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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 25, 2006

Arrest ‘destroyed good portion’ of Wang’s life

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — The federal government had admitted it made a mistake in charging Jun Wang with international arms trafficking, and this month dropped the charges. But Wang — a highly regarded scientist who has worked in this country for 13 years — lost his job and may be deported.

Wang and his wife, Yu Zhao, sat side by side in the cozy kitchen of their 28 Westmere Terrace home last week and talked about what their family has gone through and what is going to happen next.

Their baby slept quietly as they spoke candidly about their dilemma.

"I didn’t feel that I did anything wrong; why should I go to jail"" questioned Wang.

A microbiologist who grew up in Beijing, Wang was indicted in March for shipping to China palm-sized devices that the government described as "weapons-grade." In April, the assistant United States attorney prosecuting the case admitted the devices were classified as dual-use technology regulated by the Department of Commerce.

Wang’s lawyer, Kevin Luibrand, said at the time the "overstated charges" were nothing more than an alleged failure to complete proper shipping forms since the materials were commercial, not military grade.

"We argued early on that there were no basis for these charges," said Luibrand, but added that, "The Justice Department acted entirely appropriately." Luibrand explained that the Justice Department was told by the State Department that Wang purchased illegal technology. The same technology was sold in China, said Luibrand. "I told them the State Department was wrong."

Wang was in custody for 27 days at several area jails and then an immigration detention center in Buffalo. He had lost his job as a research scientist soon after the charges were filed because Wang’s employer said he used his work computer for personal business. Wang was allowed to go home on April 12 under strict confinement and surveillance; he was deemed a possible flight risk at the time, by Magistrate Randolph F. Treece.

"Destroyed a good portion of his life"

The charges were officially dropped on May 12, and, six hours later, Wang’s electronic ankle monitor was removed, making him a free man. But, without a job, Wang’s exceptional-scientist visa was revoked and the deportation process began, according to Luibrand.

"The problem is that the arrest began a sequence of events that destroyed a good portion of his life," Luibrand told The Enterprise. "He was working on his fourth major project when he was arrested."

Wang worked at Health Research Incorporated, a non-profit organization contracted under the New York State Department of Health. During his trial, Wang’s employers described him as a superb employee, but said he was fired for misusing his office computer. A sports website, ESPN.com, and defense contractor websites were among those found on Wang’s computer, they said, but Wang denies those allegations.

"That is totally wrong. Is G.E. a defense contractor" Was I going to buy a microwave"" asked Wang.

Luibrand told The Enterprise earlier that an HRI representative indicated Wang was fired because the charges against him could affect its grant money, and not for visiting inappropriate websites.

"I’m not the kind of person who sits there on the Internet," said Wang. "I work hard."

Wang said that he bought the aviation-testing equipment here in America because the same technology is much less expensive here than in China.

"You can buy it in China, but the businesses act as a middleman over there, and they sell it at a marked-up price. It’s much cheaper to buy it here," Wang said. "It’s almost 50-percent more expensive in China, so, of course, you want to buy it here.

"People don’t understand the technology involved"They see technology and think it can be used for anything," Wang told The Enterprise. "I asked a salesperson whether they were illegal or not, I was very careful."

Crossbow, which manufactures the device, does not describe any munitions-grade use of the technology and sells it as an "off-the-shelf," commercial-grade item.

Wang said he and his lawyer learned during the discovery phase of his indictment proceedings that, over a year ago, a bank investigator said a lot of money was being sent to Wang from China and that he used his credit card to make purchases, so they thought it was a credit card fraud.

Wang sent the Crossbow Attitude & Heading Reference Systems to his brother, a Chinese businessman in Beijing.

"My brother said, ‘I would never get you in trouble,’" said Wang. "He only asked for things that were also made in China."

The arrest

Wang was taken into custody at his home on March 17, charged with "conspiring to defraud the United States."

"I heard a loud banging at the front door"My wife went downstairs first, and then people rushed into my bedroom," said Wang. "They pointed a gun at me and told me to turn around"I was in my underwear."

Wang said he wasn’t allowed to get dressed for several hours as he recalled the cold and drafty night.

"They didn’t even allow him to put on his pajamas," said Yu Zhao.

When Wang asked the federal agents why he was being arrested, he said, they responded, by saying, "We’ll let you know later."

Eventually agents told Wang the charge, but not much else.

"They just read me the charge, that’s all. They wouldn’t give me any details," Wang said.

During the confusion of the following hours, Wang said he thought of his seven-month-old daughter who was frightened by the commotion and scores of officers coming and going.

"A lot of the special agents were playing with her," said Wang, who was being held in another part of the house at the time.

Several federal agents remained at their home for more than two hours after Wang was taken away, according to Yu Zhao.

Detention or deportation"

Wang was then transported to Montgomery County’s jail.

"The first day, it was a Friday, I was sent to the Montgomery County jail. I was only allowed out one hour a day," said Wang.

Isolated from everyone else, Wang was arrested on St. Patrick’s Day and was not able to see a judge until the following Monday. He was in a small cell with one bed, a chair, no books or personal effects, and the clothes that the jail provided.

"I didn’t even have a pillow. I had a toothbrush and a bar of soap," said Wang.

He was sent to Albany County’s jail next.

"I was sent to Albany County jail. It was a messed up place," said Wang. "You can tell a lot about a jail from the C.O.’s"They looked tough," he said of the jail’s correctional officers.

By the time he was in Albany County’s custody, Wang had made headlines.

"It was not a nice place at Albany County"People pointed fingers at me and said, ‘Hey, that’s the missile guy,’" said Wang.

"You didn’t have any kind of privacy," he said, and then added, "I didn’t have anything to read; I love to read."

One inmate was kind enough to give him a magazine, Wang said.

"I usually read very fast, but I just wanted to keep my mind from thinking about everything that was happening. I read everything, and slowly — even the advertisements," Wang told The Enterprise.

"One Friday, the C.O. called my name and told me I was going home," said Wang. "I was so happy to be going home to see my family and to see my baby"but then an immigration officer came and picked me up."

Wang was then brought over to Albany’s Immigration Customs and Enforcement office and questioned for 20 minutes. At the end of the questioning, Wang was told of his fate.

"You’re in Immigration’s custody now. You’re going to Buffalo," Wang said he was told.

Thinking he would be bonded because six friends, whom Wang described as "very honorable people," put up four properties as collateral for his release, Wang asked Immigration’s officials if he would receive bail.

"I asked if the judge would give me bail and they told me ‘Probably not.’"I was really scared about what was going to happen to me. What would happen to my family"" Wang said.

Wang was then sent to Rensselaer County’s jail, where he said he was once again confined to a single cell for 23 hours a day and did not have a shower during his four days there. Wang then went back to Montgomery County’s jail for a week before heading to his final destination: the Batavia Federal Detention Center, near Buffalo.

"Then one day, they came and said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ And I was taken to Buffalo," said Wang.

Wang described the vehicle that transported him from Albany as a "UPS-type cargo van," with six people squeezed into the back of the van.

"We sat there in handcuffs; there was vomit on the floor, and it was a four-hour trip," said Wang. "I was praying to get there and get out. It was horrible inside of that van.

"After we got there, we had to wait for another four hours," Wang said. "Finally around eight, one guy said, ‘We’re so hungry! Give us some food,’ and they gave us some food to eat.

With a far-off look in his eyes, Wang then proceeded to describe his experience at the federal detention center to The Enterprise.

"They strip-searched us. It was very humiliating," he said. "After they processed us"I went to a place with 60 people. We had to share eight showers and four toilets"The majority of them were waiting to be deported, but some of them were in the federal criminal system."

Yu Zhao drove to Buffalo to pick up her husband once the magistrate made a ruling that Wang was not a risk to the community; after he was bonded for $250,000, he was placed under home confinement.

"They said in court my wife helped me with the transactions," said Wang. "We were concerned when she came to pick me up"I only had 10 dollars in my pocket, I couldn’t even buy a bus ticket"but she took a risk for me."

"When I first saw Jun, I had never saw him like that before," said Yu Zhao, while fighting back tears. "He didn’t shave, his hair was mess, and he lost a lot of weight."

No place like home

Finally home with his wife and his baby, Wang is now faced with the reality of the situation — no job and possible deportation.

"My mood is up and down. Sometimes I say, ‘Why did this happen"’ Then I look at my baby and say, ‘Wow! At least I have her in my life,’" Wang said. "She’s such a happy baby, but she doesn’t know what her parents are facing.

"When we first bought this house, we were so happy. My wife was pregnant"Everything was going so good for us, and then, out of the blue"I’m facing potential deportation," said Wang. "I would like to believe that the government made an honest mistake; one little mistake ruined my life"The federal prosecutor should be the person who’s embarrassed.

"I think the government was so convinced that we did something illegal"Everything I said had a malicious intent in their mind"They always try to demonize the defendant," said Wang.

"When I was first in jail, the one thing that kept me motivated was to see my baby grow up and be happy," he said, continuing, "I would do anything to make sure she has a good life, to make sure she doesn’t suffer what we did"I want to stay here and have a good life here"I like this location.

"Nobody ever hated me, and I don’t hate anybody"I’m a very laid back person; I keep a low profile. People liked me at work," Wang said. "I’m the kind of person who doesn’t ask for a lot. I think I get that from my mom."

Wanting work

Luibrand said that HRI fired Wang prematurely without waiting to see the validity of the charges. Yu Zhao was suspended with pay from her accounting firm in Albany, and is expected to return to work next week. The Civil Service Employees Association, to which Wang pays monthly dues, has become involved in the matter.

"CSEA filed a grievance on our request," said Luibrand. However, when asked how long it could take for a grievance action to take effect, Luibrand responded, "Many, many months. — an unpredictable amount of months."

During this time, Luibrand said, Wang has no income and he has payments on the Guilderland he bought last year and has a newborn child to care for.

"I was hoping to get my job back"I don’t know what’s going on with my company; I don’t understand," said Wang. "I haven’t gotten any calls from my workplace or my friends"I don’t know if they’re under orders," he said, surmising his co-workers may have been told not to talk with him.

Luibrand told The Enterprise, "As his case moved forward, his employer asked that we not have contact with the employees, so now we are working with CSEA."

"It’s just so unfair! Jun has spent 13 years in his field, making little money and doing a lot of work" said Yu Zhao. "Jun has a Ph.D., there are people with master’s or bachelor’s degrees who make a lot more money than he does. He loves what he does."

Yu Zhao said her husband was looking at getting a promotion and commanding a better salary right before the indictments occurred.

When asked how he reacted once he found out he was being fired during the court proceedings, Wang said, "I was very surprised. I was shocked!"

He went on, "I figured they were under a lot of pressure from the prosecutor"He told me they could lose their grant money. The money’s very tight, so they got scared.

"My boss has got two grants. Not to brag, but my contribution was great; no one can refute that"Now they are trying to protect their money by firing me," said Wang. "I helped them get the money and then they fired me. It’s not fair.

"I’m a good scientist, there’s no doubt about that"They cannot take that away from me," said Wang.

The exceptional scientist working visa, which Wang had, is extremely hard to acquire in the United States, requiring multiple recommendations from around the world.

"That’s a very tough category, you have to have international recognition," said Wang. "I’m the most productive member in my lab. I’m very efficient at what I do"I can still do so much at work. I think I’m at the peak of my creativity at the research lab."

The Wangs still have not received the property seized by the federal government — including their computer, Jun Wang’s driver’s license and passport, and various other items. The couple received a May 2 letter, stating that their property will "eventually" be returned.

When asked, Luibrand told The Enterprise, the case was "not even close to being over with," and that he would help Wang "to the end," piece his life back together here in the United States.

"Life is so fickle, anything can happen," said Wang. "I treasure every day."

Coming to America
"I thought, ‘Wow! This place is so friendly and nice"

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Piecing his life back together after false federal allegations, Jun Wang told The Enterprise last week why he came to America in the first place and why he plans on staying.

Wang, a microbiologist, born in Beijing, is not the only scientist in his family. Both of Wang’s parents are also microbiologists and they came to the United States in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan was President. They worked on the West Coast and then returned to China.

"They came here and told me great things about this country in the early ’80’s," said Wang.

Wang and his wife, Yu Zhao, met in Beijing.

"She worked with my brother’s friend," said Wang.

"We met when he came back to China to visit," said Yu Zhao.

His brother owns factories in Beijing, says Wang, adding that the only way to make money in China is through business. "My brother has his own business; he’s a businessman," Wang said.

Wang completed his undergraduate studies at the Peking University in Beijing before going to the University of Illinois to pursue a master’s degree and doctoral degree in microbiology.

"I came to this country with $30 in my pocket," said Wang, who managed to enter into a fellowship program in Illinois. "Without the fellowship, I couldn’t get a visa here."

Applying for permanent residency in 2001, Wang was in the final steps of becoming an American. As part of his fellowship, Wang taught undergraduate courses for a year at the University of Illinois.

"It was cool; I got to learn a lot of things," Wang said about his experience there. "I came here as a young man of 23 with my eyes wide open."

When Wang first came to the United States and arrived at his first American college campus, the University of Illinois, he said he instantly fell in love with the place. Remembering his first college experience in the States, Wang recalled walking around a giant campus and not knowing where he was going. With a little help from some friendly Americans, Wang was given a map and sent in the right direction.

"I thought, ‘Wow! This place is so friendly and nice,’" said Wang.

The first American meal that Wang ate was a hamburger.

"I ate at Burger King," said Wang. "I couldn’t even finish one Whopper. Now I can finish two"I love cheeseburgers."

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Wang enjoys sights like the green river in Chicago and a pint or two of green beer, just like most other Americans. This year, however, Wang was being detained by federal agents on March 17, and as he sat in his cell, alone with his thoughts, the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were a distant memory.

Wang has not been to his native land in six or seven years, he said. Discussing his home-city of Beijing, Wang said it is a very large city that is geographically smaller than New York City, but has a denser population. "It’s like downtown Manhattan with the very tall buildings everywhere.

"With the Olympics coming in 2008, there is a lot of building going on in Beijing right now. It’s modernizing very quickly," said Wang. "I wouldn’t be able to find my way home by myself if I tried."

Wang and his wife, Yu Zhao, have a seven-month-old daughter and will be celebrating their seventh-year anniversary on June 8.

"We’ve been married for almost seven years. See, I remember what day it was," Wang teased his wife, who responded with a grin, "You’d better!"

On a more somber note, Yu Zhao told The Enterprise she was upset about the possibility of being deported, saying, "We just got settled down with our house, and our baby."

Guilty plea
Coffey admits to raping two women

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Robert Coffey has admitted to raping two Guilderland women. He made the plea on Tuesday in Albany County Court, and he is now facing 25 years in prison.

Coffey, 28, who lived on 33 Church Rd. in Guilderland pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree rape, stemming from two January indictments. He is scheduled to appear before Judge Steven W. Herrick at the Albany County courthouse on July 18, for sentencing. Coffey’s attorney, Kent Sprotbery, said the sentencing may be moved up to July 20.

Coffey was originally arrested for binding the wrists of a 14-year-old female inside of his Church Road trailer and forcibly raping her. The second charge was made after a 19-year-old woman came forward, saying Coffey had raped her and left her along the side of Western Avenue. She saw his mug shot on television from the first rape charge.

Sprotbery had maintained his client’s innocence from the time of the indictment. But then, he told The Enterprise Tuesday, "There were a number of changes in the evidentiary layout"Rob decided that he would go with the plea deal."

Coffey was originally facing a minimum of 25 years for each rape charge, to which he had pleaded not guilty during his indictment hearings.

Sprotbery said that Coffey and his family looked at everything involving the case and decided that they "needed to be done with the thing."

"It spares him, it spares his family, and it spares the victims from enduring a dragged-out trial," Sprotbery said on Tuesday.

District Attorney David Soares’s spokeswoman, Rachel McEneny, told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the Guilderland Police Department was instrumental with making the first arrest and getting a conviction.

"The Guilderland Police were able to get DNA evidence off of the wrist bindings from the first victim," said McEneny. "In this age of CSI television, jurors really look to DNA evidence."

Coffey had worked as a bouncer at the dance club Sneaky Pete’s in Albany, McEneny said. In September of 2005, he lured his 14-year-old neighbor into his trailer, "by asking her to feed his iguana," said McEneny. He drugged his second victim, drove her to an undisclosed location, then raped her in his car, and left her on the side of Western Avenue, McEneny said.

"We were able to achieve this tough sentence as a direct result of the forensic work-up by the Guilderland Police and the courage of this young woman coming forward," Soares said in a statement. "It was our hope that the victims and their families can begin to heal and restore some semblance of a normal life. Coffey will be incarcerated for a very long time; he is now a danger off our streets and out of our neighborhoods."

Rebecca Bauscher, the assistant district attorney for the Special Victims Unit in Albany County, also commended the Guilderland Police for their meticulous forensic work while handling the case.

"This is a clear message that this is happening in Guilderland and Altamont, not just in the city of Albany, in places like Arbor Hill," said McEneny of the rapes. "This office has doubled its staff in the Special Victims Unit because of the increased numbers of complaints; more people are coming forward."

Bank manager arrested

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — A Key Bank manager was arrested on May 4 for stealing $20,000 from the bank’s vault while she was working.

Marcy C. Hyman, 46, of 1088 Broadway, Albany, was arrested on May 4 for third-degree grand larceny, a felony.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation handled the case and discussed it with the Albany County District Attorney’s office, before handing it over to the Guilderland Police Department, and the arrest was made with the help of two FBI special agents, according to the arrest report.

Hyman went before Judge Denise Randall at Guilderland Town Court and received $10,000 bail, as recommended by the Albany County District Attorney, the report says.

Parent rallies for AP computer course

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The mother of a Guilderland High School sophomore is disappointed her son won’t be able to take an Advanced Placement class in computer programming next year.

"He loved the computer programming class that he was taking this year and decided that he wanted to follow that path into college and possibly as a career," writes Thea Reed in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.

The high school offers dozens of college-level Advanced Placement and Syracuse University Project Advance courses.

"Would I like to offer the course"" Superintendent Gregory Aidala asked himself, answering, "Yes, but it needs to be cost-effective. There should 10 or more students in the class; 20 would be better."

Aidala told The Enterprise, "We would like to be all things to all people, but sometimes you can’t be."

As part of the budget-building process, he explained, the district gets projections for different course enrollments in the upcoming year.

"In late January, seven students were signed up," he said, for Advanced Placement Computer Programming.

The College Board offers 35 AP courses and exams across 20 subject areas, allowing high-school students to qualify for credits at many colleges and universities.

Aidala described the AP computer-programming course as a "singleton," meaning it is only offered once during the day, unlike courses, such as United States History, that are offered in many sections.

Because the course is a singleton, he said, although seven students had expressed interest, perhaps only five would actually be able to fit it into their schedules.

The high school offers Computer Programming 1 and Computer Programming 2 — each semester courses, Aidala said. "The next step is AP."We have offered AP Computer Programming before. This may be something we would offer every other year."

If this were the case, Reed’s son might be accommodated in his senior year, Aidala said. "My hope is we’ll offer it next year if the numbers are higher."

In the meantime, Aidala said, Reed’s son could meet with his guidance counselor and discuss other options such as taking a Principles of Engineering course being offered next year.

Reed says that other options "were not at all equivalent nor acceptable."

In her letter, Reed also writes, "With Tech Valley in our own backyard and Albany Nanotech at the University at Albany just a few miles away, we should be capitalizing on these resources."

Aidala said that Guilderland hopes to establish a relationship with the University at Albany, but the university’s president has had to cancel several scheduled meetings with Guilderland representatives.

"In general," Aidala said, "when we’re not able to offer a course, we’re willing to look at options at UAlbany or Union College."

He also said, "There’s been a great deal of discussion about Tech Valley High School." That is slated to open for the 2007-08 school year, Aidala said, and the district would pay a fee to BOCES (Board Of Cooperative Educational Services) for Guilderland students interested in technology to attend.

Asked what it would take to get the AP Computer Programming course re-instated for next year, Aidala said that the recently passed $79 million budget has an unassigned teaching position; the course would take two-tenths of a position.

"If we had 10 or more students, we’d give it serious consideration," he said, adding, "We’re sensitive to costs."

Aidala thinks it is unlikely, though, that there would be a sudden groundswell of interest in the course. Referring to the high school’s math and science supervisor, he said, "I asked Mike Piscitelli to see if he could drum up more business and work with the guidance counselors"to try to raise students’ awareness, to take the course."

Reed ends her letter with a challenge: "I strongly urge the community and the administration to make whatever accommodations necessary to re-instate this course. As a forward-thinking school district, we should be aggressively marketing technology courses, not just making a feeble attempt to look like we are technologically savvy."

Young poets move crowd at Farnsworth to laughter, tears

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — They spoke words of joy and of love. They spoke words of fear and of sorrow. They spoke words of hope — of today and of tomorrow.

Young poets and poetry lovers stepped to the microphone, one by one, last Thursday night. Some held books of published poems. Others held papers with their own words.

The crowd at Farnsworth Middle School was hushed during much of the poetry jam. People listened, really listened. Sometimes they laughed. Occasionally, they cheered. Always, at the end of each poem, they snapped their fingers, the staccato sound rippling across the hall, to show their approval.

Their guide was Charles R. Smith Jr. — a tall black man with a gentle manner. A photographer and poet, he has published a half-dozen children’s books. Last week, he taught classes at Farnsworth.

Thursday night, Smith urged the young poets to make the microphone their own. He demonstrated — clowning to look like Elvis Presley at the mic — and then performed one of his own poems to a pin-drop quiet room.

"The role of a poet, throughout history," said Smith, "is a storyteller." Poets, he said, relate "words that connect to you in an emotional way."

During the intermission, he was swamped with kids clustering about him like groupies around a rock star.

Lynne Wells, the supervisor for language arts, social studies and reading at Farnsworth, said the school has hosted poetry jams for five or six years now. "It grows every year," she told The Enterprise.

"It’s a great way for kids to express themselves," she went on. "They obviously feel comfortable, but they’re taking a risk in reading to peers and adults they know, and ones they don’t know."

Mary Jeanne Dicker, the school librarian who helped organize the event, said, "When we started, we called it a coffee house, but we decided that sounded old-fashioned, so now it’s a poetry jam."

She described herself as a "poetry appreciator" and said, "Sporting events happen all the time. It’s important to have something like this, for kids to get recognized in a different arena."

The kids read poems written by Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou, a lot by Shel Silverstein, and also by Smith himself.

Some read in pairs, or even trios; most read alone. They moved from chair to chair, waiting their turn at the microphone; the last chair was an overstuffed easy chair.

Cameron Dobbs handled the mic with aplomb and commanded the audience with his words.

Wearing an oversized team jersey and a cocked baseball cap, Dobbs stood confidently before the microphone and read with a rapid-fire cadence that sounded like rap music: "B’ball is my game...My game is tight; my nickname is ‘Flight’...."

Dobbs, who is 11 years old and in the sixth grade, said he has been writing since second grade.

"I love to write, to express myself," he told The Enterprise during intermission.

He had never read at a jam before, he said, but he liked it. His mother was surprised and proud to hear his poetry.

How does he set about writing his poems" "It just comes," said Dobbs, with a shrug and a smile.

Sarah Khaliai perched delicately on a stool in front of the microphone and read a poem dedicated to her mother.

"Some people think the sun is beautiful...To me, a mother is the most beautiful thing in the world...It matters how beautiful she is on the inside," recited Khaliai.

Her poem went on to describe different kinds of mothers — from those that looked like supermodels to those hidden behind burkas.

"When I was small, my mother took my hand to teach me how to walk," said Khaliai. "Now she takes my hand and teaches me how to love."

Asked afterwards what inspired her to write the poem, Khaliai said, "I thought Afghan women were so beautiful but nobody got to see their beauty."

Khaliai said she started writing when she was seven. "At first, I didn’t think I had talent for writing," she said. "One day, my teacher told me I was a good writer."

From that day on, she worked at her writing.

What inspires her" "I love that I can get my feelings out and share them with people," she said. "My poetry revolves around my life."

Khaliai said she writes "really often" and is working on a book about Afghanistan, the country where her parents grew up.

Her "number-one goal," when she is older, Khaliai said, is to be a journalist; she would like to report for CNN.

Her mother, Nila Khaliai, said she is proud of her daughter and her writing. On hearing her daughter’s poem, she said, "She makes me cry. She writes with such emotion."

Another prize-winning documentary
Gerety, Rho, and Wells return to nationals

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — For the second year in a row, the same trio of Farnsworth Middle School students — Casey Gerety, Sohee Rho, and Katie Wells — have produced a documentary that won first place in the New York State History Day competition and will now go on to compete nationally.

While they were in Washington, D.C. last year with their documentary, WRGB: Broadcasting Pioneer, they toured the nation’s capitol.

There they saw and photographed an inscription which begins their prize-winning documentary this year. It is a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr.

The film, says their advisor, Farnsworth enrichment teacher Deb Escobar, is much stronger than last year’s. It focuses on the civil rights struggle in 1963 and is called, The March on Washington: Standing Up for Freedom.

Escobar said the girls’ film won easily at the state level

"The information they dug out was amazing," said Escobar, adding, "I get goose bumps when I see it."

She describes the riveting start of the 10-minute film. It begins with pictures of violence — people sprayed with hoses, beaten with billy clubs — interspersed with a thud sound.

"Each image is a second and a half; they go boom! boom! boom! Then it fades into the Martin Luther King quote — without justice for all there is justice for no one — white letters on a black ground."

Love of learning

The three documentarians — Gerety, Rho, and Wells — work well together and are fueled by their enthusiasm for learning.

"In the middle of the summer, they called me to meet them at the public library," said Escobar. She did; the girls were already hard at work on their research.

Eighth-graders this year, the three friends are diverse in their goals and outlooks.

"I want to go into history or law," Rho told The Enterprise last year. She said it is important for people to learn from history, from "all the mistakes that people have made."

Gerety, whose father is an endocrinologist, said she hoped to become a doctor, too.

"I like math and science," she said.

"I think I’d like to be a lawyer or a journalist," said Wells. "I like to debate with people about what’s happened."

Although the trio didn’t place in the national competition last year — their film was the last to be viewed by judges at the end of a long day — they were not discouraged, said Escobar.

"Some people look at the contest like, ‘I’m here to win and won’t do it any more if I don’t.’ Their attitude was, ‘We loved the learning.’ They’re really dedicated to the learning."

The students will compete this year June 11 to 15 in College Park, Maryland.

"Too gory"

For this year’s documentary, the girls interviewed local people who had marched in 1963. Two of them were Presbyterian ministers, both white. "An African American was in the car with them; they experienced prejudice even on the way down," said Escobar.

A third interview is with Leon VanDyke, an African American who marched.

A pivotal moment in their research came, Escobar said, when they viewed an FBI microfilm on Asa Philip Randolph, who organized the march.

"They found a letter Randolph had written to [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, asking for help. He had been sent a severed black hand in the mail. The girls were shocked," said Escobar. "They had seen pictures of dogs attacking. They had heard about lynching. It didn’t strike them personally until they saw that letter," she said. "They didn’t include it in the video itself; it was too gory."

The film ends with a quotation from Randolph, which Escobar paraphrased — You have to continue to fight for justice because it’s never easily won.

Through the eyes of a Guilderland student
Understanding where Ghandi came from and what shaped him before he shaped the world

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Most Americans, when they think of Mohandas Gandhi, probably see an old man, bespectacled, with a balding head and graying hair at the temples. He is seen as an icon — a man who used civil disobedience to free India from British rule, a man who lived a simple life and taught the power of love.

Zagreb Mukerjee knows Gandhi better than most of the rest of us.

The freshman at Guilderland High School has read Gandhi’s writings, visited the Gandhi Museum in New Delhi and interviewed its director, and even has spoken with Gandhi’s granddaughter.

He has distilled his knowledge, focusing with great clarity on a lesser-known part of Gandhi’s life — his years in South Africa where he defended the rights of the Indian minority and developed the idea of satyagraha, or peaceful defiance of the government.

"Great people are not born," writes Mukerjee. "Instead, they are molded by the experiences of their lives."

His paper, "Taking a Stand is at the End of a Long Path: Gandhi’s Struggle in South Africa," pictures Gandhi as a young man, describing the influences that eventually created an icon.

The paper has earned Mukerjee first place in the senior category at the New York State History Day finals; he’ll now go on to the National History Day competition in College Park, Maryland in June.

Mukerjee at 14 is described by Deb Escobar, the enrichment teacher who has guided him on projects since his days at Farnsworth Middle School, as "serene."

"He is very modest about his own ability," she said.

Mukerjee likes to play classical music on his violin, he said, because it’s soothing, and he also likes to learn. He is a good student who is hard-pressed to name a favorite subject; he likes them all.

His mother, Rita Biswas, wrote a letter last year to Advocacy for Gifted and Talented Education, nominating Escobar for Educator of the Year, an award which she won. In nominating Escobar, Biswas wrote that she brings out the best in every student.

Biswas wrote how her son was not challenged in the classroom. "We had tried a parochial school, a private school, the public-school system, and even an international school," wrote Biswas. "By fifth grade, we gave up"Sixth grade and Mrs. Escobar radically changed all that. Under Mrs. Escobar’s tutelage, we feel our son was finally challenged to his full potential and beyond and his enthusiasm for school returned."

Mukerjee himself wrote the award committee, "The moment Mrs. Escobar first taught me, I felt she inspired me, that she guided me without steering me, and taught me without teaching her way as the only way. I could see that the experience was not unique to me, or even to my class. Almost every student that she teaches feels that same feeling of inspiration."

Biswas, who teaches international finance at the University of Albany, said, "We have a global commuter marriage." Her husband, Amitabha Mukerjee, a computer scientist, lives and works in India, commuting whenever he can to the yellow Colonial-style house in Guilderland where Biswas and their two sons live.

Summers, they travel to India and visit relatives, Mukerjee said. On his visit last summer, he said, a "powerful exhibit" that he saw in New Delhi made him decide to write about "the Mahatma’s work in South Africa."

"Mahatma," he explains means "great soul." And the exhibit, in keeping with Gandhi’s ideology, was very simple and would not seem out of place in a rural Indian village.

In a bibliography in which Mukerjee describes and analyzes 20 primary and 10 secondary sources for his paper, he writes, "A large bamboo and straw hut-like construction houses the exhibit...The walls of the entire building are lined with hundreds of pictures, each with a detailed caption that tells about the events within....Included here are pictures of the Mahatma’s time in South Africa and his works there.

"Scattered throughout the rooms are a handful of artifacts, relics of the great man’s life, including a cot upon which he stood and gave a speech during the Dandi March Satyagraha, the military ambulance that transported Gandhi to a hospital after he was shot by an extremist Hindu, and a replica of the jail cell of Mahatma Gandhi during one of the many times he was imprisoned for standing up to the British rulers of his mother country."

Listed in the bibliography, too, is Tara Bhattacharjee Gandhi, the Mahatma’s granddaughter, whom Mukerjee interviewed for about an hour and a half, he said. This gave him insight "into the Mahatma’s legacy on earth," he writes, and provided "valuable information about how Gandhi is still relevant today."

"Mrs. Gandhi also told me a lot about the way Gandhi interacted with those about him, a personal view that no book or photograph could duplicate," he writes. "She also gave me many insights on the sources of the Mahatma’s nonviolent ideals, especially his mother and the depth of his religious faith."

Gandhi’s granddaughter, Mukerjee said, "has made it her life’s work to keep the memory of Gandhi alive....She wants all of his work known, not just the fight for independence...He was a great advocate for the equality of women and the lower classes of society."

"Bit of both"

Mukerjee has written papers for the History Day competition before, beginning in sixth grade. Last year, he wrote on the role of the Presidential debates in the elections; the year before, he wrote on African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

This year’s contest theme was "Standing Up In History," and his visit to India provided an opportunity to speak to a lot of people who knew Gandhi or who make it their life’s work to study him.

Although Mukerjee speaks Bengali, the interviews were conducted in English. "A lot of the scholars speak English," he said. "The English created an elite, and the upper classes all emulate the Westerners."

Asked if he considers himself more of a Westerner or an Indian, Mukerjee responded, "I think I’m a little bit of both."

He hasn’t had any difficulties in straddling two worlds, he said. "Sometimes, there will be a conflict in tradition," he said. "I’m not sure who I’ll get married to."

While that may seem a long way off to most 14-year-olds, Gandhi, it turns out, was married at 13. In his meticulously detailed footnotes, Mukerjee writes, "Gandhi, in his autobiography, wrote about other youngsters and said he ‘congratulated them on escaping [his] lot’ by not having married earlier."

Birth of the Mahatma

Mukerjee’s paper opens with a succinct description of how Gandhi has influenced our world — from inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. "who changed the life of minorities in America forever," to inspiring Aung San Suu Kyi, now under house arrest for speaking out against the military regime in Burma.

Mukerjee then goes on to describe Gandhi’s early life, as the child of parents of the Bania caste — his father was the chief minister of Porbander; his mother was "exceptionally devout."

"His mother had a deep religious faith in Hinduism and she really passed that onto him," said Mukerjee.

"Gandhi’s childhood was not remarkable," writes Mukerjee. "He was not exceptionally intelligent, nor was he a favorite of his teachers. Notably, he prided himself on his integrity and claimed never to have lied to a classmate or teacher."

After studying law in England, Gandhi returned to India to work as a legal clerk in Rajkot, before accepting a contract to go to Durban, South Africa.

"He spent 21 years in South Africa," said Mukerjee, "fighting for the rights of the Indians who had migrated there for work and weren’t well treated. That is where his message came from for freeing India."

After slavery was abolished in the British Empire, so-called "coolies" were brought in from India by the white plantation owners in Africa. "Racism was not only rampant, but accepted by both perpetrators and victims, and was ignored by the government," writes Mukerjee.

This period is the focus of Mukerjee’s paper

"There was not just one influence, but all the small influences that made him who he was," said Mukerjee.

He gives an example: "He was ordered to take off his turban, and when he refused, he was thrown out of court."

Mukerjee explained, "The turban symbolized he was an Indian. They wanted to make him a European and he didn’t want to be."

Mukerjee then gives a second example, building on the first. Gandhi was traveling to Pretoria to represent a local merchant, who bought him a first-class train ticket. When a passenger objected to traveling with a "coloured man," Gandhi was ordered to the van compartment.

When he protested that he had a first-class ticket, and refused to go to the van compartment, he was forced to the station platform by a policeman.

As Gandhi spent a cold winter night on the train platform, Mukerjee writes, "He wondered about the wisdom of his staying any longer in South Africa, if things such as this could happen. He ruminated, ‘The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial — only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease, and suffer hardships in the process...so I decided to take the next available train to Pretoria.’"

Gandhi called a meeting of local Indians in Pretoria and a group was proposed to advocate the rights of Indians.

"This was the beginning of the Mahatma," writes Mukerjee, "and at the same time, the beginning of the end of Mohandas, the shy young man that went to England to study law — the cause for which he spoke overrode his timidity. But the Mahatma was not yet fully born...."

Gandhi talked the wealthy merchant who had hired him into settling out of court, using an arbitrator. Rather than trying a case that pitted two of the most influential Indian merchants in South Africa against each other, Gandhi set a precedent for arbitration — "neither judging nor condemning, but rather, trying to achieve an equitable compromise," writes Mukerjee.

With the case happily settled, Gandhi was set to return to India. In the midst of his farewell party, he read a newspaper article on a proposal to deprive Indians of their right to elect leaders. Quoting from Gandhi’s biography, Mukerjee writes that, instantly, the farewell party was turned into a working committee.

"He lost all shyness in the pursuit of equality and right"," writes Mukerjee. "The true Mahatma came into being."

Love of learning

"A lot of people think he didn’t fight," said Mukerjee. "He did fight; he fought nonviolently. It started with small things, like not taking off his turban, and it grew."

Eventually, he said, Gandhi rallied Indian laborers not to pay a required tax. "A lot of them ended up in jail. Eventually, the tax was repealed," said Mukerjee.

Through his research, he said, "I’ve definitely gained a new respect for Gandhi and his ideals.

Asked why people should read his paper, Mukerjee answered, "I think there are better works out there. People should read books written by the Mahatma himself."

He went on, "A lot of Indians and people in my generation don’t seem to study Gandhi. They don’t grasp him."

Mukerjee looks forward to discussing the Mahatma with the judges in the national History Day competition. He anticipates being interviewed by a panel as he was at the state level.

Asked if he hoped to win, Mukerjee answered quickly and quietly, "No, no, no"I’m just glad to be going. It’s good to meet other people with similar minds. It’s not hostile. I always like talking to others and learning."

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