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Bangladeshi Elders “Imprisoned” by U.S. Culture

Resource type: News

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By Abu Taher.  Rezina Begum, 65, moved to New York just a year ago to live with her daughter’s family, only to find her lifelong perception of America as a living poem of happiness, pleasure and prosperity turned upside down.

“What a life it is,” Begum said. “Everyone is busy with himself. There is no time to look back, no time to see relatives. We are not human beings; it’s as if everyone is a machine. It’s as if happiness, sorrow, joy and tears have fled from us over time. What kind of life is this?”

New America Media/Bangla Patrika, News Feature, Abu Taher

Not only did Begum echo the sense of distress expressed by other senior immigrants from Bangladesh, but also interviews for this article with Bangladeshi leaders in social, religious and media organizations confirmed that none of the groups has taken any initiative to address the issue of old age, even though Bangladeshi elders face linguistic, social and community problems here.

Little for Bangladeshi Elders

The culture of respect for elders in Bangladesh often gives way in the United States to the struggle for survival as a new community, Rana Ferdous, general secretary of the Bangladesh Society of New York, said in an interview.

For many Bangladeshi families, Ferdous said, the day-to-day effort and stress of just getting by means that many who have brought their aging parents here cannot properly take care of them.

Ferdous conceded that her organization has not yet developed specific programs for Banglaseshi seniors, but the group will soon consider how to respond to the increasing number of elders asking them for help.

Even though most older immigrants don’t speak English, mosques and community centers where they go each day don’t have an interpreter. Nasir Uddin Ahmed, president of the Modina Mosque in New York, said there is no infrastructure for the seniors in the Bangladeshi community there.

Ahmed, known in the community as Advocate Nasiruddin, said the mosques do provide older people considerable emotional support, but elders often go to different mosques where many remain idle for the whole day. Often, Nasiruddin went on, they seem perturbed by the disappointments in their lives.

Anisuzzaman Khokan, director of Rupashi Bangla, the oldest television channel for New York’s Bangladeshi community, noted that because the social systems of Bangladesh and the United States are so different, those who come to the United States first must withstand a heavy jolt at any age. For the seniors the problems go especially deep.

Not only are many Bangladeshis arriving in this country in their later years, usually sponsored by relatives, but quite a few who immigrated when they were younger are now experiencing the challenges of old age, observed Bedarul Islam Babla, former president of the Bangladesh League of America, the first organization of Bangladeshis in the United States.

Loose Family Bonds in U.S.

Rezina Begum, who lived and taught school in Sylhet, Bangladesh, she said that in spite of being with her loving family, she felt “imprisoned” by her inability to talk with them because of the loose family and social bonds that come with America’s fast lifestyle.

She found herself largely isolated from the Bangladeshi community and alienated by
the materialistic attitudes of her children and grandchildren, which she finds cold and disrespectful of elders.

American television is too crass and commercial, she observed, and only the occasional Bengali newspaper or video helps her pass the time.

In Bangladesh, she said, despite unanswered wants, sorrow and impoverishment, the people have not lost “the warmth of their hearts.”

Like Begum, Nurul Islam immigrated to New York to be with his daughter’s family. He found everyone too busy to spend time together. For elders, he said, “Times goes by slowly. One can’t find the words to describe how sad this is.”

Islam stated, “Every moment is poisonous. In Bangladesh I was a professor at the Bangla literature department at Sandwip Mustafizur Rahman College, near the port city of Chittagong. Everyone used to respect me there.”

Graying at the Mosque

One place where Bangladeshi elders are sure to find respect and comfort is the mosque. Late on a recent afternoon at Manhattan’s Modina Mosque, the Prayer of Asr had come to an end.

An old man with a white beard and wearing a traditional white Bengali dress sat in the northern corner of the mosque reading with concentration, as some other people gathered before him were doing.

No one spoke with one other, but their lips were moving. At first they seemed to carry the weariness of many years. But by the end of their prayer, they sat in a circle with a look of happiness clear on their faces. For some time they engaged in gossip and finally parted company at around 9 p.m.

One of these elders wass Azhar Hossen, about 70, who immigrated to the United States in 2008.

Hossen, who immigrated to New York with his only son, recalled, “I came with many dreams of this country. But my illusion came to an end after being here.”

His son, he said, “has become a different person. He does not know anything else except money and work.” He added, “My grandchild doesn’t understand my language. There is no way to converse with him.”

Hossen struggles to suppress feelings of anger and isolation. Although he says he was seldom sick before coming to the United States, he now suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure.

For Hossen, the mosque is the best place to spend his days. “I come to the mosque right after having my morning shower. I don’t leave the mosque without a special reason. Some days I take both my lunch and dinner here and go to sleep at the residence at night.” The mosque, he emphasized, “is my main home.”

Mainuddin Ahmed, 67, is the resident of New York’s Astoria section. He came to the United States for a better life in 1996. Today, he said, older people like him should not come to the United States.

Unlike life for elders in Bangladesh, Ahmed said, older people here are not recruited for jobs. Also, few older immigrants receive Social Security benefits. As a result, seniors are under constant stress to find work to avoid dependency on others.

“I went from door to door. But no one wants to give me a job due to my age. Everyone wants young people,” Ahmed said.

He soon plans to return to Bangladesh.

Abu Taher, editor of Bangla Patrika, wrote this article as part of New America Media’s Ethnic Elders Fellowship program, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies.

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