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Bangladeshi Community Grows in the United States - 2002-08-12

Bangladesh, the south Asian nation nestled between India and the Bay of Bengal, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. During the last decade, the number of Bangladeshis fleeing economic hardship to settle in the United States has soared. The majority of those Bangladeshi immigrants have settled in New York City.

Immigrants from around the world spend hours in English classes in New York City in an effort to find better jobs and adjust to life in the United States.

But Mohammed Hossain, 32, had no time for English classes when he first moved here from Bangladesh nearly seven years ago. He was too busy working as a driver, a stock trader and a restaurant employee. Mr. Hossain arrived alone and, like most Bangladeshis, he continues to work hard to send money home to his family.

"When I came to this country, I started to work more than 16 hours a day," he said. "Even today. I do without sleep. That is the key, actually."

Mr. Hossain is part of a new wave of immigrants from Bangladesh. He says he "won the lottery" when he was approved for a work visa, called a green card. There were few Bangladeshis in the United States in the early 1980s. But their numbers swelled when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service set up a so-called lottery program to improve diversity among immigrants. By the year 2000, Bangladesh had reached number six on an official government list of source countries for foreign-born residents in New York City.

The U.S. Census, which counts the U.S. population every 10 years, estimates that, in the late 1990s, about 30,000 people of Bangladeshi-origin lived in New York. Local Bangladeshi community leaders say the figure is closer to 100,000.

Mr. Hossain, who has a degree in computer science, is catering to this growing community. Last year, he decided to work for himself, and opened a restaurant serving Indian-Bengali cuisine.

"It is very difficult in this country, but we try. I try my best," he said. "That is why I opened this restaurant. It has a Bengali sign. Bengali and English. So many of my country people come here every day."

The Bangladeshi community is concentrated in a handful of New York neighborhoods, many in Queens county, across the East River from Manhattan.

Mosques provide a place of worship for the predominantly Muslim Bangladeshis. Most work hard, juggling several jobs. Business owners from Bangladesh have opened restaurants, markets, and construction companies. Bangladeshi professionals often work in the computer, science, and pharmacy fields.

Mohammed Wazed Khan is a medical doctor from Bangladesh, who is not licensed to practice here. He now runs a newspaper called The Weekly Bangladesh.

"Our newspaper is dedicated to facilitate the transition into the mainstream, while maintaining Bangladeshi culture and heritage," Mr. Khan said. "The newspaper is also growing in comparison with the growing community. The Weekly Bangladesh is one of 10 newspapers now published by the Bangladeshi community. It has staff of six and a circulation of about 10,000.

The newspaper is printed in Bengali, and focuses on news from Bangladesh. But an English page aims to keep members of the young generation connected with their heritage.

Moshed Alam, a Bangladeshi scientist, who is also an outspoken community activist, moved to New York before the recent wave of immigration. He says the majority of Bangladeshis here struggle economically and remain emotionally tied to their homeland.

"Their body is here, but their mind and heart is back home. So they're more interested in learning, and want to hear about what is happening there, because their family and loved ones are there. So, that's really important to them."

The money that Bangladeshis, including hundreds of teenagers, raise for their relatives back home goes a long way One hundred dollars reportedly can feed a family of three for a month in Bangladesh.

Unlike many of the Bangladeshi immigrants, who come from the capital, Dhaka, Aka Babul was born in a mountainous village, where clean water flows during the winter season from India. Mr. Babul first left Bangladesh for India, where he studied art, but he settled in New York in 1988.

He has paid tribute to what he calls his mother country in Mohammed Hossain's restaurant, where he used tiny brushes to paint a typical scene of Bangladeshi peasants on a river bank.

"There we have a thousand, thousand rivers. The Bangladesh land is the delta, delta land. It's green and low."

Mr. Babul's children have applied for entry visas to the United States. But they have not yet received approval.

Some Bangladeshis in New York say that, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, they have seen a drop in the number of new entry visas issued. They say, they worry that the wave of Bangladeshi immigrants searching for a better life in New York, will be drastically cut back.