Dereliction and despair of a diaspora

by Kazi Jesin | Published: 00:00, May 20,2020


People wait in queue to receive food donated by community care organization on May 18 in the Elmhurst neighbourhood in the Queens borough in New York City. — Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/Stephanie Keith

IT HAS approximately been two months since New York City drifted into a lockdown state. Although time seems to have stopped here, some people’s lives are changing rapidly. Numerous families are silently becoming destitute but none of their cries is heard, neither are their tears seen. Perhaps, people cannot raise their voice fully with a broken heart. Life here in New York is swaying like a pendulum.

There are massive communities of Bangladeshis living in the neighbourhoods where the new coronavirus has hit the worst with the highest number of infected patients. So far in New York, more than 200 Bangladeshis have died of COVID-19 while the number rises to 258 across the United States. The death toll could quite possibly be higher as the number of the death of Bangladeshis is not provided officially — only local journalists are trying to use the information on the affected Bangladeshi New Yorkers through their own sources. There are also no statistics on how many people are working with risks.

Rishita’s mother runs the family alone. She has to bear the cost of her daughter’s education, food and the house rent. Now, she is working at a grocery store, with a pay that is lower than the minimum wage. For Rishita’s mother, this job is her only financial source of survival. She is not the only one. So many Bangladeshis are working with full awareness that their job could cost them their lives. They, however, feel that this is their only option. The Bangladeshi migrants who came to the United States with the hope of living their ‘American dream’ — to beat the litany of poverty that they faced in their own country — are now merely crawling in their cluelessness, uncertain about the world that they will have to struggle next time.

Having settled all across the United States, Bangladeshi immigrants are mostly concentrated in New York, California and New Jersey. A very small number of immigrants succeeded as professionals in their own previously chosen fields. The majority of the Bangladeshi New Yorkers drive taxis and work hard at various restaurants or offices just to make their living. Some of them buy houses with loan finances which eventually burden their next generation. According to a 2015 study by the Asian American Society, the average household and per capita income of Bangladeshis living in New York is lower than that of other New Yorkers. While the average family income of all citizens living in the city is $59,265, the average family income of a Bangladeshi is only $38,868 and the per capita income of Bangladeshi is $14,491. On the other hand, the per capita income of the city is $33,038. In fact, 28.2 per cent of all Bangladeshis live below the poverty line and the average poverty line of Bangladeshi seniors is much higher than that of other seniors in the city.

Although the first COVID-19 patient was identified in Manhattan, the coronavirus is most prevalent in Jackson Heights, Elm Hurst and East Elm Hurst — Bengali-dominated areas of New York. Raziah Begum, a Bangladeshi single mother, lives not far away from Jackson Heights. She said to the New York times that two of her three room-mates already had the symptoms of COVID-19. Everyone in their apartment is jobless and they eat one meal a day. ‘We are so hungry, but I’m more terrified that I will get sick’, Raziah said. Raziah, 53-year-old, falls in a risk group for her age and for having diabetics and high blood pressure. In most cases, it is difficult to remain safe if one of the family members gets infected as they live in a tiny house with shared rooms and toilets. For some of them, saving lives from COVID-19 is like embracing death from hunger. As they have no savings, they are trapped in a situation which is forcing them to take a risk that becomes a question of life and death.

The cheques from the federal government’s two trillion-dollar stimulus package have reached many, but thousands of people for whom the stimulus was a band aid have not received it yet. This disaster relief was most important to rescue the financially vulnerable people from being totally destitute. Unfortunately, the working-class people who live on less than minimum wages, those who do not have a tax file opened and those live on pension money are yet to receive the benefits. Moreover, many are not getting unemployment benefits because of their strict eligibility policy. It has been more than two months since the city was put under lockdown. Food stamps mitigated some people’s hunger, but people who are living without having legal papers and who have not yet received the stimulus cheques continue to live in a brutally deplorable state.

Paying rent has become an additional concern for New Yorkers. Those who live in the city have to pay a sky-high rent. According to the National Landlord Group, 31 per cent of the people failed to pay their rent in the first week of April. Understandably, a large part of this group is from Bangladesh who are the poorest in the state. A bill was proposed in the New York senate committee to waive mortgages on landlords, but it has not yet seen the light of the day. Despite the governor’s order on stopping eviction if any tenant cannot afford to pay the rent, many homeowners are putting pressure on their tenants, which is undoubtedly an added psychological pressure during this unprecedented pandemic. Tenant rights groups and community non-profit organisations have already started a courageous movement called ‘#CancelRent’ to rescue the citizens from financial distress. Originated from the Bengali-populated area in Queens, the movement has now spread to the whole of New York state and Los Angeles. But the ‘#CancelRent’ movement, important as it is, cannot immediately ensure any tangible results for the poor and the vulnerable at this highly critical time. Thus, those who can manage to get any job will have to work endangering their own lives for sheer existential reasons and those who remain jobless will also endanger their lives. It is a brutal paradox of history that this people are facing at this coronavirus ridden moment.

Jamal has three children and two of them go to college. It has been almost five years since he left his country. He completed his master’s from a well-reputed university in Dhaka. Even after making many attempts in the country, he did not get a good job. He left the country with a dream of having a financially secure life and educating his children at a good university. Now he drives a cab. Many cab drivers are infected with COVID-19. Jamal still has to drive around the streets in the hope of getting passengers — sometimes waiting for several hours just for one passenger. His daughter also works in a restaurant, risking her life. Jamal did not want his teenage children to work, but there is no other way to pay for food, rent, bills and college fees. Poverty did not leave him here in the so-called land of opportunities.

No doubt, under the brutal material circumstances imposed on them, the scourged ordinary Bengalis are strenuously struggling simply for their mere survival. Of course, a very small number of people who are rich enjoying their lives even in the time of the novel coronavirus, but those who are in the middle of life-and-death struggles for mere existential reasons do not have real home anywhere, neither at home nor abroad. TS Eliot wrote:

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only survive.

Consumed by either fire or fire.

It is the same economic system that made them helpless in their own country which is keeping them even more vulnerable and helpless across the Atlantic sea. Who knows how much more COVID-19 will make them struggle and suffer?

Kazi Jesin is a writer.

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