Indian snowshoers get ‘rock star’ welcome
SARANAC LAKE — The smiles never seemed to leave the faces of Abid Khan and Tanveer Hussain as they toured around the village Friday.
The two men from Kashmir, India, spent the day checking out the World Snowshoe Championships course at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center, meeting with local school kids and participating in the event’s opening ceremonies. As they walked through town, complete strangers came up to them to shake their hands and take selfies with them.
“It’s amazing to be here among the people of Saranac (Lake),” Khan said. “Everyone is welcoming us with open heart, hugging us, offering us something. It is amazing.”
Three weeks ago, Khan and Hussain thought their chances of coming here for the Snowshoe Championships had been dashed. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi denied their visa applications, reportedly thinking they might not return home due to a lack of “strong ties” to their home country.
Flabbergasted, village Mayor Clyde Rabideau reached out for help from New York’s U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who contacted the embassy in New Delhi. Khan and Hussain’s plight drew media attention both here and in their home country.
Not long after that, the men were told they could resubmit their visa applications. They traveled again to New Delhi for what Khan said was a long interview with an embassy official.
“At the end of the interview he said, ‘Mubarak, mubarak,'” Khan said. “Mubarak is congratulations. ‘You have got the visa.’ It was unbelievable.”
“It was made possible by the people of Saranac Lake. The Mayor Clyde Rabideau, (race director) Jim Tucker, the media here, the media back home — everyone supported us. It’s because of their efforts, their love, that we’re here.”
Khan and Hussain picked up their visas at the embassy on Wednesday, then boarded a plane and flew to Newark, New Jersey. From there, they flew to Burlington, Vermont. After about 24 hours of nearly continuous travel, they arrived in Saranac Lake Thursday morning, chauffeured here by Porcupine Inn owner Fred Mazzeo, who’s giving them complimentary lodging.
That’s not the only generosity Khan and Hussain are seeing from the community. Some restaurants have offered them free meals. Rabideau started a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $1,600 in seven days to cover some of their travel expenses.
“First, thank you,” Khan said. “We never told them to do that, but they did it out of their own will. We were shocked. Why so? They don’t know us. But the people, they are like this here. It’s about humanity, about sports, not hate. Sports teach us about community exchange, cultural exchange. It’s for that they did it, and we have no words to express our thanks for that.”
Khan and Hussain visited Friday with a group of Saranac Lake Middle School students who came to their aid by writing letters to Gillibrand and Schumer. It was essentially a seventh-grade class project, according to social studies teacher Amy Jones.
The visa denial happened around the same time President Donald Trump issued an order barring travel into the U.S. from seven countries. India was not one of them, but many local people associated the two developments.
“When the visas were denied, it brought so many things so close to home,” Jones said. “We came in and talked to a small group of kids. I said, ‘This is bothering me. Is it bothering anyone else?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ Then it just kind of blossomed into getting ELA (English language arts) and social studies classes together, taking ideas, writing them down and editing a letter we could send out to the senators. The lesson we wanted them to learn was that their voices do matter and their government needs to work for them.”
In a question-and-answer session moderated by Rabideau, the students asked Khan and Hussain about the kinds of snowshoes they use for racing, how long they’ve been snowshoeing and what life is like where they live. Khan did most of the talking as Hussain doesn’t speak much English.
“Kashmir, it’s pretty (much) like this,” Khan told the students. “Hospitality-wise, we are like the people of Saranac (Lake), and we would not have made it here without your support.”
The kids then watched a series of winter recreation videos filmed in Kashmir that Khan brought with him. Khan, who’s president of the Snowshoe Federation of India, said his group and tourism officials in Kashmir want to host a big snowshoe event, possibly next year’s world championships.
“Pack your bags. Next year, you are coming to Kashmir,” he told the students, drawing applause and cheers.
“For these students, just to be able to meet the very personalities they’ve helped through their letter writing to be able to get to Saranac Lake is just awesome,” Tucker said. “How often do you write letters to politicians and wonder if anything ever is going to come of it? Now they can see the fruit of their labor right in front of them.”
Earlier Friday, Mazzeo took Khan and Hussain to Lake Placid where they got to see the Olympic Center. They visited Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake around 11 a.m., where they were reunited with a pair of friends they met at last year’s World Snowshoe Championships in Vezza d’Oglio, Italy: Bob Bolton of Paul Smith’s College and Jason Bond of Wisconsin. They exchanged hugs and talked for a while in the Dewey base lodge.
“Abid and Tanzeer were the nicest people we met out there, so when they had trouble getting here, it was very disappointing,” Bolton said. “It’s been a long struggle, but all’s well that ends well. We’re happy, and these guys deserve it. They’re going to be celebrities for a couple days, rock stars.”
After today’s races, Khan and Hussain plan to stay in Saranac Lake until March 2, when they’ll fly to New York City. They’ll spend two days in the city before returning home to Kashmir. This is their first visit to the U.S.