Hanisha Ajay Alwani follows her father’s footsteps in serving the community and the Sindhi diaspora. The cultural ambassador has been integral in creating organizations and activities that shares her culture with the wider Caribbean community in and around Sint Maarten/ Saint Martin.
Hanisha Ajay Alwani is the unofficial cultural ambassador for the Indian community living in the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. She is the driving force behind organizing community events, charitable giving and world renowned concerts. After serving the diaspora for almost three decades, Alwani is inspiring the next generation of Caribbean-Indians to carry on her legacy.
Alwani was born in Baroda, and spent her early years in Pune. Her father started working for a Sindhi company in Dubai, back in 1959 when it was not a glamourous destination. Families of oversees workers weren’t allowed to move to the UAE until a few years later. When Alwani was 12, her sisters and mother were able to join her father in Dubai, and this marked the beginning of her interest in culture and service.
As a young girl, Alwani observed how her father had adopted his new country and spearheaded community events. He often served as a trustee, founded organization, hosted charitable events, and brought in Indian artists for performances. “I always saw how involved he was with the community. He told us this place is giving you so much, so you also need to give back to it,” she recalls how her father instilled a sense of philanthropy in her.
Alwani’s father, Dr. Ram Buxani writes in his autobiography – Taking the high road, how he felt the need to give dignity to the Indian community abroad and foster understanding and cooperation between India and the UAE.
A funny incident decided Alwani’s future move. When her parents sent her to Institut Ville, a finishing school in Switzerland, she befriended a half dozen Indian girls from different countries, two of whom were from Sint Maarten. A few months later, Alwani married the brother of her girlfriends and arrived on a remote island in the Caribbean which she has not heard of before.
Caribbean islands such as Saint Martin (French side) and Sint Maarten (Dutch side) have over 25,000 Indian immigrants, majority of whom arrived 30-40 years ago to open duty-free businesses. Most of them are Sindhi merchants selling electronics, watches, gold, and diamond jewelry to cruise ship passengers and tourists.
Alwani’s family operates Shiva Jewelers, and like most members in her household, she too helped out with the family business. “But for me, it was very important to keep my cultural life,” she adds.
“When I came to Sint Maarten in 1995, the Indian community did not do much in terms of cultural events, and I missed the big celebrations that my dad organized back in Dubai,” says Alwani.
Carrying on her father’s tradition, Alwani decided to organize Cheti Chand, the lunar Hindu new year for Sindhi Hindus. “I went from door to door, talking to every business on Front Street, asking them to contribute anything they could,” she recalls. Over 300 attendees came to the free event which included a major fair, feast and social dances to celebrate the birth of Jhulelal.
Since then, Alwani has never missed an opportunity to take a leadership role to serve her adopted country. From Red Cross and Rotary Clubs to Sint Maarten AIDS Foundation, Alwani footprint is on practically every welfare and community project on the island.
Alwani heads the cultural department of the Indian Merchants Association (IMA), which comprises of all the Indian origin business people of St. Maarten. She has organized Holi celebrations, Diwali balls, invited well known Sindhi artists such as Lata Bhagtani and Anila Sunder, and integrated Indians with the local community. The island’s tourism department now emphasizes its “cultural diversity” and as hosting “one of the best Holi celebrations in the Caribbean.” In 2012, a concert for singer Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan attracted Indian attendees from all over the Caribbean.
Besides Indian culture, Alwani is also passionate about helping kids. She established the International Kids Community Service Club, through which she encouraged youth to create their own charitable giving programs. “The kids are the board members and they decide how they want to give back.” Through Sai Trishul Foundation that she and her friends established, Alwani supports schools by supplying air conditioners, laptops, water coolers, books and playgrounds. In her spare time she teaches Sindhi language and volunteers at Balvihar Sevak.
Alwani is also the first to mobilize the community after any natural disaster. She was on the forefront after Hurricane Irma struck St. Maarten/St. Martin in September 2017. She helped arrange evacuation flights, distributed food baskets, and other essential supplies as part of the recovery efforts.
“The locals in St. Maarten are not only aware of our existence, but are interested in our culture,” says Alwani. She says that the frequency and grandeur of these programs have helped create a positive image of Indian immigrants living in the Caribbean. “I know people are busy with work and home, but my hope is that the next generation will continue my work,” Alwani aspires.
Sucheta Rawal is an award-winning food and travel writer, contributing to national publications such as Travel+Leisure, HuffPost, TIME Magazine, CNN, AAA, Zagat and Fodors. Sucheta has authored 5 children’s books on travel – ‘Beato Goes To.’ She founded the Atlanta-based nonprofit ‘Go Eat Give,’ through which she encourages people to travel meaningfully.