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Eastern dreams meet Western realities: Portraits of Bangladeshi immigrants

More than 277,000 immigrants from Bangladesh live in the United States. That number may grow if the country's 'descent into lawlessness' continues.

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In 1974, Kayes Ahmed got on a one-way flight out of Bangladesh to begin an indefinite self-imposed exile from the country he fought to free.  All he had was a little money, a lot of ambition, and a keen survival instinct.

In 1987, Ahmed made his fortune by programming a billing system for AT&T, helping solve issues they were having linking up the “last mile” for telephone exchange networks in California. Along with two fellow immigrants, he lived and worked in a switch room to develop the system. After months of work, his huge gamble paid off when they connected the system to AT&T.

“We were making $400,000 from day one, every day. We went from nothing to an $80 million company.” Ahmed snaps his fingers. “Just like that.”

Twenty years later Ahmed returned to the country of his birth, a millionaire many times over, with the hope that he could bring a little bit of the American dream back with him.

Ahmed’s story is not one you expect to hear about someone from Bangladesh, if the media’s coverage of the country is anything to go by.  Journalists frequently describe Bangladesh with words like “poverty,” “violence,” “disaster,” and “corruption.” A recent editorial by The New York Times describes the country’s “descent into lawlessness,” highlighting the recent killings of a prominent LGBT activist and others who have spoken out against Islamic extremism.

The instability of the region may very well lead to an increase in Bangladeshis making the long, dangerous journey to claim asylum in the U.S. The exodus may also lead to more calls by politicians like Donald Trump to “build a wall” to keep migrants out, particularly migrants from the Middle East and South Asia who are fleeing from war zones, political persecution or crippling poverty.

But for Ahmed and other Bangladeshi-Americans, immigrants from their homeland inspire words like “hard-working,” “entrepreneurial,” “humble,” and “generous.”  Salt-of-the-earth people who work hard and complain rarely, who raise their children to do well in school and become productive members of society.

Bangladesh is a South Asian country with a population of about 169 million as of 2015.  The country is bordered on three sides by India and by the Bay of Bengal to the South.  It was previously known as East Pakistan until 1971, when the nation won its independence after a bloody war with West Pakistan (now simply known as Pakistan).  Bangladesh is a majority Muslim nation – 90 percent of the population is Muslim, with Hindus comprising the largest minority religion.  Bengali is the national language, and is now the seventh-most spoken language in the world.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, around 277,000 Bangladeshi immigrants and their children live in the United States.  In 1980, only about 5,000 Bangladeshi immigrants lived in the U.S., and almost half (48 percent) of Bangladeshi immigrants arrived in the U.S. after 2000.  Bangladeshi-Americans tend to be better educated than the national average (in terms of holding Bachelor’s degrees) and have a higher median income ($54,000 vs. $50,000 nationally). In 2012, Bangladeshi-Americans sent back $14.1 billion in remittances back to family in Bangladesh, which represented 12.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. This makes Bangladesh the third most remittance-dependent nation in the world, behind Haiti and El Salvador.

CU News Corps spoke to three Bangladeshi immigrants living in Colorado to hear their own stories of coming to America, adapting to American society, and to gain their insights on the immigration process and the situation in Bangladesh.

‘They will essentially be killed’

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Trump has stoked fears among Americans that Muslim terrorists are flooding into the U.S. through the porous Mexican border. While there is no evidence to support the claim, Shirin Chowdhury, an interpreter for Bangladeshi migrants who have been detained by U.S. government, is able to provide insight about Bangladeshis who have been trying to cross the border illegally.

Chowdhury is a 66-year-old insurance claims adjuster who resides in Highlands Ranch. She has been a Colorado resident since 1969, when she immigrated to the United States as the spouse of a legal permanent resident. Shirin also works as an interpreter for a company providing translation services to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Several times a month, she is called on to interpret for Bangladeshi detainees being held at detention centers in Colorado, Arizona, California, Texas, and Washington D.C. Over the past few years, she has noticed a considerable increase in detainees who are claiming political asylum because they are supporters of the main opposition political party in Bangladesh — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP — which is aligned with a radical Islamist group, Jamaat-e-Islami.

She says the story they tell her is usually the same – the detainee claims to have been harassed and threatened by members of the ruling party, the Awami League, for supporting the BNP, and so they were forced to flee Bangladesh and seek asylum in the U.S.

“They say that if they don’t get asylum and get deported back to Bangladesh,” Chowdhury says, “they will essentially be killed.”

They usually describe the same journey in reaching America: the detainee first contacts a smuggler in Dhaka, who promises safe passage to the U.S. border for the hefty fee of $15,000 to $20,000.  After the money is paid, the smuggler gives them forged documents and puts them on a flight out of Bangladesh, usually to Dubai or other hubs in the Middle East. They are then transferred from port to port via a “chain of smugglers,” each passing the detainee off to another mule for each leg of the journey.

She charts the journey one detainee claimed he travelled to get to America — from Dhaka, to Dubai, to South America, where he was smuggled by ground vehicles through Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, until he was finally “dumped” in Mexico and left to find his own way over the U.S.-Mexico border. At each stop in the journey, he was locked in motel rooms, up to 10 days at a time, until it was safe to make the next border crossing.

When the detainees reach Mexico, they are usually apprehended by the police, who confiscate their paperwork and give them 30 days to leave the country or face imprisonment.  Fearing torturous conditions in Mexican prisons, they attempt the long journey to the U.S. border, and by the time they reach their destination, Chowdhury says many are “almost starving to death.”

Those who make it to the border either give themselves up and try to claim asylum at an immigration checkpoint, or get arrested by American Border Patrol while trying to enter illegally.  They are then placed in detention centers, where Shirin translates for them during their asylum and removal hearings.

One problem these detainees face is their claims of affiliation to the BNP, which was recently designated by the Department of Homeland Security as a Tier III/Undesignated terrorist organization.  The designation was applied because of the BNP’s past affiliations with Jamaat and other fundamentalist Islamist groups who have held responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, including an attack involving almost 500 small bombs which were set off simultaneously across the country.

The effect of this designation is those who claim affiliation with the BNP will be denied asylum, and can be deported back to their country of origin or held indefinitely in detention centers.  Advocacy groups have expressed alarm about the treatment of these detainees, and last Thanksgiving more than 100 Bangladeshi and South Asian detainees went on hunger strikes at several ICE detention centers. Many of these detainees have been held for up to two years without any change in their status.

However, a recent federal court ruling may begin to change the government’s policy towards Bangladeshi detainees. In July, 2015, an immigration court judge ruled that the BNP is not a terrorist organization, and allowed a Bangladeshi detainee to apply for asylum.  While the ruling is not binding for all cases, it has put more pressure on the DHS to justify the terrorist designation label.

Still, the political situation in Bangladesh itself remains very volatile. Minorities, particularly Hindus and atheists, have been subject to oppression and violence by fundamentalist Islamic groups for decades, with a heavy escalation in attacks over the past few years.

The country has been rocked by a series of grisly hacking murders mainly targeting atheist and secularist bloggers who have spoken out against Islamic extremism. At least six such murders have been carried out over the past year with two of the latest victims being gay rights activists, one of whom was the editor of the nation’s first LGBT magazine. Militant groups related to al Qaeda and ISIS have claimed responsibility for the attacks, while Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has dismissed the notion of terrorist groups operating in the country, instead blaming opposition terrorist groups.

Ahmed believes that the best qualities of Bangladeshi immigrants are that they are “humble, modest, and have a great desire to succeed.”  He says that Bangladeshis have an innate “survival instinct” borne out of the specter of crippling poverty that all Bangladeshis have seen or experienced.

However, he does believe that many Bangladeshi immigrants fail to properly assimilate into American society, choosing not to socialize or network with their American neighbors and instead “stick to their own” enclaves and communities.  This alienation from American society is, he believes, a reason why some second generation immigrants face an identity crisis when they essentially live in separate worlds; Bangladesh when they are at home with their family, and America on the outside.

As a result, he says, some of these young people become radicalized by fundamentalist Islam.  They desire an identity and purpose and they feel they can find in that particular brand of Islamism, which he describes as having a “dark, violent, core.” He says this is how terrorists are born, and why it is important for the Bengali community to try to do more to integrate into American society instead of being suppressed by their religion.

‘I was going to do something’

Ahmed is a 58-year-old businessman and entrepreneur who resides in Boulder. He was born in Sylhet, a city in the northeast of the country then known as East Pakistan, the son of a grocery store owner. His father made “just barely enough to survive” while also raising his five sisters and one brother in a home that had no electricity or other luxuries of modern life.

With little in the way of wealth as a child, and not much to do besides school, Ahmed used to go into town to read and check out books for free from the local outpost of the United States Information Service (USIS, later known as the United States Information Agency). USIS was a U.S. government-funded agency which provided libraries of American books, radio broadcasts, movies and other media in other nations to spread American culture around the world, and to counter Soviet propaganda.

“I started reading in English because of the USIS,” he says, recalling how he used to read works by Mark Twain and Hemingway by the light of a kerosene lamp. He enjoyed illustrations of the prairies and vistas of the American West, and it became his first exposure to this part of the world.

Kayes Ahmed on a rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal. Courtesy of Kayes Ahmed

Kayes Ahmed on a rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo courtesy of Kayes Ahmed.

In 1971, war broke out between East and West Pakistan.  Ahmed, then a teenager, fled the violence with his family to a remote part of the country.  They were among millions of refugees who would eventually become displaced during the war.  Once his family was safe, Ahmed left them to join the local militia, who would later become known as the Mukthi Bahini (Freedom Fighters).

“I didn’t know I was joining the freedom fighters,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was going to do something, because these people were killing our people.  It was not a sustained political thought… and when you’re 15, you do things that may or may not be the brightest things in your life, but that is what I was doing.”

Ahmed wound up crossing the border and arriving at a large refugee camp in Assam, a province in Northeast India, where the Indian military was training volunteers to fight the Pakistani military.

Ahmed stood out among the other irregular fighters for his fearlessness and recklessness, participating in deadly ambushes against Pakistani Army units.  He was willing to do anything asked of him and he quickly gained a reputation as an effective guerilla fighter.

After a few months, his reputation had reached the attention of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency, who recruited him and a few others to be part of a special unit. The unit was put through six weeks of “quick reaction weapons and demolition training,” which included training on how to create and set off Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs.  After training was over, the RAW gave the irregular band of sappers a simple mission: “Go into Sylhet and try to blow up things.”

And that, Ahmed did. From the summer of ‘71 until the end of the war six months later, his unit wreaked havoc for Pakistan’s military.  They set off car bombs, destroyed rail tracks and severely disrupted supply lines, resulting in disarray among the Pakistani forces. The freedom fighters wound up putting up a sustained resistance for eight months, to the complete surprise of their enemy.

As the Pakistani military grew more desperate, it resorted to deadlier and more indiscriminate atrocities.  Some have accused of Pakistan of being complicit in one worst genocides in the post-World War II era. Though it may never be possible to have an accurate casualty toll from the war, it is estimated that at least 500,000 were killed (with the Bangladesh government claiming up to three million) and at least 200,000 women were victims of genocidal rape. Tens of millions were internally displaced or became refugees.

Eventually, the collective efforts of the freedom fighters and assistance from the Indian military steadily decimated the Pakistani forces until independence became all but inevitable.  On December 16, 1971, Pakistan surrendered unconditionally. Bangladesh was born.

Though he had fought to help free Bangladesh, Ahmed no longer felt at home there.  The ruling party (the Awami League) became more and more autocratic and intolerant of dissent after the war.  This disillusionment, along with numerous run-ins with the law, led him to make the decision to leave Bangladesh behind and move to London.  He had an uncle there who sponsored him for a short-term tourist visa.  In 1974, after having a birth certificate forged (unlike the West, birth certificates were not commonly issued in Bangladesh until relatively recently), he was granted a visa to visit London and left Bangladesh for the first time in his life.

During his time in the UK, Ahmed studied computer science at the University of Manchester and became very active in student politics. He participated in protests against the Awami League, including an occupation of the Bangladesh Embassy.  The Bangladesh government subsequently revoked his citizenship, leaving him with no statehood and no way to travel across borders. The United Nations granted him a Displaced Person’s Identity Card, a document that allows refugees and others who lives are endangered to travel freely.  This enabled Ahmed to apply for, and receive, a student visa to pursue his MBA in the United States.

The process was easy, he says, because the U.S. values immigrants “who are educated or skilled” and feels that it is a fair system.  In 1978, he made his way to America, the place he would finally call home.

Ahmed’s first port of call was New York City, which is home to the largest Bengali community in America.  On the very first night after arriving, he started a job driving a cab at night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.  After saving enough money to pursue his graduate degree, he got a full scholarship to pursue a MBA at Indiana University.  He received his MBA in 1981, and then he spent years hopping around the country, getting hired and fired from job after job.  He readily admits he was not a model employee.

“I used to never take calls, even from my bosses, and that used to drive them up the wall.”

During this time, he received his “Green Card” to become a legal permanent resident, and in 1987 became a naturalized American citizen.

That same year, 1987, Ahmed made his fortune by programming that billing system for AT&T.

Ahmed lived the big life for years, but “the money got to [his] head.”  He bought cars and planes, rode the roller coaster rises of the U.S. economy.  Today, he is living a comfortable, much more modest life as the chief operations officer of a designer outerwear company based in Longmont. He visits Bangladesh every six months or so to create new business ventures and opportunities, including a garment factory. He has a daughter, Alex, whom he considers his pride and joy, and the product of his many years struggling to survive and succeed.

‘Immigration law was not as tough’

Taufiq Raihan is a 53-year-old small business owner in Aurora who came to the U.S. from Bangladesh about 30 years ago.

Taufiq Raihan in his home office in Aurora, CO.

Taufiq Raihan in his home office in Aurora, CO.

He began his journey out of Bangladesh in the early ’80s as a merchant marine, traveling the high seas as a sailor and engineer on commercial vessels between ports all over the world.  His journeys took him all over Europe — from Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Bulgaria, to the Mideast – Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Iran.  After four years working as a sailor, Raihan decided to make the U.S. his final port of call.

In April, 1986, he arrived in Charleston, North Carolina on a freighter hauling iron ore.  Instead of using the plane ticket he was given to go back home after the crew change, he wound up going to New York City and staying in the U.S., becoming an undocumented immigrant.

While trying to figure out ways to obtain legal status, Raihan met an American woman at an immigration office.  They hit it off, and eventually married. After she helped guide him through the process, he applied for permanent residency as the husband of an American citizen. His paperwork was expedited with help from the Department of Defense, which had hired him for his specific engineering skill set.

Less than a year later, he left the United States and legally re-entered the country through an immigration checkpoint on the Canadian border, where he was able to obtain his Green Card.  The way he sees it, “at the time, immigration law was not as tough as now.”

Having gained legal status, Raihan went in search of a career, seeking to end a life of random odd-jobs.  He had already received certification in “Toxic Waste and Hazardous Materials Dispose and Decontamination” from a technical school in Connecticut.  This training, along with his experience as an engineer working in hazardous areas, allowed him to get the job at the Department of Defense. They needed him for a major project going on in Colorado – the clean-up of hazardous materials from Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, two of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the country.

Photos of Taufiq Raihan as a young man on the high seas.In July, 1990, Raihan first arrived in Denver and began work cleaning up the sites.  His work involved the disposal and decontamination of radioactive material in both facilities, where nuclear and chemical weapons had been produced for decades.  Working with protective suits and equipment, he assumed he was safe.

“Even with all the training, precautions, and equipment there, sometimes you get exposed to it without knowing,” he says.

Because of his work, he was required to undergo intense random medical checkups every three months.  It was during one such checkup that he found out radiation was getting into his blood and affecting his kidneys, and after two more failed exams his doctor disqualified him from doing any more HAZMAT work.

The U.S. government had set up retraining programs for workers like Raihan who were medically disqualified, and he used that opportunity to go back to school and receive certification as an HVAC technician from the Denver Institute of Technology in 1996.  He used that training to build his own HVAC business, Royal Bengal Mechanical, which provides HVAC servicing throughout the metro Denver area.

As for concerns about Muslims in America, Raihan points to his eldest son, who served with distinction in the Army Reserves for seven years while maintaining his Muslim faith. He places the blame for terrorism at the feet of fundamentalist Muslim leaders.

“It’s time for us to speak up [against these preachers],” Raihan says, “who have hijacked the religion.”

He says these leaders have turned people who are already troubled into killers, but these people are not limited to the Muslim faith.

“What David Koresh did in Waco, Texas – we didn’t shut down the churches. What Jim Jones did [enabling a mass murder-suicide], we didn’t seize all the Bibles… so the media just focuses on us [Muslims] right now.”

Raihan mentions Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist suspected of perpetrating the massacre of black Christian parishioners at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“These are maniacs… this is the mindset of people who believe in destruction, and they try to excuse their destructive, evil behavior under the shelter of religion,” Raihan says.

‘Because this is a free country’

Bangladeshi immigrants like Shirin Chowdhury, Kayes Ahmed and Taufiq Raihan will not forget where they came from, and will continue to welcome other immigrants with open arms.

“I’ve been a business owner for 13 owners,” Raihan says. “When I hire someone, I look for an immigrant. You know why?  They know the value of the dollar. They’re gonna give you a hard day of work.  They know their job is their future, that will bring the bread and butter on their table for him and his family.”

A constant refrain for Bangladeshis and other immigrants coming to the U.S. – legally or otherwise – is the pursuit of the “American Dream.”  While it’s a nebulous concept for many, to Ahmed it has always been rather clear.

As an American citizen, he has been able to help sponsor and bring all five of his sisters and his brother to the U.S., all of whom have become successful in their own ventures. He says that the U.S. immigration system is fair, and he believes the U.S. will always welcome those who have the right education and skill set. He doesn’t believe that the immigration system is discriminatory against certain countries. Most importantly, the U.S. system allows dreamers like himself to become wealthy.

“I have a lifestyle that I like, and my child will have a better lifestyle than me,” Ahmed says. “Because this is a free country.”

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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
Eastern dreams meet Western realities: Portraits of Bangladeshi immigrants