Queens Borough President wants to trace Guyana roots
-- says officials here can seek NY help in anti-crime fight
From Bina Mahabir
Guyana Chronicle
March 15, 2003

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NEW YORK -- Queens Borough President (BP) Helen Marshall and her older sister, Joan Suter really want to visit Guyana to trace their ancestral roots.

In a recent interview with the Chronicle at her immaculate office in the Queens Borough Hall, on Queens Boulevard in Queens, she said they also want to enjoy the luscious beauty of the flora and fauna, and the breathtaking sites this country has to offer the world.

Her retired sister, with the help of another relative in the U.S., has been doing research on Guyana's history and landscape for quite some time now.

"My sister and I desperately want to go visit Guyana", she said but indicated that because she has occupied the BP's office for just over one-and-a-half years, she does not want to travel too far away from the call of duty, at the moment.

Though the honeymoon period is over, being a person endowed with a strong sense of duty and patriotism, her responsibility lies with her more than 2.2 million constituents in the Borough of Queens, which includes Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Jamaica and Hillside Ave., among other areas in New York City, that is home to an estimated more than 250,000 overseas-based Guyanese, many of whom voted her into office.

Former President of Guyana, Mrs. Janet Jagan and Mayor of Georgetown, Mr. Hamilton Green had extended invitations to Ms. Marshall on different occasions to visit Guyana even before she became President of the Borough of Queens.

However, her schedule is very hectic.

Ms. Marshall has heard of the crime situation in Guyana today and though she admitted she is no expert in the areas of drugs or crime, if the authorities in Guyana are interested, "they should arrange with the District Attorney or the Police Commissioner of New York" so that the two cities could collaborate their efforts to fight particular ills of society that may affect them.

Guyana's "law enforcement agencies should be in touch with our law enforcement authorities," she said, to work along on a programme which could help the country combat its crime problems.

The Borough President's paternal and maternal grandparents were born and grew up in the then British Guiana, during the reign of the Queen of England over the beautiful "El Dorado" country, as it is popularly known in many quarters.

Her father, Gerald Cyril Sergent and mother, Audrey Sergent, nee Mckenzie, were both born in colonial Guyana.

According to Ms. Marshall, both her parents grew up in Georgetown, once known as and still referred to as the 'Garden City' of the Caribbean.

Her father, who was an experienced merchant seaman, travelled extensively and had mastered seven languages. He migrated to the United States more than 80 years ago with his family.

"My father was a merchant seaman and because he travelled a lot, he could speak seven languages quite well," she reminisced.

Her mother's side of the family steadfastly remained in the colony of Guiana, as her family was well off and could afford to withstand the living conditions in the country at that time.

"My mother's family stayed there because they were well off," she recalled.

The BP said she gathered this piece of information from correspondence between her father's mother and the young Audrey.

The youthful Audrey McKenzie kept in touch with Ms Marshall's grandmother in the U.S., despite the thousands of miles that separated them.

Ms. Marshall's paternal grandmother encouraged Audrey in Guyana to migrate to the United States. After some time, the young Audrey Mckenzie did just that and upon arriving in the U.S., she stayed with Mr. Gerald Sergent's mother.

Eventually, Mr. Sergent and Ms. Mckenzie got married and in due course, the two girls were born - Helen and Joan.

"My mother remained in touch with the country and her relatives. She wrote letters to her relatives (she had left when she departed Guyana)", Ms. Marshall related.

She revealed that according to a few letters she had read, thoughts were exchanged between her mother in the U.S. and her relatives in Guyana for the two girls to be raised in Guyana.

Sadly, their mother died early.

Ms. Marshall stayed on in New York City, blazing an illustrious career in public service spanning more than 20 years.

She has held positions, including New York City Councilwoman for District 21st, a job she held for 10 successful years prior to her ascension to Borough President of Queens.

She was also Chair of the City Council's Higher Education Committee, a member of the Housing & Buildings, Environmental Protection and Women's Issues Committees, and Co-Chair of the Council's Black and Latino Caucus.

She became the first African-American and the second woman to assume the post of the highest elected office in the borough when she carted off 68 per cent of the votes to win a resounding victory over her opponent in November 2001.

Most important, Ms. Marshall's achievements in the improvement of quality life for the young and old alike and the education of her constituents, especially the young, are commendable indeed.

Being an early childhood teacher by profession - she holds a Bachelor's degree in Education from Queens College in New York - the education of the young people in her borough is of paramount importance.

She vigorously fought against the privatisation of the City University of New York (CUNY), which thousands of West Indian students attend to further their education in different fields, including law, medicine and engineering.

When asked what are her future plans for her Guyanese constituents, particularly those residing in Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park, she replied, "They are all part of Queens," hence, they share the "same set of concerns" like the rest of the population of the borough.

She made special mention, though, of Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, which she acknowledged has become a thriving commercial district of booming businesses, offering various services and goods to the general public.

Many, if not most of these businesses - real estate, insurance, mortgaging companies, travel agencies, grocery stores, eating places, lawyers' offices and doctors' offices - are owned and operated by successful Guyanese entrepreneurs.

Fifteen years ago, Liberty Avenue was nothing like it is today - a stretch of non-stop commercial activities, from the VanWyck, all the way to Rockaway Boulevard in Queens.

The Borough President likes the success story of the immigrant Guyanese.

"It is a good story," she commented with a smile.

"I look forward to working with them (Guyanese group) to enhance their conditions," she stated seriously.

With the influx of new immigrants every day to the U.S., many Guyanese among them, Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park and surrounding environs have a serious housing problem.

Due to the demand for more houses in the area, rental rates have skyrocketed in these districts, compared to the last five years.

Guyanese who have settled in these parts of Queens are feeling the squeeze of the tremendous hikes in rents and when the NYC Housing Authority began clamping down on the renting of illegal basements, many Guyanese families were forced to move out and rent apartments at more exorbitant prices, which most could hardly afford.

Is there any solution to alleviate this problem in the near future?

The Borough President admitted that the Guyanese community is facing a serious housing problem but noted that city officials are engaged in a programme called "Partnership Housing".

This "Partnership Housing", actually "Public Housing Corporation", produces "small houses, 2 to 3 family houses at cheaper rates, with low interest mortgages and low down payments," she said.

This programme is ideal for "first time home owners" since its requirements for mortgages are minimal as well, she noted.

Ms. Marshall talked about her office's plan to set up a "satellite immigration office to help the immigrants with their immigration problems".

This office would be accessible to all immigrants in the Borough of Queens; it would advise them on immigration matters of concern to them.

After September 11, 2001, U.S. Immigration authorities implemented stringent policies in regards to immigration to this country.

Many people are not aware of some of these new rules, which could affect them; therefore, the office of the Borough President saw the rising need of a new immigration office.

Education plays a pivotal role in a child's growth and development. Needless to say that, many public schools, which many Guyanese and other West Indian kids attend, are overcrowded in Queens.

It is a major problem facing the many public schools in the area.

And, with the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, cutting down on city expenses in many areas of spending, including education, in his recent budget presentation, things do not look so bright for the city's children going to public schools.

"We get more schools built in Queens than in any other place," stated the Borough President.

The Borough President categorically stated that no matter what is the immigration status of the child, "Every child that sets foot in New York State, has to go to school."

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