NEW YORK STORIES OF DESPAIR, STRUGGLE AND HOPE
Bananas were three for a Dollar, but when I asked for six, the vendor added one more and still charged $2. Likewise, he gave me discounts on all the other fruits that I asked for. That’s how my shopping started during my visit to New York in the late summer of 2013. But I realised that the discount was special for me because Rafique (names mentioned in this story are not the real names of the persons referred to), himself from Bangladesh, came to know that I was his compatriot and was visiting. This was on Seventh Avenue in mid-town Manhattan, just across my elder son’s apartment where I was staying. And like Rafique, there are many Bangladeshis who are in this profession in Manhattan. But Rafique came into it in 2010 when the New York Police Department (NYPD) started downsizing and he lost his job. Though he is doing well in this business, he is looking forward to going back to the NYPD in January 2014. He had to take another test for getting a job again, he informed.
Rafique also informed me that his wife, though has an MBBS from Bangladesh, is working for the NYPD because they have not been able to mobilise the USD 30,000 needed to enrol in a course that she has to go through before obtaining the licence required for practising medicine in US. However, they have not given up on that and are trying to save the needed money. He hopes that his wife can go for the course when he himself gets back the job in the police.
A few steps from Rafique’s fruit stall, I stopped at a kiosk selling a variety of things including magazines and asked for the week’s The Economist. While I was paying for it and getting the small change back, the sales person Farid asked me whether I was a professor. He was not prepared to take my no for an answer and insisted I must be one. At that point I admitted that I started my career as a university lecturer and would have probably become a professor if I stuck to the profession. As the conversation proceeded, he enquired about Professor X who has been my teacher and colleague at Dhaka University. It was revealed that Farid himself was a student of Social Welfare at the same university.
A few days later, we were returning from Lexington Avenue with some grocery in hand. So, we took a taxi whose driver Prakash Shreshtha picked up a conversation with us. From his name I could guess that he was from Nepal, which he confirmed. He informed us that he, along with his wife and two children, came to the US in 2009 on diversity visa. But his experience up to now has not been happy at all. Despite having an MBA from a German institute, and having the experience of work in a bank in Nepal, he has not been able to get a job of the kind he expected. All he could get was a part time job at the District Council in Queens where the salary is only a little above the prevailing minimum wage. So, he is trying to supplement his income by driving taxi during spare hours and weekends.
But with this job also, he had to face misfortunes like a drunken passenger getting off without paying, someone paying less than half the fare showing on the metre because she did not have enough money, etc. To top up all the misfortunes, his wife fractured her arm from a fall on snow covered pavement during the winter and has not yet fully recovered. Despite all these difficulties, Shreshtha is sticking out in the US simply because his children like being here and are enjoying their school. We tried our best to cheer him out of his despair by saying that he should take a longer term view and consider the future of his children.
Clearly, Rafique and Farid have been able to find some work from which they can make a living and can save enough to support their families behind in Bangladesh. Shreshtha is also making ends meet. And like them, there are many who have migrated to the US (and to other countries of the world) in search of better living. Most are perhaps doing well – at least better than what they would have faced at home. They are also making an important contribution to the economy of their respective countries by sending back money (remittances are an important source of foreign exchange for both Bangladesh and Nepal and play an important role in reducing poverty of households receiving the money). But are they all happy?
The answer is not clear if the telephone conversation (in Bangla and in characteristically loud voice) I overheard near a kiosk at Central Park where I had gone for a walk is any indicator: “business bhala, kintu monda bhala na (business is going well but I am feeling a bit down)”. And during our taxi ride with Shreshtha, he did not hide at all his disappointment with what has happened to him. However, my ride with him was too short to share the story that I heard a few years ago from another taxi driver who was from eastern Punjab in India and who was happy to share with me his success story. He had used the income he earned from his taxi driving job to raise two sons in the US and, in addition, saved enough to buy a house back home where he intends to return and spend his retirement. Great success indeed!
I guess Rafique, Farid and Prakash are not the only ones who are struggling and looking for a better life in the US. Before them, many– first from Europe, then from other countries of the world–have done so for centuries. And now my compatriots from Bangladesh as well as people from other South Asian countries are trying the same. The process is not simple and the road for many may be rough. Many of them come with certificates and skills that may not be readily usable in the US. And yet, the US being a country of freedom and opportunities continues to attract people from other parts of the world. As a city, New York is special in that it is not only a city of skyscrapers, nice parks and great museums, it is a melting pot of many different kinds of people where one can join the struggle for a better life without feeling alien and out of place.