The Bangladeshi Americans
M.M. Khairul Anam
According to the American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau, there were approximately 161,000 people of Bangladeshiorigin living in the US at the end of 2013 (Reference 1). Another study published in 2014 by the Migration Policy Institute puts the total number of first and second generation Bangladeshis in the country at 277,000 (Reference 2). This study also reports that "about half of all Bangladeshi immigrants in the United States arrived on or after 2000".
Bangladeshi Americans can now be found in almost all the states in the country. However, the largest enclaves of Bangladeshi Americans are found in New York (New York City), New Jersey (Paterson), California (Los Angeles), Washington (D.C.), Massachusetts (Boston), Georgia (Atlanta), Michigan (Detroit and Hamtramck), Illinois (Chicago), Florida (Miami), Texas (Dallas and Houston), North Carolina and Minnesota. While most of these enclaves grew steadily in size over the years, there have been some subtle shifts in the movement of Bangladeshis. For example, in the late 1970s, some Bangladeshis moved from New York City to Detroit, home to many prominent Muslim Americans -- local as well as migrants from the Middle Eastern countries. The main quest for the Bangladeshi immigrants was better work opportunities and more affordable living. Most have since returned from the financially distressed Detroit area to New York City and to Paterson, New Jersey.
The median age for the Bangladeshi population in the country is reported to be about 39 years. The Bangladeshi diaspora is better educated than the general US population, both at undergraduate and graduate levels. The median household income for Bangladeshi Americans is around $54,000, 8 percent higher than the US average of $50,000 (2).
Early History of Bangladeshi Immigration
Bangladesh became a nation-state in 1971. So, the official beginning of Bangladeshi immigration to the US can only be traced to that year. However, the actual history of Bangladeshi immigration to America stretches over one hundred years. In his highly acclaimed book, “Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America”, Vivek Bald, an Assistant Professor of MIT, reported that the first batch of Bengalis came to USA in 1885 from the area of Bengal called Hoogly, now a district in West Bengal, India. Almost all of these early settlers were Muslims by religion and traders by profession. They imported and sold high-quality embroidered silk goods like shawls, table cloths, pillow covers etc., called Chikons and so they used to go by Chikondars. During the great depression of 1930s the demand of these fancy luxury goods began to wane. Due to lack of business, many went back home. The ones who stayed back were assimilated with the local people.
Vivek Bald also reported that the second batch of Bengalis started arriving in the USA in early 1900s. They were low level seamen or dock laborers, called Laskars or Khalasis, who started deserting British ships due to abnormal and unbearable working conditions. These "ship-jumpers" were also Muslims from the Eastern part of Bengal, mainly from the districts of Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet, now in Bangladesh. So in the annals of Bangladeshis in USA, these Khalasis can be termed as the Bangladeshi pioneers, rather than the Chikondars, who came from that part of Bengal which is now in India. Bald also notes that around 1900, the New York Post mentioned that these sailors used to live in the transient sailor’s boarding house district in the eastern seaports. Gradually some of these ship-jumpers made their way into the inland states and found jobs in ship yards, steel plants, automotive industries and ammunition factories in the north. The World War I opened up a lot of job opportunities for these Bangladeshi laborers (along with Punjabi Muslim and Hindu workers) as most of the Americans were absorbed in the military.
The lives of the early Bangladeshi ship-jumpers were not easy. They were either poorly educated or had no education at all and had very little money. As mentioned earlier, they worked very long hours in the boiler rooms of ships owned by British steamship companies, and they had to endure inhuman conditions under horrible labor practices. For them, jumping ship meant freedom from de-facto slavery. However, these new arrivals in the free country had to live in isolation, under suspicion and surveillance. They were very insecure and under constant threat of deportation. There were several racially discriminatory laws enacted in the twenty-year period (from 1903 to 1923), limiting the rights and privileges of the Asians. In 1924, a law was enacted that established a country-by country immigration quota system. All Asian countries were excluded from immigration to this country. President Teddy Roosevelt was a strong proponent of this anti-Asian act.
Vivek Bald has researched in detail on how the chikondars and laskars managed to form families in their adopted country. As these men could not marry white women and had to live in black and otherwise colored, depressed neighborhoods, they ended up marrying the most distressed black or "colored" women and raised their families with them. One such example is Hansen Clarke, the former US Congressman from Detroit, whom we will discuss in a later section. However, small groups of Bangladeshi women also came over the years as wives or concubines of British officers.
Another batch of Bangladeshi settlers came a few years after the Second World War, specifically after the partition of India in 1947. Bengal was divided into West Bengal (which stayed in India) and East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan when it became a part of Pakistan). Since the biggest port of undivided Bengal was in Kidderpore, Kolkata, and most of the dock workers were from Noakhali and Chittagong that came under East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), suddenly all these dock workers lost their jobs due to nationality issues. They therefore, looked for jobs elsewhere in the world, including the US, arriving as seamen and dock laborers. Following them, educated Bangladeshis began to come to this country as students, doctors, engineers, scientists, professors, accountants and other professionals.
Recent Chapters in Bangladeshi Immigration
The most significant year in the US history of immigration from South Asian countries (and most other Asian countries) is 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration & Naturalization Act of 1965. This law made it possible for highly qualified individuals and their immediate family members from the Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan and now Bangladesh), to immigrate to the US.
In the 1970s the number of Bangladeshis immigrating to the US was only a handful. In each year during that decade, only a few hundred professionals availed of the opportunity granted under the 1968 law. A recent article (Reference 3) estimates that by 1980, about 3500 Bangladeshis were in this country. The years following 1980s saw a steady rise in immigration from Bangladesh. The same article reported that "Between 1982 and 1992, the US Immigration & Naturalization Service legally admitted 28,850 Bangladeshis."
The Immigration Act of 1990 (became effective in 1995) created two programs that greatly benefited immigration from Bangladesh and other smaller countries in Asia. The first was the Diversity Visa (also called DV visa) Program. Under this program, visas were given out on a lottery basis, to applicants from "historically under-represented" countries like Bangladesh. The other program was the Temporary Worker Visa for Highly Skilled Individuals (known as H1-B visa). Other laws were passed in later years to increase granting of the number of H1-B visas. These liberalizations in the US immigration laws fueled a rapid increase in the number of Bangladeshis arriving in the USA since 2000. The US Census Bureau estimated that there were 57,412 Bangladeshi-born immigrants in the country in 2000. And as noted at the beginning of this article, the Census Bureau reported that in 2013 the number of Bangladeshi immigrants stood at 161,000 - a significant growth indeed.
The Bangladeshi Americans, in spite of being relatively new entrants to USA from the Indian sub-continent, have done quite well for themselves and for their newly adopted country. For example, they have succeeded in renaming sections of three streets in Chicago, two after two famous political leaders of Bangladesh - one as Mujib Way and the other as Ziaur Rahman Way, in the area where most people of the sub-continent live. The third is Fazlur R. Khan Way located at the foot of Sear’s Tower (now Willis Tower) in honor of Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan, known as the "father of high-rise building construction". In Los Angeles, they have carved out a section from the Little Korea area and renamed it as “Little Bangladesh.” They have completely changed the demography of two sections of the borough of Queens in New York, one at Jackson Heights and the other at Jamaica. In such Bangladeshi enclaves, you will see signboards of numerous shops written in Bangla. You will see people on the street talking to each other only in Bangla. The shops, restaurants and businesses have beautiful Bengali names like Hat Bazar, Khabar Bari, Khamar Bari, Sagor, Titas, Palki, Dhaka Café Jheel, Kakatua Service, etc. To help children academically, Bangladeshis have opened many commercially successful tutorial homes. One such is Khan’s Tutorial in Jackson Heights in New York. It has experienced rapid growth. In just a few years, it opened branches in Astoria, Bronx, Brooklyn, Floral Park, Jamaica and Ozone Park. You will also find many varieties of groceries, sari shops, jewelry stores, restaurants, sweet-meat and other specialty shops. You can get all kinds of desi fish, prawn, shrimps and also imported desi vegetables and fruits. You feel quite at home when you eat in a Bangladeshi restaurant and enjoy numerous pure Bengali/ Bangladeshi dishes, while watching Bangla programs in Bangladeshi TV channels.
Professionally, Bangladeshi enclaves became nearly self-sufficient communities. They can now boast of doctors, engineers, computer scientists, programmers, web designers, lawyers, accountants, professors, research scientists, pharmacists, nurses, investment bankers, insurers, management consultants, poets, writers, columnists, journalists, editors, members of the military and consultants in Federal and state governments.
In journalistic, literary and entertainment areas, Bangladeshis can be justifiably proud of their accomplishments. Bangladeshis publish about fourteen printed weekly Bangla newspapers from New York alone; some have been in existence for many years. The newspaper with the largest circulation is the weekly "Thikana” which is currently in its 26th year of operation. Each issue exceeds100 pages, and for special editions like their anniversary issue (that coincides with “Ekushe February”, the Bangla Language Movement Day), the number of pages goes up to 200 pages. New York, Los Angeles and some other cities have also started publishing online newspapers and literary magazines and are doing pretty well. New York is also the home of “Muktadhara”, the only Bangla bookstore in America, probably in North America, where a wide range of Bangla books, CDs and DVDs, publications from Bangladesh as well as India, are available. Like the annual book fairs in Kolkata and Dhaka, “Muktadhara” has been holding an annual Boi Mela for more than 22 years. The event also covers opening ceremonies of the newly published Bangla books. More on Muktadhara’s founder Mr. Biswajit Saha later.
Social, Cultural & Religious Life
Bangladeshis living in America celebrate four festivals in a big way. Among them the Boishakhi Mela is the largest. It is now celebrated in every city in America where Bangladeshis live. In some of the bigger cities, the event is organized and celebrated by more than one group. The event features many delicious Bangla dishes such as Panta bhat, Ilish mach bhaji, Ilish Polao, Bhatta, Mashala Muri and many varieties of Pithas and Mistis. Boys wear colored punjabis while girls wear yellow-red saris and flowers on their heads. The festivities include cultural functions featuring Bengali songs and dances. The second largest event is a big annual conference, called FOBANA (Federation of Bangladeshi Associations in North America), similar to NABC (North American Bengali Conference), organized by the Bengalis from India. The third is several road fairs or Path Melas in New York and other cities, depicting Bangladeshi culture and tradition. The last but not the least is the celebration of Ekushe February (February 21), also called Vasha Dibas. In New York, people gather at the United Nations building at midnight and honor the martyrs of the Bangla Language Movement, who were killed on this day in 1952. They place flowers on a temporarily built replica of the Central Shaheed Minar in Dhaka, singing the immortal song, Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano Ekushe February, ami ki bhulite pari. Similar celebrations are observed in several other big cities as well. Bangladeshis are in the process of building permanent Shahid Minars in many cities, subject to the approval of the local administrations.
Along with their cultural and professional life, Bangladeshis also are very active in the religious aspects of their lives. They have set up mosques and temples for prayers, birth, marriage and death related activities and rituals. They celebrate yearly Eid and Puja festivals in their respective prayer houses.
Opportunities: Bangladeshis seem to have a bright future in the United States. Even though many Bangladeshis are still struggling in the lower rungs of the society, nearly 100% of them make sure to send their children to school, with preference for good schools. Many of these students are coming up with exceptional results, and some are making notable contributions to their parent’s adopted country. Children of middle class or professional Bangladeshis do not have to struggle as much, and as such, a greater proportion of such children are doing significantly better in schools and colleges. Also, a number of young, talented Bangladeshis come as students to U.S. Universities for higher studies. There, they bring in/develop innovative ideas and get sponsorship from many multinational companies. Thus they end up staying back in America, similar to the talented youths from many other countries.
Concerns: In time, Bangladeshi Americans will experience many of the challenges usually faced by immigrants from all other countries. Maintaining Bangladeshi religious and cultural heritage, while competing with the dominant American and Western culture, will be an uphill battle. Teaching Bengali language to the children and grandchildren is a major issue as these children will probably have no practical use of it in their future personal or professional lives. Even as a foreign language, it will remain difficult to place Bangla along the lines of Spanish, French, German, Russian and now Chinese. In the distant future even Hindi (and to some extent Urdu) will stand out due to sheer Hindi/Urdu speaking populace compared to Bengalis from Bangladesh and India. The aging group will need in-house support systems or elderly houses for physical, mental and medical care. The food habits and as a result supply of Bengali dishes, at least modified ones, will be a big problem (no machh-er jhol bhat!). As the community expands, cohesion will become another big issue. Divisions and disputes are being noticed even now in the larger communities in bigger cities. Last but not the least concern of Bangladeshis is the identity crisis from their second generation onwards. Because of the secular environment there have been a lot of inter-racial and inter-religious marriages. So the fervor of nationality has become somewhat diluted. If that can be stretched further, chances are their chidren or the third generation will have nothing to fall back upon. They will be completely assimilated with the American society. The only difference that will remain is their skin complexion. This happened in West Indies, Gyana, Fiji and several other countries.
Notable Bangladeshi Americans
Some of the notable Bangladeshi Americans and their contributions are briefly mentioned below:
(My apologies in advance to the many successful Bamgladeshi Americans who could not be included here because of lack of space.)
Science, Engineering & Education:
Fazlur Rahman Khan or Faz (1929–1982), an architect and an engineer, was a pioneer in modern structural engineering. He is considered the "father of tubular designs for high-rise structures". He designed the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), the second-tallest building in the United States (and tallest in the world for nearly 23 years) and the 100-storyJohn Hancock Center, both in Chicago. Tube structures have since been used in many skyscrapers including the new World Trade Center in New York City and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including membership in the National Academy of Engineering (1973). The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat named their Lifetime Achievement Medal after him.
Salman Amin Khan is an educator par excellence. He founded the Khan Academy, a free online education platform. From his home office, Khan has produced over 4,800 video lessons teaching a wide spectrum of academic subjects, mainly on mathematics and the sciences. In 2012, the Time magazine named Salman Khan in its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Forbesmagazine featured Khan on its cover with the story "$1 Trillion Opportunity." Khan published a book about Khan Academy and its educational goals titled The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.
Salman Khan has been interviewed or featured by all major news media and talk show hosts. Khan Academy received numerous awards for its innovative approach to teaching science and mathematics.
Maqsudul Alam (1954–2014) was a professor at University of Hawaii and an internationally recognized plant geneticist. He discovered the genome sequences in a number of plants including the "Tosha" jute and rubber having practical utilization in Bangladesh and Malaysia respectively.
Mohammad Atul Karim is known for his many original contributions to the fields of electro-optics. The journal, Applied Optics,ranked him amongst the top 50 researchers who have contributed most in the journal's 50-year history.
Abdus Suttar Khan (1941- 2008), an Oxford graduate, was a leading scientist and inventor in the field of aerospace technology. Khan, a recipient of many awards, invented more than forty different alloys for commercial application in space shuttles, jet engines, train engines and industrial gas turbines.
Abul Hussam is a chemistry professor who invented the Sono Arsenic Filter, a simple, maintenance-free devise that removes arsenic from well water. It is currently in use in Bangladesh and other countries. He received the Grainger Challenge Award for Sustainability from the National Academy of Engineering in 2007 for this invention.
Kali S. Banerjee was an internationally known professor of statistics. Author of over 40 books (15 of which were well-known text books in statistics), he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1975.
Subir Chowdhury is a well-known expert in quality management. He has authored 13 books on the subject and has received several awards.
Politics, Diplomacy & Community Service:
Hansen Clarke is the first person of Bangladeshi descent to be elected to the United States Congress in the 2010 elections where he served for two years. He is one of only three Americans of South Asian descent ever elected to the US Congress.
M. Osman Siddique is a businessman, politician and former diplomat. From 1999-2001 he served as the US Ambassador to the Republics of Fiji and Nauru and the Kingdom of Tonga-Tuvalu from 1999-2001. Siddique is believed to be the second American-Muslim to be appointed as an US Ambassador (the first was Robert D. Crane, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as the US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates).
Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman is a City Councilman in Paterson, NJ.
Anika Rahman is a lawyer, author and an activist for human rights and social justice. She is a prominent advocate for the advancement of marginalized and vulnerable communities worldwide and currently heads Ms. Foundation for Women. Recipient of several awards, she is a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
Biswajit Saha, a pioneer in nurturing Bangla language and culture in America, opened a Bangla book store, named “Muktadhara”,in Queens, echoing the famous Muktadhara Publications in Dhaka. It is now in its 25th year of operation. Mr Saha is instrumental in holding Ekushe February and the New York annual Bangla Boi Mela.
Business & Industry:
Syed Omar Ishrak is the CEO of Medtronic, a Minnesota-based medical devices company with the annual sales of over $27 billion. He is credited with the development of the Bravo line of compact MRI and CT scanners in his earlier career with GE which became a highly successful product line.
Iqbal Quadir founded Grameen Phone, Bangladesh's largest mobile phone company. He now heads the Legatum Center at MIT.
Kamal Quadir is an entrepreneur known for founding two of Bangladesh's key technology companies, Cell Bazaar and bKash(similar to MoneyGram or Western Union).
Sumaya Kazi, recognized by Business Week as one of America's Best Young Entrepreneurs, is currently the chief executive of a San Francisco-based technology company, Sumazi, a social intelligence platform used by brands, celebrities and enterprises.
Jawed Karim was a co-founder of the YouTube and designed key parts of the PayPal online payment system.
Saifuddin "Saif" Ahmad is a restaurateur, owner of several Tony Roma's restaurants in Los Angeles, CA, and a winner of the coveted World Series of Poker bracelet (2007).
Literature, Arts, Entertainment, Fashion & Beauty:
Sezan Mahmud is a medical scientist, teacher and an author of many Bengali works. He has received Bangladesh Shishu Academy (Bangladesh National Academy for Children) award for his contributions to literature. He also received awards from Harvard University for his work on cancer research.
Monica Yunus, daughter of Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, is a Bangladeshi-Russian-American operatic soprano, who has performed with many opera companies and music ensembles. Reviewers from The New York Times described her voice as "utterly captivating" and "a voice destined for super-stardom". Monica is the only Bangladeshi singer to perform in the Metropolitan Opera in NYC.
Arianna Ayesha Afsar won the Miss California Teen title in 2005 and the Miss California title in 2010.
Paromita Mitra is a model, and pageant titleholder. Mitra was crowned Miss Mississippi in 2012, becoming the first Bangladeshi woman to win that title.
Badal Roy is a well-known tabla player, percussionist, and recording artist who has played with a number of distinguished musicians like Miles Davis and John McLaughlin and has recorded several albums. In 2008, the album, Miles From India, a tribute to Miles Davis on which Roy appeared, received a Grammy nomination.
Shomi "Shomy" Patwary is a well-known designer, artist, photographer and music video director. He co-founded the multimedia artists collective, Illusive Media. The 2011 MTV Movie Awards listed one of his videos as #4 on its Best of Play list.
Reihan Morshed Salam is a conservative American political commentator, columnist, and author. He is the executive editor of the National Review and a contributing editor at National Affairs. He has also appeared on a number of radio and television shows. He is the co-author of a book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
Asif Azam Siddiqi is a historian who has specialized in the history of Russian space program. A Guggenheim Fellow, Siddiqi has written several books on the subject. His first book, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974, is considered the best English-language history of the Soviet space program. Wall Street Journal called it as "one of the five best books" on space exploration.
(1) "Selected Population Profile in the United States: 2013 American Community Survey", American Community Survey 2013, American Fact Finder, US Census Bureau.
(2) "The Bangladeshi Diaspora in the United States", RAD Diaspora Profile, July 2014, Migration Policy Institute (seefile:///C:/Users/Deb/Downloads/RAD-Bangladesh%20(3).pdf)
(3) "Bangladeshi Americans" by J. Sydney Jones, Countries and Their Cultures Forum
For general reference, see http://www.everyculture.com/multi/A-Br/Bangladeshi-Americans.html
Author’s Note: The author is deeply indebted to various resources, previous writers and the Internet sources on the subject. The author is particularly grateful to Debajyoti Chatterji for active material support and the enormous time he spent in editing the write-up that brought it up to its current form.
(Posted October 1, 2015)
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