On a Thursday morning this August, East New Yorkers on their way to work goggled at an unexpected site: 3,000 Muslim men gathered for prayer in a parking lot.
That Thursday was Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. From all directions poured men wearing embroidered tunics and white caps, slipping off their sandals to join the tightly packed rows of kneeling believers. The gatherers bowed, their backs forming a colorful tapestry that masked the concrete. They asked Allah for purity, the strength to control bad habits, and prosperity for all people. 59-year-old Burhan Uddin, a community leader who immigrated from Bangladesh as a 26-year-old man, could not have been prouder of the sight.
“Like my country. Really, like my motherland. This environment, we grew up with it,” he said as the throng departed for home with exclamations of “Eid Mubarak” – “Blessed Eid!” – and embraced one another on each side of the shoulder.
The neighborhood of City Line, East New York has undergone a rapid demographic shift in the last ten years, and is now home to over 2,000 Bangladeshis. Bangladeshis are the fastest growing Asian group in New York City, increasing from a population of 19,000 in 2000 to over 53,000 in 2010, with communities in Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn.
In City Line, hilal groceries and vendors of South Asian women’s wear have replaced old Latino and Italian businesses. Bangladeshi teacher Halal Sheikh is running for office with the hopes of becoming the City Council’s first Bangladeshi. As the community grows, its leaders seek solutions to problems that have plagued all groups in the neighborhood for decades – crime, education, and racial tensions among poor youth.
Drawn by mosques
Like many Bangladeshi expatriates around the world, 65 percent of City Line’s Bangladeshi are from Sylheti, Bangladesh’s tea growing capital, says Helal Uddin Shah, a local Bangladeshi reporter. Sylhetis say they come to the United States in pursuit of better opportunities and to pursue the “American Dream.” Many complain of government corruption in Bangladesh.
Families usually tell the same story: a father or uncle settled in the 80s, opened a business and bought a home. In the last decade, the whole family has migrated, hoping to become permanently established in the United States.
Misba Abdin, founder of the Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services Organization (BACDYS), says his father was the first Bangladeshi to move to City Line, then a middle-income Italian neighborhood, in 1949. When Abdin’s father became prosperous enough, he and others bought adjacent houses on Forbell Street, one by one, until they had enough property to construct a mosque. That mosque and six smaller ones now draw new Bangladeshi immigrants to the neighborhood.
“When people come to the United States first they think: where they can find a community, where they can find a mosque,” says Muhammad Abdullah, who says he lived in Manhattan for eight years before deciding to move to City Line so that his son could grow up around Bangladeshi culture.
Bangladeshis are some of the poorest members of the city’s Asian population, with one in three Bangladeshis living below the poverty line, according to statistics from the Asian American Federation. Like all immigrants, they face challenges accessing public support, transferring their education credentials, and navigating in a second language. As Muslims, they are also concerned about the lack of halal food in public schools.
In addition, they have grievances similar to other groups in East New York concerning security and education. Abdin says more than 10 Bangladeshis in City Line have been murdered since he came to the United States in 1982, most in connection with robbery-related shootings. He also complains of the poor quality of local schools, which he says drives many Bangladeshi families to send their kids to schools out of district.
BACDYS formed in 2011 to tackle community and neighborhood-wide issues and create free meeting space in an area locals say is sorely deficient of community centers. Mostly funded out of the pocket of its staff and Abdin’s relatives, the organization has also received support from Assemblyman Michael Miller and Councilman Eric Ulrich.
The organization is applying to open a charter school focused on science and technology that will provide a Halal lunch food option. The organization also offers support services and tutoring to local residents, helps residents access government resources and is working to improve the neighborhood’s streetscaping. BACDYS recently launched a community garden with the help of 596 Acres, a group dedicated to opening vacant city land to community use. It is also working with city agencies to create a public plaza on Liberty Avenue.
Historically neglected and impoverished, East New York has a long history of violent incidents between youth of different racial backgrounds. While non-Bengali and Bengali locals alike describe Bangladeshi culture as non-confrontational, the Bangladeshi community has not been exempted from racial tensions, which worsened after September 11.
In 2002, after a group of Latino youth and Bangladeshi youth argued over a bike, a few Latino youth went out for revenge. They ended up killing the Bangladeshi photojournalist Mizanur Rahman, smashing in his head with a wooden club while he was on his way home from work, according to a report by the New York City Community Media Alliance. Newsday reported that police believed the attack was not a bias crime, but a case of mistaken identity: the youths believed Rahman had been involved in the dust-up over the bike. Two men were arrested in the attack: One admitted guilt and is serving time upstate. The other denied a role but was convicted on a related charge.
Community residents and local officials launched a successful campaign to rename Forbell Street above Liberty Avenue “Mizanur Rahman Way.” Darma Diaz, who worked for Assemblyman Darryl Towns at the time, says the incident caused her to become more involved in the Bangladeshi community. She eventually helped Abdin start BACDYS and is one of the many non-Bangladeshis in the organization.
Diaz says that while there are still some attacks against Bangladeshi people, ethnic relations have improved as non-Bangladeshis have grown familiar with Bangladeshi culture and religion. She says she and other community leaders have encouraged Bangladeshis who experience hate crimes to report to the police. As a result, local law enforcement is now more aware of the problem.
Bangladeshis have also become more accustomed to different cultures, says Christy Loutre, an organizer at BACDYS of Puerto Rican descent.
“Twenty plus years ago they wouldn’t allow another race, another culture getting into their mix,” says Loutre. She says that when she was a child and encountered some Bangladeshi elders, she would feel as if they “didn’t approve and didn’t see you as their equals,” she says, adding that in traditional Bangladeshi culture, older males possess a higher status.
Today’s Bangladeshis, she says, welcome leaders in their community of all types – including young, female Latinas. “Times have changed,” she says. “Communities have changed.”
A night out
To increase cross-cultural interaction, BACDYS founded an annual five-day multicultural festival, which includes a Gospel Night, Latino Night, Caribbean Indo Night, Asian Night and Bangladeshi Night.
“I see Latinos are isolated. Bangladeshi are isolated. African-Americans are isolated. They are not interacting, because they [aren’t] … crossing bridges. That’s why I came up with this multicultural festival. I’ll bring everyone to one event with different cultural venders and food,” says Abdin.
Two weeks after the Muslim prayer gathering, the parking lot again transformed into a spectacle as colorful as Coney Island. Thousands milled about the fairgrounds – Bangladeshi girls in pink and grey and turquoise saris and black girls with yellow and orange and blue beads adorning their bouncing braids.
There were carnival rides, live music, and venders selling traditional clothing and shish kabob. A mixed crowd of kids ran around throwing poppers and clutching newly won bags of live goldfish to their chests.
Elected officials, community business leaders, community board members and generous relatives of Misba Abdin crowded the stage for a meandering award ceremony celebrating cross-cultural collaboration. Diaz and Loutre drew praise for wearing traditional Bangladeshi garb.
“Everyone who lives here is out here,” said Padmanie Ramlall, a young Guyanese woman from City Line. “Everyone came together for this fair.”