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Bengalis Come to the Table Without Partitions

The authentic Bangladeshi restaurant on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. seems more like a family room than a restaurant. It draws people together from Bangladesh and India that share the Bengali ethnicity but whose countries have been separated by conflict since 1947.
The authentic Bangladeshi restaurant on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. seems more like a family room than a restaurant. It draws people together from Bangladesh and India that share the Bengali ethnicity but whose countries have been separated by conflict since 1947.

At 6 p.m., the place was still empty, and only one person had trickled in.

Two hours later, seven people were crammed around a table meant for four, with newspapers, cups of tea and food items littering the wooden top.

The authentic Bangladeshi restaurant on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. seemed more like a family room than a restaurant. It draws people together from Bangladesh and India that share the Bengali ethnicity but whose countries have been separated by conflict since 1947.

Delicious Bengali dishes like “hilsa fish,” or goat “biryani” made their way to the tables occupied by members of the Bengali diaspora, their camaraderie overshadowing the chicken, fish or beef. Hilsa — called the “queen of fishes”— is a Bangladeshi delicacy and in danger of being overfished. Biryani is a South Asian mix of rice, vegetable and meat.

Gharer Khabar
Gharer Khabar

From the outside, Gharer Khabar -- which means “homemade food” in Bengali -- looks like many other narrow restaurants with plate-glass front windows in northern Virginia. Operated and owned by Nasima Shahreen and Ashraful Siddique, a Bangladeshi immigrant couple, it sits in a strip mall on busy Lee Highway.

But inside, Gharer Khabar turns the restaurant into a place where “homemade food” comes from a kitchen of love.

“My goal was that,” said Nasima Shahreen, co-owner and head cook of Gharer Khabar. “Homemade food with affection, with love.”

Shahreen and her husband, Ashraful, both from Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, emigrated to the U.S. at the end of 2003.

The couple worked as sales representatives before starting a part-time catering business in Bengali food. When the first order came nearly 12 years ago, the couple had never imagined owning a restaurant of their own.

They only dreamt of it.

Nasima Shahreen and Ashraful Siddique
Nasima Shahreen and Ashraful Siddique

“Till now, I am not a trained cook. I don’t know how it happened, so I just cook like for passion,” Shahreen said. “But it happened.”

Their first order came from an immigrant Bengali family from Kolkata, India, who needed help after the birth of their child. They read an advertisement about homemade catered food in a Bengali community website.

“We prepared some fish, vegetables and rice,” Siddique recalled. “We gave it to them. They liked it.”

Next week, an order came in to feed 30 people, Siddique said.

And then, word spread among the Bengali diaspora in the Washington metropolitan area. Approximately 10,000 Bangladesh-born residents live there, according to a 2014 Migration Policy Institute report. And, at least 2,500 to 3,000 Bengalis from India are said to reside in the area, according to Somin Mukherji, who retired from the World Bank in 2014 and is a longtime Washington resident from Kolkata.

Bengali-Indians also come to Gharer Khabar to bond with immigrants from Bangladesh because of familiar language, food and culture.

The union of Bengalis are poignant because the province of Bengal was divided along religious lines in 1947. West Bengal lies on the India side of the line with a majority Hindu population. On the other side in Bangladesh is a majority Muslim population, which was East Pakistan until 1971. But most people from both those regions are ethnic Bengali and speak Bengali, despite practicing different religions.

“See, like here, they are from Calcutta (Kolkata), and they are from Bangladesh,” Siddique said, pointing to customers in the restaurant. “We have lots of people who come from Calcutta (Kolkata), and we feel like since we have the same language, our food taste is 80 percent is the same, we can connect (with) each other very easily.”

The business grew with constant requests from the diaspora for Bengali cooking, which obliged the couple to open Gharer Khabar at the end of 2011.

Every evening around 8 p.m., Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh and India gather for social and political conversations, play games such as chess and lodo (a board and dice game), and eat Bengali snacks with tea, Shahreen said.

One of them is Nusrat Rabbee.

Rabbee is an immigrant from Dhaka and came to the U.S. in 1981 for her undergraduate degree in computer science and economics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She moved to Washington from northern California in August to teach at the University of Maryland.

Since coming to Washington, Rabbee has been to Gharer Khabar almost every week, she said.

Drawn to its authentic Bangladeshi food, Rabbee was initially shy. She quietly ate her food and left, she said.

But, now that’s changed. The hospitality of the owners and the vibrant community of Gharer Khabar has empowered her to join the discussions of others.

“Gharer Khabar is a community center for all of us,” Rabbee told VOA StudentU. “When I enter, it feels like the sitcom ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name.

Bangladeshi Bengali restaurant
Bangladeshi Bengali restaurant

“They know what you like to eat.”

This wasn’t the case in northern California, Rabbee said. Even though similar communities existed, a class divide remained, wherein political and social intellectual exchanges referred to as “adda” in Bengali were constrained among the educated elites.

Such is not the case at Gharer Khabar, Rabbee said.

Conversations don’t revolve around reminiscing Bangladesh, Rabbee said. They, instead revolve around art, politics and social issues.

One compelling debate Rabbee participated in was on whether publication of animal slaughter pictures from Eid-ul-Adha on Facebook should be acceptable. Eid-ul-Adha is a a holy Muslim festival, also called the Sacrifice Feast, and is observed, among other rituals though the sacrifice of a sheep, cow, goat, buffalo or camel.

In that discussion, "women's voices were audible,” Rabbee told VOAStudentU. “I liked that.”

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Report: US could have 2.8M international students in 10 years

FILE - Students walk on the campus of Boston College, April 29, 2024, in Boston.
FILE - Students walk on the campus of Boston College, April 29, 2024, in Boston.

The United States, which currently has 1,057,188 students from 210 countries, could have 2.8 million students by 2034, according to a report in India’s Free Press Journal.

The report says India is likely to make a significant contribution to the increase, along with China, Vietnam, Nigeria and Bangladesh. (June 2024)

Small group of colleges educates 20% of undergrads 

FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.
FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.

A group of just 102 public and private, four-year U.S. colleges and universities has an enrollment of 3.3 million students – about 1 in 5 of the nation’s undergraduates.

The Chronicle of Higher Education took a look at the institutions, their locations and their students. (June 2024)

After $1B gift, most Johns Hopkins medical students won't pay tuition

A sign stands in front of part of the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex, July 8, 2014, in Baltimore. Most medical students at Johns Hopkins University will no longer pay tuition thanks to a $1 billion gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
A sign stands in front of part of the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex, July 8, 2014, in Baltimore. Most medical students at Johns Hopkins University will no longer pay tuition thanks to a $1 billion gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Most medical students at Johns Hopkins University will no longer pay tuition thanks to a $1 billion gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies announced Monday.

Starting in the fall, the donation will cover full tuition for medical students from families earning less than $300,000. Living expenses and fees will be covered for students from families who earn up to $175,000.

Bloomberg Philanthropies said that currently almost two-thirds of all students seeking a doctor of medicine degree from Johns Hopkins qualify for financial aid, and 45% of the current class will also receive living expenses. The school estimates that graduates' average total loans will decrease from $104,000 currently to $60,279 by 2029.

The gift will also increase financial aid for students at the university's schools of nursing, public health, and other graduate schools.

"By reducing the financial barriers to these essential fields, we can free more students to pursue careers they're passionate about – and enable them to serve more of the families and communities who need them the most," Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg LP, said in a statement on Monday. Bloomberg received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1964.

FILE - Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg speaks during the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York, Sept. 19, 2023.
FILE - Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg speaks during the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York, Sept. 19, 2023.

The gift will go to John Hopkins' endowment and every penny will go directly to students, said Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University.

"Mike has really been moved by the challenges that the professions confronted during the course of the pandemic and the heroic efforts they've made to protecting and providing care to American citizens during the pandemic," Daniels said in an interview. "I think he simply wanted to recognize the importance of these fields and provide this support to ensure that the best and brightest could attend medical school and the school of nursing and public health."

Bloomberg Philanthropies previously gifted $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins in 2018 to ensure that undergraduate students are accepted regardless of their family's income.

Johns Hopkins will be the latest medical school to offer free tuition to most or all of their medical students.

In February Ruth Gottesman, a former professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the widow of a Wall Street investor, announced that she was donating $1 billion to the school. The gift meant that four-year students immediately received free tuition and all other students will be offered free tuition in the fall.

In 2018, Kenneth and Elaine Langone gave $100 million to the NYU Grossman School of Medicine to make tuition free for all current and future medical students through an endowment fund. The couple gave a second gift of $200 million in 2023 to the NYU Grossman Long Island School of Medicine to guarantee free tuition for all medical students. Kenneth Langone is a co-founder of Home Depot.

Other medical schools, like UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, offer merit-based scholarships thanks to some $146 million in donations from the recording industry mogul, David Geffen. The Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine has also offered tuition-free education for medical students since 2008.

Candice Chen, associate professor, Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University, has researched the social missions of medical schools and had a strong reaction to the recent major gifts to John Hopkins, NYU and Albert Einstein.

"Collectively the medical schools right now, I hate to say this, but they're failing in terms of producing primary care, mental health specialists as well as the doctors who will work in and serve in rural and underserved communities," Chen said. She would have loved to see this gift go to Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, for example, which is a historically Black school that has produced many primary care doctors who work in communities that have shortages.

Bloomberg granted Meharry Medical College $34 million in 2020 as part of a $100 million gift he made to four Black medical schools to help reduce the debt of their medical students for four years.

There have been only a handful of previous $1 billion donations to universities in the U.S., most coming in the past several years.

In 2022, the venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife, Ann, gave $1.1 billion to Stanford University for a new school focusing on climate change.

The small liberal arts school McPherson College has received two matching pledges since 2022 from an anonymous donor totaling $1 billion. The school, which has around 800 enrolled students, has a program for automotive restoration and is located 57 miles north of Wichita, Kansas.

Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, gave $3 billion to charities in 2023, making him one of the largest donors, according to research by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Fewer job opportunities for computer science majors 

FILE - Students walk out of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
FILE - Students walk out of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Recent computer science majors are finding entry-level jobs harder to come by, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper found that tech companies are scaling back on hiring and turning more attention to artificial intelligence. (May 2024)

Bangladeshi protesters demand end to civil service job quotas

FILE - Students and job seekers shouts slogans as they protest, calling for a ban on quotas for government jobs, at Shahbagh Square in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2024.
FILE - Students and job seekers shouts slogans as they protest, calling for a ban on quotas for government jobs, at Shahbagh Square in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2024.

Thousands of Bangladeshi university students threw roadblocks across key highways Sunday, demanding the end of "discriminatory" quotas for coveted government jobs, including reserving posts for children of liberation heroes.

Students in almost all major universities took part, demanding a merit-based system for well-paid and massively over-subscribed civil service jobs.

"It's a do-or-die situation for us," protest coordinator Nahidul Islam told AFP, during marches at Dhaka University.

"Quotas are a discriminatory system," the 26-year-old added. "The system has to be reformed."

The current system reserves more than half of posts, totaling hundreds of thousands of government jobs.

That includes 30% reserved for children of those who fought to win Bangladeshi independence in 1971, 10% for women, and 10% percent set aside for specific districts.

Students said only those quotas supporting ethnic minorities and disabled people — 6% of jobs — should remain.

Critics say the system benefits children of pro-government groups, who back Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was Bangladesh's founding leader.

Hasina, 76, won her fourth consecutive general election in January, in a vote without genuine opposition parties, with a widespread boycott and a major crackdown against her political opponents.

Critics accuse Bangladeshi courts of rubber-stamping decisions made by her government.

The system was initially abolished after weeks of student protests in 2018.

But in June, Dhaka's High Court rolled that back, saying the cancellation had been invalid.

'Wasting their time'

Hasina has condemned the protests, saying the matter had been settled by the court.

"Students are wasting their time," Hasina told female activists from her party Sunday, Bangladeshi newspapers reported.

"After the court's verdict, there is no justification for the anti-quota movement."

Protests began earlier in July and have grown.

"We will bury the quota system," students chanted Sunday in Bangladesh’s second city Chittagong, where hundreds of protesters marched.

In Dhaka, hundreds of students disrupted traffic for hours, police said.

At the elite Jahangirnagar University, at least 500 students blocked the highway connecting the capital with southeastern Bangladesh "for two hours," local police chief A.F.M. Shahed told AFP.

Bin Yamin Molla, a protest leader, said at least 30,000 students participated in the protests, although the number could not be verified.

Bangladesh was one of the world's poorest countries when it gained independence in 1971, but it has grown an average of more than 6% each year since 2009.

Hasina has presided over that breakneck economic growth, with per capita income in the country of 170 million people overtaking India in 2021.

But much of that growth has been on the back of the mostly female factory workforce powering its garment export industry, and economists say there is an acute crisis of jobs for millions of university students.

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