Brooklyn First Responders Tell Their Tales in Time of Coronavirus

For Kashif Hussain, 42, a lifelong resident of Brooklyn’s ‘Little Pakistan’ along the Coney Island Corridor from Beverly Road to Avenue K, being a first-responder during the Coronavirus lockdown has entailed primarily two things: getting the word out to the tight-knit immigrant Muslim community in which he lives, and preparing and delivering food to other first responders at hospitals, firehouses and police precincts.

Hussain’s response to the crisis is part of who he is as a volunteer and active civic member of Brooklyn at-large. This includes his being an Auxiliary Police Sergeant at the 66th police precinct in Borough Park and co-founding the Pakistani American Youth Services (PAYS) located on Coney Island Avenue and Newkirk – a nonprofit geared towards helping the immigrant communities.

Kashif Hussain

“At the churches and mosques a majority of the congregants understand what’s going on and not to go to these houses of worship in times like these, but for a lot of retired folk in the Pakistani community or Muslim community, the mosque is their hang out place and that’s where they socialize. That is their outlet. This is all they know! They get up in the morning and that’s where they go to spend their day so it was very hard for all of us to educate them not to do that,” said Hussain.

Hussain said it took two to three weeks of heartfelt conversations to shut down some of the mosques. The majority of them closed immediately but there was some resistance with two of the more popular mosques – one on Coney Island Avenue and another on Avenue F – and both were open for a short time on Friday when donations are collected, he said.

“It was much the same as our cousins on the other side [due west of McDonald Avenue] in the Borough Park Jewish community. For them, it wasn’t till 100 people got tested positive for coronavirus where there was a holy shit moment. Same thing here. It wasn’t until there were two deaths of elderly people where residents realized that people were dying because of this,” Hussain said, adding the word may have gotten out faster if the city offered more instructions in Urdu instead of just English.

Hussain said care packages with food such as flour, cooking oil, and basmati rice – a recent rare commodity since the import companies have been affected overseas due to coronavirus – are also made and delivered to the elderly folk and families directly affected by COVID-19 in “Little Pakistan.”

“This is the community I was brought up in as a kid. This is all I know,” Kashif said. “These are the folks, the business people, the elders who took care of us growing up. This is our village and I’m just taking care of the village.”

In his other responder initiative, Hussain, as part of PAYS, is partnering with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the Shorefront Coalition and local food service workers to deliver freshly cooked meals – ranging from Italian to Indo-Caribbean- to the unsung heroes on the front lines.

The idea is two-fold, explained Kashif, so that besides for the warm thank you to the first responders, the small restaurants supplying their food have business during times of economic hardship and instability. Thus far the group has prepared and delivered food to Maimonides and Coney Island Hospitals as well as to a number of firehouses in Southern Brooklyn.

Canarsie resident and RN Mercedes Narcisse delivers food to an elderly homebound woman during the coronavirus crisis. Contributed photo.

For Canarsie resident Mercedes Narcisse, a registered nurse and clinical director for various senior daycare centers s in Mill Basin, East Flatbush and Canarsie, being a first responder is part of her responsibility to stay involved with her community.

“I’ve been here since I was 17 and this is were I raised my four kids,” said Narcisse, a Haitian-American.  “I’m very honored and humbled to be playing that position as a nurse to have that knowledge and understanding that I can share. Everything I do is for my community.” 

After the senior daycare centers were shut down and all the members sent home, Narcisse frequents the elders’ homes with visits from a safe distance to deliver care packages and daily calls to make sure that everything is going well. 

Contracting the disease has not been a cause of concern for Narcisse, however, as she is a retired ER nurse from Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. 

“We took an oath to serve people. We must take precautions but I am not the priority. When we go to anything we don’t see ourselves. We just do what we have to do to take care of people, and at the end of the day we are here to serve,” said Narcisse. 

To connect with the writer of this article, follow Chaya Gurkov at her instagram account @chayagurkov

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