Racism Cries in Chelmsford
CHELMSFORD -- Buckman Drive backyard chicken owners accused of precipitating a Westlands rat infestation say they believe racism and prejudice on the part of their neighbors is the reason they are being blamed for the problem.
At a Tuesday night Board of Health meeting, sisters Bina Zafar and Mona Zafar spoke publicly for the first time about how the issue and accusations have affected their family.
“For the past few weeks, my family and I have been bullied, harassed, defamed and discriminated against by the town and by the whole neighborhood,” said Bina Zafar, who owns the 25 Buckman Drive property.
The meeting, held on an emergency basis, was an open session for residents and town officials to discuss backyard chickens and provide input for a Town Meeting article that seeks to lower the amount of square footage required to keep them.
The Zafar sisters said they raised their seven chickens from chicks and had no problems for the vast majority of the year and a half the hens lived in their backyard, until mid-August, when the Board of Health contacted them about neighbor complaints of chickens, rats and trash.
They said their family has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years, and none of the neighbors knocked on their door to raise concerns directly with them.
Instead, Mona Zafar said, they chose to “deal with it in this hateful, nasty manner” and “acted as a group with bias,” turning it into “a modern-day witch hunt to the detriment of my family.” She said the neighbors “chose to simply agree with your fellow white neighbors” that the “Pakistanis” were the problem, “without doing an ounce of research yourselves.”
“I hope you realize racism is a weapon of mass destruction, so don’t just destroy Chelmsford with this mindless hate,” Mona Zafar said. “And I really hope you realize now that we are part of America, too.”
Her statements elicited gasps and outcry from others in the room, who called it unfair and denied being racist.
Resident Mary Jo Fitton Sullivan said the neighborhood has black and same-sex couple families, and no one has a problem with them. She said the problem is with how the situation was being handled, not with race.
“This isn’t about people, or nationalities. This is about an unpermitted situation that caused a problem,” said neighbor Kati Moran.
Some attendees brought up other area properties with chickens, ducks and bunnies, possibly unpermitted, that may also be contributing to the problem.
The Zafars removed the chickens as of the end of last week, by order of the town. They said they did not realize they needed a permit to house them at their property and town bylaws were not clear.
Mona Zafar said they were shocked and embarrassed to learn their property was the subject of the complaints, and later horrified to see their home on television media reports. She said they had no idea there was a rat problem, and that the trash was due to an ongoing kitchen remodel.
Bina Zafar said they took many precautions to prevent rodents from getting into the coop, and stored feed and waste compost in rodent-proof bins. They denied dumping feed and waste near Golden Cove Brook, which runs behind their property.
Neighbor Edward Buckley called the Zafars “disingenuous at best” and that he’s personally seen family members put coop waste into a wheelbarrow and dump it behind their shed in close proximity to the brook. He said he’s also seen them pick up rats in their yard.
Buckley said he mowed the Zafars’ lawn for several weeks when they first moved in and his relationship with them was cordial until recently. He denied claims that he exaggerated finding 49 rats in his yard, and said rat activity has slowed since the chickens were removed.
Several residents spoke out against the Town Meeting article that would make it easier for residents with smaller properties to keep chickens, and asked that the article be withdrawn.
The Board of Health and Planning Board will hold a work session on the article ahead of the Planning Board’s regularly scheduled meeting next Wednesday.
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