2022 SAADA Philadelphia Fellows

With support from Independence Public Media Foundation, we are honored to partner with four fellows in the inaugural cohort of SAADA's Philadelphia Fellowship to share stories from the Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, and Malayali communities in Philadelphia.

2022 SAADA Philadelphia Fellows

Maha Rahman (she/her) is a Bangladeshi undergraduate student in the Sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. Maha was born in Dhaka and grew up in Texas where she became involved in local efforts to eliminate cash bail and enact progressive criminal justice reform. This sparked her commitment to understanding through her studies how punitive structures of the state reinforce and reproduce systemic inequality. Maha is passionate about centering and preserving the stories of communities that have been historically disenfranchised. Her project will explore the diverse experiences of Bangladesh women and femme-identifying people in Philadelphia, focusing on how gender roles and patriarchal pressure have shaped the lives of women across generations. The project aims to understand how the gender identities of South Asian women interact with other domains of identity– race, class, sexual preference, histories of immigration and assimilation–in their daily lived experience and within the different social systems they have inhabited. By collecting the narratives of those with marginalized gender identities, Maha hopes to facilitate the self-representation of a group who have been refused agency over their own stories throughout history.

Leela Kuikel (he/him) is a former refugee from Bhutan who left the country at the age of 13 in 1990. He holds a Master’s degree in Economics from University of North Bengal in India. He worked in the insurance industry for almost ten years in India before resettling in the United States, in Philadelphia. Leela is one of the founding members of the Bhutanese American Organization-Philadelphia (BAO-P), an organization that aims to help Bhutanese refugees resettled in the Philadelphia area with their initial social integration needs. He is married to Chandrakala Sharma who is an Indian National, and currently lives in the Greater Harrisburg area with his 90-year-old mother and two children.

Sherry Thomas (she/her) is Kerala born and Philadelphia grown, having grown up in the city and completing her B.A. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania and her J.D. from Temple University. She is passionate about issues of social and economic justice and currently combines both in her career as a public interest lawyer. She works at the Legal Clinic for the Disabled (LCD), where she is the Director of LCD’s Housing Initiative, which focuses on tenants rights, defense and eviction prevention. She is also a legal consultant for International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organization partnering with local justice systems to end violence against people living in poverty. In the recent past, she worked with IJM overseas as a Legal Fellow focused on anti-trafficking efforts, specifically in the area of bonded labor. Sherry grew up in the Marthoma Church in a tight knit Malayali community in Philadelphia. Her lifetime within this community informs her project, which will focus on collecting the stories of Malayali American Christians living and working in Philadelphia, over several generations. Specifically, she will explore the blueprint that the Malayali American Christian immigrant experience has followed in the past and how the blueprint has changed and stayed the same over time into the present day. Malayali Americans have contributed deeply to Philadelphia and Sherry hopes through archiving and collecting these stories, these contributions may not be forgotten and that we gain a rich understanding of what it has meant to be a Malayali American in Philadelphia over the decades.

Alyssa E. Siji (she/her) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to two immigrant parents who moved to the United States from Kerala, India fifteen years ago. She is currently a sophomore attending Central High School, hoping to pursue a career in the medical field in the future. She grew up in a very large Malayali community, and being Malayali is a significant part of her identity. Having struggled with feelings of either being “too Malayali” or “too American,” Alyssa is invested in ensuring that Malayali American children can feel like they belong in the United States. The focus of her fellowship will be on sharing the stories of children of Malayali immigrants, so that more people like her can feel seen and heard, have guidance, and not be embarrassed of their identity.

Over the course of the fellowship period (April 2022 - November 2022), these three fellows will collect stories from their communities for inclusion in SAADA. With support of a community-based advisory group, their objective is to conduct oral history interviews and identify, digitize, describe, and provide online access to new archival materials from their community. They will also write for Tides (our online magazine), develop an online exhibit for the SAADA website, and organize an event sharing these newly collected stories and materials with the public.

We look forward to sharing our work together with you in the months ahead!