• Bangladeshis are one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in New York City
  • Many Bangladeshis are small business owners and have been forced to close down or curtail hours
  • Bangladeshis now seek stability, and jobs with benefits and pensions

Bangladeshis are one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in New York City. Many Bangladeshis have moved into parts of Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx in recent years creating vibrant neighborhoods. Among South Asian immigrants, Bangladeshis are relative newcomers, following in the heels of more well-established Indian and Pakistani communities in New York.

Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation located between India and Myanmar, was part of Pakistan until the 1971 war of independence that created the new country.

International Business Times spoke with Badrun Khan, a Queens-based community advocate for economic development and social issues, to discuss the problems faced by this growing demographic segment of New York City. Ms. Khan is also planning to run for U.S. Congress.

IB TIMES: Can you estimate the number of Bangladeshis currently living in New York City?

KHAN: There are an estimated 66,197 Bangladeshis living in New York City, according to information compiled by the Asian American Federation.

IB TIMES: What percentage of them are U.S. citizens?

KHAN: Of the number living in New York City, it’s estimated that 74% (48,985) are foreign-born, and 53% (25,914) of the foreign-born are U.S. citizens. Also, 26% (17,211) are U.S.-born. All told, 65% (43,125) are U.S. citizens.

IB TIMES: What do you see as the most pressing issues currently facing the Bangladeshi community in New York City?

KHAN: The most pressing issues facing the Bangladeshis are immigration and living in overcrowded housing.

IB TIMES: How has the coronavirus pandemic (and related lockdown) impacted the Bangladeshi community in New York City?

KHAN: I’ve lived in New York City all my life. First, I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where Bangladeshis like my parents used to migrate to. Now, I am running for congresswoman to represent District-14 in Queens and the Bronx. I’ve lived in Queens for 22 years and work in the Bronx and I know first-hand that COVID-19 has hit the community hard. But it’s not just the Bangladeshis of course; people from all ethnic groups who work in the service sector have also been hit.

Many Bangladeshis are small business owners, and they have been forced to close down or drastically curtail hours of operation. Bangladeshi-owned delis, restaurants, nail salons, eyebrow-threading places, clothing stores -- everyone is trying to acquire loans to stay afloat, and workers have been laid off. Bangladeshi cab/Uber/Lyft drivers no longer have work, but many have also quit driving for fear of infecting themselves and their families.

Initially, many Bangladeshis were still heading out to mosques, where large gatherings helped spread the virus, but now, especially with warnings from the Islamic scholars, people are staying home.

IB TIMES: Many Bangladeshis in New York City work as cab drivers and run restaurants – do you expect to see Bangladeshis diversifying into other vocations? Or has this already begun to happen?

KHAN: By about the late 1990s I noticed that Bangladeshis were diversifying into other vocations. Those that spoke English or came to the country young enough to pick up English quickly, and gained permission to work, began to tire of odd jobs, with its inconsistent hours and unstable pay. They sought stability, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. While the dream to own a business persisted, it’s not easy [to achieve] and not [meant] for everyone.

IB TIMES: I have noticed some Bangladeshis working as police officers in New York City. Is this a new development? How did it start?

KHAN: This started in the early 2000s. That’s when I began to notice Bangladeshi police officers assisting non-English speaking immigrants. All this happened around the same time, as more Bangladeshis began to seek stability, and jobs with benefits and pensions. They also began to integrate further into American life by developing a sense of civic duty as Americans.

IB TIMES: The economy in Bangladesh is under pressure due to the ongoing collapse of the garment industry as western retailers cancel orders. Are the people here in New York City trying to help their loved ones in Bangladesh? What are they saying about the situation back home?

KHAN: The economy in Bangladesh is indeed under tremendous pressure. We have organizations on the ground that are working to bring relief to people back there. But this is a hard time. At first, Bangladeshis in New York City were trying to send money abroad to help their loved ones, but with the U.S. under stay-at-home orders and the economy tanking, they’re in a bind now. They’re thinking “I don’t have a job. I need food. I can’t support even myself, how am I going to support people in Bangladesh?”

IB TIMES: As an activist for the community, what areas are you especially focused on?

KHAN: That’s a hard question because I want to get so many things done if elected as congresswoman. I am focused on the implementation of a permanent universal basic income and economic development because after the COVID-19 passes, we need to get people working and get them out of poverty. But I’ve also worked to help women and children facing issues of domestic violence and I see real problems with access to health care and affordable housing in New York City.

IB TIMES: Are we seeing Bangladeshis moving out to the suburbs (as many Indians have done)? Or are they concentrated in the urban areas?

KHAN: Yes, Bangladeshis are moving out to the suburbs already, to places with big houses like Long Island and New Jersey. It’s the American Dream, to live in a house where you can park your car and have a backyard where kids can run around and families can have barbecues.

IB TIMES: Why do you think Bangladeshis (and South Asians in general) have not yet acquired significant political power in New York City?

KHAN: I think there’s a lot of communal pride among Bangladeshis and South Asians here, but political views vary among groups and individuals. Here in New York City, there are many small Bangladeshi organizations – more than 300. Within these groups, there are a lot of varying ideologies and I recognize that, and I work to unite them. There’s still a lack of awareness that everyone needs to be represented in politics. We need to educate young people and increase the participation among the older folk. There are also many who feel, rightly so, that politicians are out of touch with constituents. That creates feelings of powerlessness and apathy instead of motivation. I’ve followed politics for what feels like forever. It all started in the home. Every night my father would come home from work and watch the news and had us engage with what was going on around the world. I remember that at age 11, I drew a map of the U.S. and would color in the states that were won by the Democratic Party.

IB TIMES: Are Bangladeshi parents in New York City worried about their American-born children losing their traditional Bengali values and culture?

KHAN: Yes, some Bangladeshi parents in New York City worry that their children will lose traditional values. That’s why they send them to Bengali schools or have them join activities where they interact with other Bangladeshi kids. At the same time, parents are very accepting of interracial marriage, especially here in the city. I think more than anything, parents don’t want their kids to forget their language and history.

IB TIMES: New York City is also home to large communities of Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, etc. Are you seeing a lot of cooperation and unity among these different South Asian groups?

KHAN: I do see cooperation. I feel that whatever differences the different countries have on the world stage, they’re not so important when we’re all New Yorkers, bound by similar experiences. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, you see how one community is donating food and time to another.