From Bangladesh to the Bronx: immigrants find new hope and new tensions

Zakir Khan (left) poses with another Bangladeshi leader and Luis Sepulveda at a Bangldeshi cultural event in September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Zakir Khan (left) poses with another Bangladeshi leader and Luis Sepulveda at a Bangldeshi cultural event in September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

It’s hard to imagine from looking at his plush office on the Metropolitan Oval in Parkchester, but almost 20 years ago, Zakir Khan was a new immigrant, fresh off the plane from Bangladesh with a mere $5 in his pocket. He paid his way through The City College of New York by working for $4.25 an hour at Burger King and selling concert T-shirts outside of Madison Square Garden. That hard work earned him his own lucrative real estate business in the Bronx where he employs more than 20 people. When Mohammed Islam came to the U.S. four years ago he had more money in his pocket than Khan did—$20—but he’s had a rougher road than Khan. Islam was laid off as a city traffic worker last year at the height of the recession. On the evening of Sept. 17, he was mugged and beaten by a gang of teenagers while walking home on St. Raymond Avenue from a Bangladeshi cultural event at P.S. 106 in Parkchester. The  teenagers pulled a gun on Islam, punched him and stole $900. Islam spent three days in the hospital after suffering cuts on his nose, forehead, mouth and knee. He has since undergone two plastic surgeries to fix the damage to his face. Islam and Khan represent the two sides of the Parkchester Bangladeshi community: older residents, like Khan, who have begun successful businesses and newer immigrants who have been hit hard by the recession. Khan wears well-tailored suits with crisp, white pocket squares and vibrant ties often in shades of green while Islam dresses in linen pants and shirts in neutral, tan colors. They do have one thing in common: while they fear for their safety, they also revel in the opportunity to live in America, which they see as a land of opportunity compared to  Bangladesh. Even in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, America offers a fresh start. Over the past 20 years, the Bronx has become a haven for new Bangladeshi immigrants. Starling Avenue in Parkchester is the bustling main hub for Bangladeshi businesses, with stores selling Bollywood hits and fuchka, bite-sized street snacks made from fried, unleavened puri bread filled with a spicy mixture of potatoes, onions and chickpeas. Passersby can smell the deep fried chilies and spices from blocks away and hear the melodic Bangala music, heavy on bansuri (a Middle Eastern flute) and dotara (a small stringed instrument resembling a guitar).
Assemblyman Peter Rivera (right) speaks with Masuma Afraze (left) after her husband was attacked on September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Assemblyman Peter Rivera (right) speaks with Masuma Afraze (left) after her husband was attacked in September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Bangladeshis began arriving in the United States in large numbers in the early 90s because of the new diversity visa lottery, an immigration program that opened up U.S. immigration to Asian countries that had largely been barred  because of quotas and high visa fees. The new program lowered the cost of visas and allowed immigrants to come to the U.S. based on a lottery system rather than needing to apply for asylum or having a “high priority” profession like engineering and science. According to the Department of City Planning, 9,000 Bangladeshis came to New York City between 1990 and 1994 and the number kept rising. Most Bangladeshi immigrants settled in Astoria, Queens, which quickly gained the name “Little Bangladesh” after dozens of Bangladeshi businesses and institutions set up shop, including mosques, grocery stores and cultural societies. The East Bronx began to draw more Bangladeshi families as the cost of living in Astoria began to rise. In 2003, the Bangladesh Society of New York moved from Queens to Parkchester and renamed itself the Bangladesh Society of the Bronx. After living in the U.S. for five years, a visa holder can apply for citizenship and then apply for visas for their remaining family in Bangladesh. Both Khan and Islam directly benefitted from the new visa process. In 1967, his sister came to the U.S., settled in the Bronx and brought over family members after she established herself for five years. An older brother came first. In 1991, after he had been in the country for five years, he brought Kahn in. Islam also came to America through family visa connections. When Khan speaks now about Bangladesh, his eyes dart around as if to make sure no one is listening. Then, he speaks slowly in a low voice. “Bangladesh is a great place and if you ever get the chance to visit you should,” he said. “But Bangladesh just can’t offer the opportunities that America can.” When Khan arrived in the Bronx in 1991, there were only roughly 10 Bangladeshi families in Parkchester, a small commercial center located off the 6 train in the east Bronx. Today, there are over 1,500 families totaling over 4,000 people, according to Census Bureau statistics released in 2009. The biggest local mosque, Jame Masjid, composed entirely of Bangladeshis, has seen similar growth. According to Moyez Uddin Lulu, Jame Masjid director, in 1987, the mosque had only 11 members. Today, there are over 1,500 worshippers on any given Friday, the biggest worship day for Muslims. “Most of our members are new immigrants, people who have been here five years or less,” Uddin Lulu said. Jame Masjid was the only mosque in Parkchester until the 1990s; now there are five others. Jame Masjid is a Bangladeshi mosque, the others are a majority Bangladeshi but also have members from other Muslim countries. Looking back on his childhood in Bangladesh, Khan remembers that he was lucky if he could buy one new shirt a year. Now he can purchase four or five new suits for work. “A college professor in Bangladesh only makes $10,000 a year,” Khan said. “There’s no comparison between the two places.” Khan speaks highly of his childhood friend Ahad Abdul, a school teacher in Bangladesh. Khan said that he and Abdul had, basically, the same upbringing; they went to the same schools and got the same grades. But Khan was afforded the opportunity to come to America while Abdul stayed behind, becoming what Khan calls “a fabulous teacher at a great school.” Still, when Khan went back to Bangladesh a few months ago to visit, Abdul asked him for money to help buy a bicycle. “He’s a school teacher and a good one,” Khan said. “But he needed help buying an $80 bike. That doesn’t happen here.” Khan gave him the money. Khan was two years old when Bangladesh became an independent country; today he believes himself very lucky tp have gotten out and flourished in what he sees as a fantastic U.S. economy, contrary to what may be in the news. “People here see the unemployment rate of 9 percent and cry for reform,” Khan said. “In Bangladesh, 36 percent of people live below the poverty line.” Islam remembers a similar life in his homeland. He misses it but realizes that even though he lost his job here, America offers many more opportunities and a more stable financial situation than Bangladesh ever could. “I have a job here,” Islam said. “That means I am successful.” While Khan and Islam enjoy the opportunities life in America allows, they also believe that they are targets for the African-Americans and Hispanics who have long dominated the neighborhood because they’re new and because they came to America equipped and ready to weather hard economic times since that’s all they knew in Bangladesh. Within a few months of their arrival, most Bangladeshis have found steady jobs and a place to live. “Many in the community feel there is racial jealousy going on towards us,” Khan said. “They feel we’re easy targets because we’re peaceful, many don’t speak a lot of English and we’re not known to fight back.” Islam agrees that those feelings lead to jealousy from other immigrants and unemployed Americans alike who don’t understand how their conservative Muslim faith helps them succeed by inspiring them to work hard. Mohobub Alom, president of the Bangladesh Society of the Bronx has spoken out against the violence and called Islam’s attack and many others like it “hate crimes” that represent what he sees as an increase in violence against the Bangladeshi community. Police in the 43rd Precinct, however, said they see no connection between recent robberies and the Bangladeshi community. “There is no indication that Bangladeshis are being targeted because of their national origin,” Deputy Inspector Charles Ortiz said. He also said that crime in the area has decreased over 10 percent in the last year. Yet, despite this decrease, tensions are high in the Bangladeshi community. Islam is afraid to speak out, declining to talk about his mugging and only about the Bangladeshi immigrants as a whole, fearing that he’ll be targeted again, especially because he identified his attackers who were arrested and released on their own recognizance before their court date on Jan. 24. “This violence needs to stop,” said Masuma Afraze, Islam’s wife, who was at home just blocks away when the attack happened. “I think the area needs more safety.” Clashes of culture also play a role  in exacerbating misunderstandings, many Bangladeshis say.  The Jame Masjid mosque caused controversy last January when it petitioned Community District 9 for a loudspeaker system to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer. The petition was rejected because residents didn’t want added noise, said Uddin Lulu, the mosque director. Francisco Gonzalez, community district manager, confirmed the noise complaint but wouldn’t comment further about why the petition was rejected. Despite that rejection, Jame Madjid  is an important resource for Bangladeshis in the community, especially recent immigrants. When new families arrive, they are adopted and taken in by families who have been here longer and they learn the ways of the city whose skyscrapers and subway systems look as foreign to them as a rice paddy and dirt road would look to a New Yorker. It’s this sense of community that has caused the Bangladeshi community in the Bronx to become a large and vocal demographic, but sometimes even the community’s embrace can’t shield them from hardship in a new country. So, Bangladeshis have turned to Bronx policy and lawmakers to help them feel safer in their new American home. During September’s primary race for the 76th District Assembly seat, both Democratic candidates Luis Sepulveda and nine-term incumbent Peter Rivera courted Parkchester’s Bangladeshi population as a way to gain votes in what would end up becoming a close race. The Bangladeshis soaked up the attention. “They made us feel like we matter,” Islam said. “Especially after losing my job it was good to feel seen.” Both assembly candidates were at the Sept. 17 cultural event during which Islam was attacked and both men made phone calls to connections within the police precinct to try and get Islam help as soon as possible, especially after they found out that the 911 system was down that day. “The Bangladeshis are such a growing group in this district that it’s silly not to see how much they mean to the community,” said Sepulveda, who many Bangladeshis call “Mr. Luis.”  “They own businesses and add a lot to the lifeblood of Parkchester.” Khan said that “Mr. Luis” gained ground within the community because he spoke early and often about stopping violence against them. “Street violence has increased at least 20 percent in the last year,” Sepulveda said. “It has to do with the economy. I want to start a community task force to police the streets.” Though he lost the Democratic nomination 44 percent to 56 percent, he still plans to lobby for such a task force to help combat street violence in the area. Despite what Khan and Islam see as the dangers of living in the Bronx both are thankful every day for the opportunity to come to the United States. “It’s better here,” said Islam whose face still shows scars from his attack two months ago. “In Bangladesh I would never have a job.” Islam now works at various Bangala restaurants on Starling Avenue. Khan feels the same way. He helps new Bangladeshi immigrants find affordable apartments and even funds 20-30 scholarships to put young people back in Bangladesh through school because Khan understands how important an opportunity an education is. All of the scholarship funds come from Khan personally--$3,000 covers books, tuition and school supplies for one Bangladeshi student for a whole year. “I’ve come a long way and I’m very proud,” Khan said. “But at the same time a lot of my work is to help people like me, new immigrants who are just looking for a chance.”