Bangladeshis Find Home in Jamaica

Riwaz, on Hillside Avenue at 168th Street, sells saris, lehengas, salwar kameezs and sherwanis.

Article and photos by Ashley Somwaru

When Tahmid Arman moved from Bangladesh to New York three years ago, he left his parents behind. At 19, Arman wanted to follow his dream of getting an education.

Coming from a society where many parents dictate their children’s lives, Arman said his parents let him choose his own future. “They encouraged me to come,” he said.

His daily routine consists of attending Baruch College in Manhattan, where he studies accounting, then heading to his apartment in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Now, he is hoping to move to Jamaica, Queens, where a growing Bangladeshi community will allow him to more closely connect with his culture.

His girlfriend and her family, who are also Bangladeshi, live in Jamaica.

“I never eat at home” in Brooklyn, he said. But in Jamaica, “I can actually get my own food,” Arman added.

Data show a large increase in Bangladeshi residents in the southeastern Queens neighborhoods of Jamaica and Jamaica Estates-Holliswood.

According to U.S. Census data, the Bangladeshi population in Jamaica increased from 516 people in 2000 to 3,976 people in 2010, an increase of more than 670 percent. In Jamaica-Estates-Holliswood, the Bangladeshi population grew from 251 people in 2000 to 1,197 people in 2010, an increase of more than 300 percent.

Stores along Hillside Avenue, from 160th to 190th streets, cater to Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and West Indians in this area.

The growth is further reflected in the U.S. Census American Community Survey, which estimated that the Bangladeshi population in Jamaica Estates-Holliswood grew to 1,691 between 2010 to 2014, while in Jamaica, the population grew to 5,855 over the same time period.

Jim Diego, the senior project manager of the Greater Jamaica Development Corp., said he believed Bangladeshi immigrants have joined the neighborhood’s rich ethnic mix in part because more affordable housing has been made available through programs run by his organization. And residents are drawn to Jamaica because it is a transportation hub served by the city subways, the Long Island Rail Road and AirTrain service to nearby Kennedy Airport, he added.

“The ability to build higher density affordable housing allows for an update of housing stock, to accommodate for the existing diverse population in the area and in southeast Queens, and to attract new residents into the area who may be priced out of other neighborhoods,” Diego said.

Longtime residents such as Chanrautie Jaglal, a Trinidadian woman who has been living in Jamaica for more than 20 years, have noticed a demographic change.

At first Bangladeshi people “started occupying the buildings and houses on Highland Avenue,” she said. “Then they started to move down, toward Hillside Avenue and Jamaica Avenue. Stores on Hillside used to be owned by mostly Spanish, white and Chinese people. Now most of the stores are Bangladeshi.”

Where Highland Avenue meets Hillside Avenue in Jamaica Estates, a collection of stores showcase Bangladeshi culture. Shops offer Bangladeshi food, proudly announcing in window signs that the meat is halal, prepared according to Muslim law. Big-brand stores such as C-Town Supermarket sell a wide variety of halal food; clothing stores sell colorful saris and sherwanis, traditional garments embroidered with jewels and threads in flower blossom designs, which women and men wear to mosque or temple.

In the evenings, crowds of Bangladeshi residents shop along Hillside Avenue for clothing, spices and other food specialties, Jaglal said. The influx of new businesses has resulted in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop moving to a new location and a Caribbean roti shop closing, she added.

The new Bangladeshi population in Jamaica joins an already diverse neighborhood, which includes an African-American population of 10,070, an Indian population of 7,132, a Puerto Rican population of 1,820 and a Dominican population of 2,438, according to the Census data.

According to the Asian American Federation’s Census Information Center, the Bangladeshi population is one of the fastest-growing Asian groups in New York City in recent years, with many Bangladeshi already concentrated in other Queens neighborhoods, such as Astoria, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Queens Village.

Kabita Hossain, co-owner of Dhaka Hajir Biryani with her brother, serves authentic Bangladeshi food.

Kabita Hossain, the co-owner of Dhaka Hajir Biryani, a Bangladeshi restaurant in Jamaica, said she believed the Indian population that was already established in Jamaica helped Bangladeshi people feel more comfortable.

“My brother started this business five years ago,” she said. “He saw that Indian people lived here and wanted to open his store. Indian and Bangladeshi food is the same.”

Hossain said Indian and Bangladeshi people are bonded not only by food but by similarities in their cultures. Through her interactions with Indian and Bangladeshi customers, Hossain found a brotherhood between these two South Asian countries. She warmly greeted an Indian customer with “bhaiya,” which means “big brother” in Hindi.

Mahfujul Islam B Rumee, the publicity secretary of the Bangladesh Society, a nonprofit organization that has worked for 40 years to support Bangladeshi community, said cultural ties inspire Bangladeshi people to move to Jamaica Estates-Holliswood, Jamaica, Queens Village, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.

“We’re a mix of different nationalities but India and Bangladesh are both in South Asia,” he said. “We still share similarities in food, clothing, jewelry, and religion.”

Dhaka Hajir Biryani sits among other businesses catering to immigrant groups in Jamaica.

The Bangladesh Society helps immigrants practice their traditions and religion, celebrating Eid and having halal food days. (Bangladesh is about 90 percent Muslim and 10 percent Hindu, according to U.S. government figures.) The organization also holds a “Mother Language Day” and has programs to help people assimilate to living in New York City, such as providing free help with taxes.

Yet Rumee said the organization is not the only factor in Bangladeshi people’s lives that help them adjust to a new life. The culture in these neighborhoods that share the same goals as Bangladeshi people makes it easier for Bangladeshi people to live in Queens.

“Having people who are Indian or West Indian in the neighborhood helps match the ideals that Bangladeshi people have,” Rumee said. “Being either Muslim or Hindu, we all want to pray. So, Caribbean people or Indian people wanting to build a mosque like we do makes it easy to live together peacefully when we believe in the same things.”

Kabita Hossain said her neighborhood feels like home. She came to New York 20 years ago after she married her husband and she has never left Queens. Living in Queens Village, she isn’t far from her brother in Jamaica Estates-Holliswood. It makes Hossain feel comfortable where she is.

“I wouldn’t want to move anywhere else,” she said. “I like having Guyanese and Indian neighbors. We don’t have any problems with each other.”