Most immigrants only know what it’s like to be a newcomer to a country once. But for Sayu Bhojwani has done it twice.
Immigrant leadership advocate Bhojwani was born in India in 1967, then moved to Belize with her parents when she was four-years-old. She spent the remainder of her childhood in the Central American country, learning the Catholic traditions and the Spanish language, which most of the population speaks despite English being the official language of the country, along with her own family’s heritage.
Then in 1984, she went to college at the University of Miami and moved to New York City after she graduated where she was struck by the vibrant mix of different ethnicities living side-by-side.
Working with Asian immigrants and Asian-American communities through the Asia Society, she soon noticed that there were few elected representatives of this community. So in 1996, she created the nonprofit South Asian Youth Action! (SAYA!), which helps young Asian-Americans feel more at home in their country — connecting kids from immigrant families to tutoring, mentoring, internships and jobs. In other words, the sorts of opportunities American kids from non-immigrant families can take for granted.
“I’m restless,” Bhojwani tells NBC News. “For better or worse I get bored with what I’m doing and I start thinking about what problem I can solve.”
Bhojwani went on to tackle many other problems. In the wake of the September 11 attacks and the persecution many immigrants experienced as a result, Bhojwani was named the first New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. In that role, she pressed for policy changes, such as ensuring that immigrants could maintain their confidentiality when reporting crimes or receiving healthcare. “Really what we did,” she says, “was serve as a pain in the ass, to getting these things through city bureaucracy.”
Then Bhojwani decided she wanted to look beyond New York City and get Americans all over the country to view immigrants in a more positive light and treat them with respect. To do this, she founded the New American Leaders Project (NALP) in 2010, through which she works to foster leaders in immigrant communities and supports representatives of these communities running for public office.
Bhojwani is an inveterate helper and problem solver. “I feel like if I see something, I have to do something about it,” she tells NBC. “As I get older, I am working on this — if I see something, I should point it out to someone else.”
Still, it’s clear the 47-year-old Bhojwani plans to keep solving problems for immigrants for years to come.