DESI project represents South Asian communities

Photo courtesy of Mohammed Tarr

The Defining and Exploring South Asian Issues project at USC strives to increase the representation of South Asian voices on campus. In the midst of an international humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, as millions of Rohingya Muslims flee from persecution, the DESI project is working to raise awareness of similar South Asian issues through initiatives and fundraisers.

Started in 2005, the project serves as an initiative of the Asian Pacific American Resource Center, one of the cultural centers at USC. The DESI project aims to provide various programs that advocate and foster dialogue surrounding South Asian students and their communities, specifically for those who identify as Desi, a term that encompasses the identity of individuals from the Indian subcontinent and South Asia.

“It’s important to talk about being an American Desi,” said Muhammad Yusuf Tarr, the coordinator of the DESI program.

Tarr is a junior majoring in Middle East studies who began working with the project last semester before developing the current Rohingya initiative.

The mission of the DESI project is to create a space in which to engage students in dialogue regarding issues pertaining to Desi identity and its intersectional facets, according to Tarr.

For the past year, the project has mainly conducted documentary screenings, book clubs, panels and discussions, but due to the recent crisis in Myanmar, the organization is trying to do more.

“We wanted to host a fundraiser and utilize my position [as DESI coordinator] to create good,” Tarr said.

The Rise of Rohingya fundraiser was hosted by the DESI project, in conjunction with the Ansar Service Project, the Muslim Student Union, Students for Justice in Palestine and Students Organize for Syria.

The Rohingya are a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, a primarily Buddhist state, and have faced discriminatory policies according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The crisis in Myanmar began in August after a militant Rohingya group claimed responsibility for attacks against Burmese police. Consequently, the nation’s military has launched a “brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority,” according to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

Myanmar’s military has since destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages, forcing them to flee to surrounding countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The displacement of the Rohingya Muslims continue today.

According to Tarr, the fundraiser had about 50 attendees, many of whom donated food and raised $600 for the cause.

“For our event, I went and bought a chalkboard and wrote, ‘I stand with the Rohingya because…’ and it was amazing to see so many people come by and write why they stood with Rohingya,” Tarr said.

Tarr’s main goal for the Rohingya fundraiser was to include as many voices that could speak to the wide range of issues that affect Asia as possible, ensuring that all perspectives are included. In the future, he hopes to host more events on underrepresented issues in the South Asian region.

“I am fifth-generation Indian, Muslim and a man,” Tarr said. “If I were to talk between gender issues within the region, I would have to bring in a different speaker that would be able to talk about that. Or, if we wanted to talk about the Kashmir conflict within India and Pakistan, I would want to bring in an expert on that.”

Tarr was born in the United States and his family lived in South Africa for generations. Tarr also stated that the DESI project was created so that non-East Asians would feel more included within the Asian community. He heavily emphasizes the intersectional facets of the individuals from the region and hopes to reflect that.

“Within the region, there is so much going on … I have respect [for] the diversity of that region,” Tarr said.

CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this article stated that Tarr was born in South Africa. It has since been updated to reflect his correct birthplace, the US. It also misspelled “Kashmir.” It has since been updated to reflect the correct spelling. This article also misquoted Tarr and referred to a project in Kashmir. It has since been updated to include the correct quote. The Daily Trojan regrets these errors.