Smoothing the Path for Bangladeshis

By and    Published May 23, 2011

BRONX – When Mohammed Mujumder arrived in the United States from his native Bangladesh 22 years ago, he found no one to advise him about how to succeed in his new country.

How did one find work? Obtain an affordable place to live? Find halal (pork-free) food as his Islamic faith dictated?

Six months went by before Mujumder, who had been a lawyer in Bangladesh, got a job. Only after he stopped presenting himself as an attorney to potential employers – even when he was applying for a job as a grocery clerk – did he land a gig.

“Do they need a lawyer in a grocery store? No, hell no!” Mujumder recalled with a grin. “Only say your name and that you want work.”

Free Advice

This is the kind of practical advice that Mujumder, 47, offers newer Bangladeshi immigrants for free every Saturday at his Parkchester Tax Immigration and Legal Services business in the Bronx. During the week, he works full-time as a paralegal at a law firm in midtown Manhattan.

“I tell them how to get a job, how to navigate government benefits,” Mujumder said, his hand movements punctuating his speech, delivered in heavily accented English. “If you cannot become doctor, become nurse. Be more dummy, become nurse’s aide. Be more dummy, become pharmacist’s assistant.

“I raise awareness about how to be successful,” he said.

The Bangladeshi community in Parkchester and surrounding neighborhoods making up Community District 9 in the Bronx has swelled since Mujumder and his family first moved to the area in 1989. With low-cost housing a major lure, the neighborhood’s Bangladeshi population has more than doubled to 3,287 in 2010 from 1,388 in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The overall Asian population in the Bronx has grown more than 20 percent since 2000.

Along a stretch of Starling Avenue between Castle Hill Avenue and Unionport Road, the presence of dozens of Bangladeshi retailers, restaurants, and grocery stores prompted the City Council in 2008 to rename the strip Bangla Bazaar. Parkchester locals refer to the area as Little Bangladesh.

Shopkeepers said their businesses continue to fill a growing need.

“We had a lot of Bengali community people, but we didn’t have any good restaurants,” said Mohammed Rahman Khokon, who opened Neerob, a Bangladeshi restaurant on Starling a little more than two years ago. “People went to Jackson Heights or Jamaica for our Bangladeshi food.”

Anwara Sultana clerks at the Nishat Elegance store that her nephew owns on McGraw Avenue just west of Unionport Road. The shop, which specializes in the silken saris, bejeweled dresses and gold-plated bracelets and bangles common in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, is the only one of its kind in the area, Sultana said.

“All the people love the Indian style,” said Sultana, whose family operated a similar clothing store in Bangladesh.

Making a Mark

Like the largely Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrant communities who populated the area decades before them, the Bangladeshi community in Community District 9 has steadily increased its presence in terms of home and business ownership – and political participation.

Mujumder is a member of Community Board 9, an appointee of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully to be a Democratic Party judicial convention delegate. He may consider a run for City Council at some point, he said.

“I’d love to see him run,” said Abu Shakoor, 67, a retired electrical engineer and friend of Mujumder, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1971. “He’s worked so hard for the past 20 years. People, after being successful, they go into politics to give something back and help the people.

“We have experienced a demographic change,” added Shakoor, who is a member of the Parkchester condominium board and is assistant district governor of the local Rotary Club. “Sometimes public officials have the good intent to represent everybody, but sometimes they can’t address their issues because they don’t know their language, their culture. So it’s important that somebody should represent them from within their community.”

Visiting ‘Our Leader’

Mujumder’s “our leader,” Jashim Uddin Mahmud said as he met with him one recent Saturday to get advice on finding a job. Mahmud and his wife came to this country on an immigrant visa one year ago after being sponsored by his father-in-law, who immigrated to the U.S. earlier.

Mahmud was among about a half-dozen men waiting to be shown into Mujumder’s inner office. They sat in metal chairs lined along the wall of the narrow first-floor apartment of a row house where Mujumder’s tax and immigration office is housed.

Diplomas, certificates and commendations citing Mujumder’s accomplishments hung on the walls of the waiting area and inner office: past and now incoming president of the Central Bronx Rotary Club; president of the Bangladeshi American Community Council; his master of laws degree from Touro College; a certificate indicating his successful completion of a paralegal course; an invite to last year’s Christmas party thrown by the borough president’s father, State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. and State Assemblyman Marcos Crespo.

Inside Mujumder’s office, Mahmud explained that he edited a weekly newspaper in Bangladesh and that he had some accounting experience. He moved to the Bronx a month ago from Boston, where he had had no luck finding work. Now, he was willing to take “any job.”

Mujumder’s career advice was pragmatic.

Hard Work

“I’m advising him to go into accounting,” he said. “Telling him to go to Baruch. Become a CPA. Looking for a job has to be a job. Any job. You do anything to survive.”

Part of helping new immigrants adjust to their new lives in the U.S. is breaking down their perceptions about their adopted country, said Yesin Kowshik, Mujumder’s assistant for the last four years. Kowshik, 18 and a college student, arrived in the U.S. with his family when he was 3.

New immigrants “think America is the land of riches,” Kowshik said. “They don’t see the hard work you have to go through to be successful.”

That’s where Mujumder comes in.

“People who have been here longer should look back at others less fortunate,” Mujumder said. “It is my job to help them.”

Text by Dara N. Sharif

Video by Ashley Welch