetery, coffin, and embalming if need be, are separate and they also vary across a spectrum, depending on the quality of the services preferred.
Ishaque recognises the great problem PIA’s closure of direct free flights for the dead has created for the repatriation of low-income immigrants to Pakistan.
“Our poor immigrants no longer have the option of being buried back home,” he said. “They must settle for whatever options they have here, which are cheaper graveyards that more than often none of their family members will be able to visit.” Since the closure of PIA’s US flights, Ishaque received two requests for financial assistance in funeral services and for the shipment of the body to Pakistan. “I asked the families to bury the deceased in America because of the extremely high costs of transportation of the body to Pakistan.”
Ishaque has met with Consul General Ejaz a handful of times to discuss the crisis since November 2017. “He has been very understanding and has asked me to refer special cases to him when the need arises” he said. “But the process of approval is too long for the body to be kept and that too uncertain of whether they would be able to fund it or not.” Realising the desperate situation when Ishaque receives a call for financial help, his evaluation team decides within an hour whether they will be able to cover the costs in a particular case or not.
But the procedure is much more exhaustive at the consulate. “We check bank statements of the deceased, ask people in the locality about the financial situation of the person, find people who can vouch for it and also check where his relatives live in Pakistan as these are all indicators of whether someone is actually financially in need,” said Ejaz.
One route closed, difficult paths remain
Now the option that remains for low-income Pakistani immigrants is to either qualify as poverty stricken to be able to get funding from the office of the Consulate General or to depend on non-profit organisations which can pay for the funeral services and burial in the states but may not be able to afford to ship the body to Pakistan. The former may be an even more difficult task for people who work on daily wages and are barely able to pay for rent and food, like the majority of the low-income immigrant population.
Many of these immigrants work hard all their lives to support families in Pakistan, said Mian Azeem, a journalist who has been living in Little Pakistan since the 1970s. “Only to die lonely deaths, without their families getting the chance to see them one last time, and all this because one airline stopped its service to the US.”
Nushmiya Sukhera is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.