AAt one point, Apache Boulevard in Tempe, Arizona, housed a plethora empty motels, abandoned storefronts and graffiti, with a growing homeless population. Crime and drug addiction were rampant. In 2002, a dilapidated building among these was purchased by an Indian who, along with his wife, had followed their daughter to Arizona after arriving there to study.
This dilapidated building is now called the India Plaza. It opened in 2003 and has a number of businesses such as gift shops, yoga studios, market, and eyebrow hair salons. It is a hub of Indian cuisine, music, culture and heritage, and its popularity is by no means limited to the Indian population.
The plaza has spurred a lot of economic development in the previously devastated area – entrepreneurs are always finding new businesses to open there, including barber shops and vintage stores. Nearby, the Tempe Community Action Agency, of which the man is a board member, provides housing and financial assistance to homeless people in the area.
The man behind this movement is Raveen Arora, 72, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for transforming Tempe, alongside his work to tackle hunger and homelessness in India and Bangladesh.
Arora was nominated among 230 others by dozens of organizations around the world.
With his appointment, Arora may come full circle, as he was once one of the people he now helps.
Meet Raveen Arora, the founder of India Plaza in Tempe. His work – both locally and in India – has led service organizations around the world to come 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 âunwanted neighborhoodâ? In some ways it reminded him of his home, he said.
Arora was born in a refugee camp in Kolkata, after her family moved there after the partition of India. âI had a very modest education. We used to live near the slums and had to add water to the milk so that there was enough for everyone. I used to stand in line with my dad at the ration booth. My mother made clothes for my siblings and me using my father’s old pajamas, âhe recalls in a conversation with Rediff. âMy dad worked odd jobs to make ends meet. “
At the age of 10, Arora met Mother Teresa when she visited their camp to talk to the children. She asked the children to give what they could to those most in need. Arora put her hand in his pocket, knowing full well that he had nothing to offer at her disposal. But it struck a chord with the nun, who ignored the embarrassment on the young boy’s face and noted, âThat’s 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 a lot on the path he would eventually take. Another contributing factor was his meeting with Martin Luther King Jr at the age of 11, during the only visit to India in 1959. Here, the two discussed inequality, something Arora knew more than well.
Arora graduated from St Xavier’s in Kolkata and moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to pursue a doctorate in white collar crime. When his daughter went to Arizona State University, he and his wife followed in 2002. This is where India Plaza was born. He began by giving out free bottled cold water to those passing through the sweltering Arizona heat, five days a week, from noon to night. He had fans installed so people could find shelter and cool off.
âPeople start a for-profit business, 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 effort is to raise the profile of the Indian community â, he said.
That a colored man turned a predominantly white area is an achievement in itself, and its small community of Indian culture is now leading the winds of change.
Today the square is also home to The Dhaba, a restaurant that serves Indian cuisine, alongside a cooking school, a place to hold concerts, shows and community service programs, convenience stores, as well as The Oasis, which serves as a refuge for the homeless, where they can cool off, get IDs and get free haircuts.
Most of these stores are run by immigrants and minorities.
From refugee to refuge
Arora’s appointment is the result of the collaboration of service organizations around the world. It has received nearly 70 endorsements from these platforms, as well as from elected leaders including former US President Jimmy Carter. The effort was led by Satish Lakhotia, founder of the International Alliance of India.
Lauren Kuby, Tempe Board Member, noted Arora was a role model for other business owners, who helped her employees in a number of ways, from helping them pay school fees or charging nominal rents. âIt’s a Tempe treasure. If every business owner was like Raven, we wouldn’t lack resources, heart and compassion.
Meanwhile, Arora, who was elated but humbled by her appointment, noted, âI am just grateful that I was able to move from being a refugee to being a refuge for others. I am touched and humbled by this appointment.
Arora also heads a non-profit organization called Think Human, which seeks to “humanize communication in social contexts, the workplace and relationships around the world.” He continues to work for this with his wife in Irving and North Texas. His future projects involve involvement with the North Texas Food Bank and other local anti-poverty platforms.
Edited by Vinayak Hegde