At one point in time, the Apache Boulevard in Tempe, Arizona, was home to a plethora of empty motels, abandoned storefronts and graffiti, with an increasing population of the homeless. Crime and drug abuse were rampant. In 2002, one rundown building among these was bought by a man from India, who, with his wife, had followed their daughter to Arizona after she arrived there to study.
This rundown building is today called the India Plaza. It opened in 2003, and has a number of businesses like gift shops, yoga studios, a market and eyebrow threading parlours. It is a hub of Indian food, music, culture and heritage, and its popularity is, in no way, just contained to the Indian population.
The plaza has spurred much economic development in the previously blighted area — entrepreneurs are always finding new ventures to open there, including barber shops and vintage stores. Alongside, the Tempe Community Action Agency, of which this man is a board member, provides housing and financial assistance to the homeless in the area.
The man behind this movement is 72-year-old Raveen Arora, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for transforming Tempe, alongside his work to tackle hunger and homelessness in India and Bangladesh.
Arora has been nominated among 230 others by dozens of organisations across the globe.
With his nomination, Arora perhaps comes full circle, because he was once among the people he is now helping.
Meet Raveen Arora, the founder of India Plaza in Tempe. His work — both locally and in India — has led service organizations from across the world to band together to recommend him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
— azcentral (@azcentral) June 28, 2021
‘Raising the profile of the Indian community’
What prompted Arora to buy the dilapidated building in an “undesirable neighbourhood”? In some ways, it reminded him of home, he said.
Arora was born in a refugee camp in Kolkata, after his family moved there after the Partition of India. “I had a very modest upbringing. We used to live near the slums and had to add water to milk to ensure there was enough for everyone. I used to stand in line with my father in the ration booth. My mother used to make clothes for my siblings and me from my dad’s old pyjamas,” he recalled in a conversation with Rediff. “My father worked menial jobs to make ends meet.”
At the age of 10, Arora met Mother Teresa when she visited their camp to speak to the children. She asked the kids to give what they could to the underprivileged. Arora put his hand in his pocket, knowing fully well that he had nothing at his disposal to offer. But this struck a chord with the nun, who overlooked the sheer embarrassment on the young boy’s face and said, “This is what I want. A willingness to help and give, not the money itself.”
Growing up, she became his mentor and teacher, from whom he learned much about the path he would eventually take. Another contributing factor was his meeting with Martin Luther King Jr at the age of 11, during the latter’s only visit to India in 1959. Here, the two chatted about inequality, something that Arora was more than well-versed with.
Arora graduated from St Xavier’s in Kolkata and moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to pursue a PhD in white collar crime. When his daughter went to study at Arizona State University, he and his wife followed in 2002. This is where India Plaza was born. He began by providing free cold water bottles to those passing by under the sweltering heat of Arizona, five days a week, from noon to evening. He had fans put up so people could find shelter and cool off.
“People start a business for profit, mine was for a purpose. It was for the people because I had worked with Mother Teresa, worked for the Tibetan and Bangladeshi refugees. I was born in a refugee camp, so my constant endeavour is to raise the profile of the Indian community,” he said.
That a man of colour transformed a predominantly white area is a feat in itself, and his little community of Indian culture is now guiding the winds of change.
Today, the plaza also has The Dhaba, a restaurant that serves Indian food, alongside a cooking school, a place to hold concerts, performances and community service programmes, convenience stores, as well as The Oasis, which serves as a safe haven for the homeless, where they can cool off, get IDs, and avail free haircuts.
Most of these stores are run by immigrants and minorities.
From refugee to refuge
Arora’s nomination was the result of the collaboration of service organisations across the world. He received nearly 70 endorsements from these platforms, as well as from elected leaders including former US president Jimmy Carter. The effort was spearheaded by Satish Lakhotia, founder of India’s Alliance International.
Lauren Kuby, Tempe councilmember, said Arora was a model for other business owners, who helped his employees in many ways — whether it was helping them pay for tuition or charging nominal rents. “He is a Tempe treasure. If every business owner was like Raveen, we would not be lacking in resources and heart and compassion.”
Meanwhile, Arora, who was thrilled yet humbled by his nomination, said, “I am simply grateful that I could go from being a refugee to being a refuge for others. I’m touched and humbled by this nomination.”
Arora also runs a nonprofit named Think Human, which seeks to “humanise communication in social settings, the workplace, and relationships around the world”. He continues working for this with his wife in Irving and North Texas. His future plans entail involvement with the North Texas Food Bank and other local anti-poverty platforms.
Edited by Vinayak Hegde