Streamwood cop one of few in suburbs who speaks Urdu

Slowly agencies meet need to know South Asian languages

  • Streamwood's Sabih Khan is among a very small number of suburban police officers who speak Urdu.

    Streamwood's Sabih Khan is among a very small number of suburban police officers who speak Urdu. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Published: 2/11/2008 12:02 AM

Back when he was a Streamwood police officer, Udaykiran "Uday" Devineni was often called on to help other police departments.

They "heard through the grapevine that Streamwood had an Indian officer and wanted me to translate," he said with a laugh.

The calls came when police needed someone who knew Urdu, the national tongue of Pakistan.

But Devineni didn't know Urdu. He knows English and Telugu, which is spoken in southern India. He wasn't able to help in those Urdu-related cases.

Though they weren't all high-profile, they did demonstrate the limits of services the law-enforcement community could provide.

More than a decade later, the demand for Urdu speakers continues to rise, as more immigrants from Pakistan and other South Asian countries settle in the suburbs.

More than 350,000 Urdu speakers live in the United States, according to, which tracks language use all over the world.

'Very few of us'

"If you look at all Pakistanis that are first-generation, there's very few of us out working government jobs," Sabih Khan said.

Khan, 24, joined the Streamwood police force just a few months ago. He grew up in Pakistan and counts about a half-dozen officers from the Chicago Police Department among his Urdu-speaking fraternity. As far as he knows, he's the first Urdu-speaking officer in the Northwest suburbs.

Adeel Faridi, 25, also hoped to use his Urdu language skills on the job. His family immigrated from Pakistan to Wheeling when he was 15. He recently submitted his name with the Hoffman Estates Police Department.

Before that, he worked in the emergency room at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates and saw how valuable Urdu has been in some emergencies.

"I just wanted to help the community I live in," he said.

Unfortunately for Faridi, his police career hit a speed bump. After a week and a half at the police academy, he injured his right knee while training and had to resign.

He said he might try again in spring to get back on the force. But he would have to reapply, meaning his name goes to the bottom of the applicant pool list.

If so, Faridi could still benefit from an ordinance adopted in 2006 that gives extra consideration to applicants who speak a second language, including sign language. This extends to all village jobs. An independent evaluator tests applicants for language proficiency.

State Rep. Fred Crespo was a Hoffman Estates trustee at the time and helped author the ordinance, with the goal of diversifying the staff.

"You still need to speak English perfectly, but you should also learn a second or third language because you can help more people that way," Crespo said.

Streamwood Deputy Police Chief Jim Gremo said his department doesn't give preference or extra exam points to applicants who speak another language.

And that's an important distinction to Khan, who said he sometimes wondered if he was hired solely for his language skills and ethnic background.

"I had to remind myself, it's a very small part of what you do," he said.

The trailblazer

Unlike Khan and Faridi, Devineni, 37, is of Indian descent. But even their cultural understanding and physical similarities can provide comfort in emergencies to residents of various South Asian backgrounds.

Devineni recently left the Streamwood force for a job with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He entered a field that traditionally hasn't attracted many South Asians. But he's carved a niche, and both Faridi and Khan see him as a trailblazer.

"As we become Americanized, each generation is more watered down in our eyes and our minds," Devineni said. "We enter non-traditional career paths that are different than what our parents choose."

Devineni befriended Faridi's father at a Buffalo Grove Walgreens where Faridi's father worked. He eventually persuaded his son to call Devineni, hoping that the officer could offer advice on his future career path.

"We had a frank discussion," Devineni recalls.

Lost in translation

Some say a deeper understanding of immigrant customs and cultures is actually more important than knowing the language itself.

Attorney Neha Gill agrees. She's a legal supervisor for Chicago-based Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter primarily serving South Asian victims. Its name is an Urdu phrase meaning "our home."

"A lot of time, the immigrant population has reservations when they call police," Gill said.

An Urdu speaker, Gill noted Hoffman Estates' large Pakistani population. She has represented clients at both the Rolling Meadows and Skokie courthouses. According to 2000 Census numbers, 4,917 of the state's 18,881 Pakistani immigrants live in suburban Cook County. That number has had to increase further over the last eight years, Gill asserts.

In some cases, Gill said, orders of protection aren't granted against abusive spouses because officers can't understand what a victim is saying when police reports are taken. That makes pressing charges and proper prosecution difficult.

"It can be really damaging when they aren't able to explain what happened," she said.

Reem Rahman, spokeswoman for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, noted many Urdu speakers are Muslim. She says there's no price you can put on cultural understanding.

She said there are times when it's important to respect modesty. "We've received cases of women having their head scarves removed in order to be photographed (by police)."

Many Muslim women continue the tradition of wearing a headscarf. Involuntary removal of the scarf would be a monumental sign of disrespect.

A changing world

Devineni may not speak Urdu, but he's benefited from knowing another foreign language: Spanish, which he studied in junior high school.

Many suburban fire and police departments invite foreign language instructors to stations to teach Spanish.

There isn't a large enough population to warrant Urdu classes. In England, police officers have been schooled in Urdu for years, hoping to bridge the communication gap, especially with older immigrants.

Northwestern University in Evanston does not offer Urdu classes as part of its regular curriculum. Foreign language professor Rami Nair said she gets about three requests each year from students wanting to learn Urdu.

Lair, who teaches Hindi, notes the two languages are similar, allowing speakers to understand each other.

What makes it difficult for students is Urdu's alphabet, which uses a unique script, she said. Urdu also shares some vocabulary with Persian and Arabic.

Even at a recent Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 board meeting, staff members discussed the need to offer more Asian languages, expanding curriculum beyond traditional Spanish and French.

Sept. 11's impact

Before applying to the police academy, Faridi scanned the Internet, hoping to find a job that would allow him to use his language skills.

He stumbled on openings at the FBI. Ross Rice, spokesman for its Chicago office, said the agency is always looking for agents who speak foreign languages. And the number of Urdu-speakers at the agency has spiked since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to numbers provided by FBI national spokeswoman Denise Ballew.

"I think 9/11 opened people's eyes," Devineni said.

Nationally, the FBI had six contract linguists and on-board language analysts who knew Urdu before Sept. 11. That number, as of last Dec. 15, was 39, according to the FBI's Ballew. They perform document translation.

Overall, the FBI has increased spending for its foreign language program since the Sept. 11 attacks. It spent $21.5 million annually. As of 2005, that swelled to $36.2 million, according to the Department of Justice.

Devineni said he believes he helped not only civilians but also his former police department. He's had conversations with other officers and said he's helped them better understand the culture.

Khan hopes more Urdu speakers will join him as police officers. He's got some advice for those who do.

"Tell them to just stick with everything, learn as much as you can," he said, and "don't think that one language as the only reason you're there."