After nearly 40 years, is ‘home’ still ‘home’, or is it a foreign country, a land full of strangers?
It’s 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and Sanwar Ahmed has set up his food cart outside the two-storey, glass-fronted Bangladesh Plaza shopping mall on 73rd Avenue in Jackson Heights. The brightly lit mall features a hodgepodge of different businesses such as a travel agency and a money transfer company, but it is the salwar kameezes in bright hues of red, pink, purple and yellow that stand out and catch one’s eye.
Sanwar, who is affectionately called Baul Dada by people in the neighborhood who know him, first came to the United States approximately 30 years ago, hoping to make enough money to provide for his wife and four children in Bangladesh. All those years, he has not once returned home because of his immigration status. As an undocumented immigrant, he will not be able to return to the United States if he leaves.
He is now 89 years old, and grappling with various physical ailments including a heart condition. His family is still in Bangladesh, with the exception of one of his sons who has died, and another son who he said moved to Italy, but has now disappeared.
After his second son-in-law died last summer, he asked organizers at civil and immigrant rights organization DRUM: Desis Rising Up and Moving for help to return home. DRUM set up a fundraising campaign for him, and the target amount was raised by the community in just five months. And even though it seems like the proverbial fairy tale story where there is a happy ending – in this case the ‘good immigrant’ returns home and is reunited with his much-loved family — is there truly such a thing as a happily ever after?
Sanwar expresses his conflicted emotions to me: grateful to members of his community who have contributed money and initially telling me he is looking forward to going home; and then later admitting that going home is born of a matter of necessity, rather than a burning desire.
When I approach Sanwar’s cart on a cold mid-January afternoon, he is sitting huddled over on a bar stool behind his open-air cart, with only a single, large, blue and yellow umbrella and several layers of clothes to protect him from the elements.
He is dressed in trademark New York black, wearing a padded black anorak, loose, black trousers with side pockets that are knee-high, black trainers, and a black hat. The only color that breaks up his outfit is a camel scarf with black and dark pink checks. Initially, he has it wrapped around his neck, but after an hour or so he wraps it around his face (head to chin) as men from the Indian subcontinent sometimes do to protect themselves from cold weather, and puts his hat on top.
Shortly afterwards, he takes off his coat, revealing a dark grey fleece coat. The top of his grey fleece is slightly unzippered, revealing another fleece – this time a muddy brown color — underneath. He doesn’t wear gloves and his fingertips are stained from paan.
Although the street is busy with a steady stream of people walking by, not a single customer approaches while I am there, although several elderly men pass by and say hello. One stops to hand Sanwar a steaming cup of chai. Sanwar points to one of the shops on the other side of the street and tells me his friend has sent it over to him.
“I have family, but no real family left,” he says. “My daughters are married. My son has left. Allah knows what I will do. My heart doesn’t feel like going back. I don’t have a green card. Once I go, I can’t come back.”
At one point, he goes across the street to a Bangladeshi restaurant to buy his dinner which consists of a medium-sized container of fluffy rice with a turmeric-colored splotch in the top center of the clear container. He also buys me a cup of hot, milky chai, even though I had already politely declined his request to get me some. The heat emanating from the container is a welcome respite from the cold and temporarily warms my fingers, which are numb with cold after only 45 minutes standing outside.
I ask him whether he gets a lot of customers, and he says: “Not many people come at this time of the year. But what am I going to do sitting at home?”
I nod, not really understanding the grit and hardiness that drives an elderly man to sit outside for approximately eight hours a day, with virtually no hope of financial return during one of the most frigid months of the year – a month that turns even the most sociable New Yorkers into homebodies.
Sanwar does not have any family members in New York. He hasn’t physically seen his children since he left them when they were aged 10, 11, 6 and 5 years old. He has missed the marriages of his two daughters and the death of one of his sons, as well as an infinite number of small, intimate moments that build relationships between husband and wife, and father and child.
He makes do with photos and phone calls from his family, and in turn he sends them the money he earns. He now has grandchildren whose photos he proudly shows me on his mobile phone, along with snaps of customers who have visited his cart, and a picture of Cynthia Nixon, the former Sex and the City actress who visited him during her election campaign for Governor of New York.
During my first conversation with him, I ask him if he gets lonely, and he tells me, “No, I have God.”
When I say that I think people need company, he says, “Yes, that’s true,” and then asks me if I am married. It’s a perennial question that South Asian elders tend to ask but in this case, I sense he is trying to change the subject.
When I ask him if he looks back and has any regrets coming to the United States, he tells me, “Why have regrets? What purpose do having regrets serve?”
I ask him if he is looking forward to returning home, and he tells me, “Yes.”
However, the second time I meet him, he tells me he is not looking forward to going home.
“I have family, but no real family left,” he says. “My daughters are married. My son has left. Allah knows what I will do. My heart doesn’t feel like going back. I don’t have a green card. Once I go, I can’t come back. If I had a green card, I could come and go. I prefer here to Bangladesh. I don’t know Bangladesh anymore. I’ve been here for 30 years. Here is better for me.”
His voice breaks. It’s the most emotional I have seen him since meeting him.
In our third conversation, he tells me that he has no choice. The perils of growing old as an undocumented immigrant loom large. He would like a green card but since he doesn’t have one, he can’t stay. “My mind is made up. I’m old and only getting older. I’m lonely and my family is lonely.” He worries about dying alone. “Dying alone is something I always think about as an older person.”
He expresses concerns about the healthcare system in Bangladesh. “It’s hard to see a doctor. Medicine is expensive. I get free medicine here,” he says and pulls out two asthma inhalers and three medicine bottles out of a bag. When I ask him if he has any health conditions, he says, “Everything hurts,” and motions to the left and right side of his torso.
“I prefer here to Bangladesh. I don’t know Bangladesh anymore. I’ve been here for 30 years. Here is better for me.”
Aside from the hardship of being without family in the U.S., Sanwar has faced difficulties as an undocumented worker. He has been limited to working certain types of jobs, and even though having his own food cart has allowed him to be his own boss, he is at the mercy of NYC authorities.
Sanwar tells me he comes every afternoon except when there is heavy snow. He is careful to avoid coming in the mornings, saying that is when the New York Police Department (NYPD) tend do its community rounds. He does not have one of NYC’s limited and much sought-after food cart permits. Consequently, he is wary of the city’s police department, as officers removed and threw away his food cart in 2017 as part of a crackdown on street vendors.
He recalls the incident, saying, “I cried lots. I went to the DRUM office and cried. I didn’t have any money for buying my bread and butter. What a crazy situation. Kazi (Director of Organizing at DRUM) gave me money, that’s how I managed to buy food to eat.”
After Sanwar’s cart was taken, members of the community advised him to go to DRUM. After hearing about his plight, Kazi Fouzia and her colleagues – who all knew Sanwar — raised $700 for him. Rather than using all the money for food, Sanwar used some of it to get back on his feet. “I was thinking when Kazi gave me money to buy food, I will lose all the money if I spend it on food. If I buy water and sell it, I will be able to survive on the profits. That’s why I decided to not eat all the money but to buy water and to start selling things again.”
After a few months, he acquired a table which enabled him to sell jhal muri again. However, a police officer came and took that away too. “Both times I was so upset, because they always take away my bread and butter,” he says.
“To physically return ‘home’ is simple enough; one gets on a plane and in a matter of hours or days one is there. But to mentally and emotionally return ‘home’ is a different thing.”
Kazi tells me that after the first time Sanwar’s cart was taken away, DRUM had contacted The Street Vendor Project who sent a lawyer to Sanwar. The lawyer found that NYC’s health department had been issuing Sanwar tickets because he doesn’t have a proper cart, and Sanwar had been paying $250 every week for an unknown amount of time. The lawyer advised Sanwar to take legal action against the department for disposing of his cart. A class lawsuit is currently pending and the results are imminent. Once the outcome is finalized, Sanwar will return home.
Sanwar was born in the city of Sylhet, in east Bangladesh. He was one of 10 children, and his parents were farmers. He never attended school as his father couldn’t afford to buy him pencils. When he was old enough, he became a grocery vendor, but says he didn’t make much money, which lead him to decide to go abroad.
In 1964, he went to London for two years and worked in restaurants. He did not obtain the necessary papers required to work, so he returned to Bangladesh.
He then left for Iraq where he obtained a work visa and worked as a steel worker for four years but left to return to Bangladesh when the Iran-Iraq war started.
He then went on to Kuwait, where he worked for three years. I ask which years he was there and he tells me he doesn’t remember the exact dates. I notice that most dates he gives me are approximate, as though his memory is failing him.
In 1989 or 1991, he came to the U.S. after paying a trafficker around $4,000 for a visa and passage to the United States. He started out working as a tandoori chef in various restaurants: first in New York where he started at an Indian restaurant called Manrazi near the Rockefeller Center, then at Bombay Masala in Midtown and later at an Indian restaurant in the East Village.
Restaurant owners from other states invited him come work for them, so he then moved to Pennsylvania for two years, Chicago for two years and then Minnesota for five years, before returning to the city where he has been for the last 10 years. During this period, he was able to save money and pay off his debts to the trafficker. After he paid his debts, he lost his immigration status and returned to New York.
“In the end, New York seemed the best place to me. Here it’s nice, people will speak to you. Over there, not so much,” he said.
He saw an opportunity to set up a food cart dedicated to the popular Bangladeshi street food jhal muri. “I realized a lot of people really liked it. I was the first to introduce jhal muri to America,” he says proudly.
On the front of Sanwar’s cart are posters showing pictures of jhal muri – a street food which is largely made of puffed rice and black chickpeas, garnished with spices and cilantro, and punctuated with the sharp tang of lemon juice. It is popular in Bangladesh and neighboring East India.
Sanwar proudly tells me that he is the first person to sell the crunchy, savoury snack in the United States, along with foil-wrapped paan – a preparation that is widely consumed in the Indian subcontinent and consists of an areca nut mixture wrapped in green betel leaves. I am told by a young Bangladeshi woman called Tinni, whose mother-in-law buys the crunchy paan, that it is a snack relished by an older generation. The concoction tends to stain one’s teeth and is not as popular among second or third-generation immigrants to the United States.
When the weather thaws a little in March, I notice an increase in customers. I finally see someone buy jhal muri during my fifth visit. Sanwar deftly prepares a generous-sized container of the multi-textured snack for his customer.
Despite the hurdles he has faced, Sanwar has managed to carve out a reputation for himself. His jhal muri food cart was featured on the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown blog where it was described as “a sensory overload of a snack consisting of puffed rice, black chickpeas chopped tomatoes, cilantro, green chili paste, red onions, crunchy dried soybeans, cilantro, spicy fried noodles, and mustard oil.” The Fung Bros, meanwhile, feted Sanwar’s jhal muri as a “spicy, savoury trail mix” on their YouTube channel.
Sanwar was also featured in the Knights of the Raj exhibition, which examined the contribution and sacrifices the Bangladeshi community have made to the food culture in New York. The exhibit took place at the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Brooklyn in the summer and featured an installation of Sanwar’s bedroom.
He has also managed to carve out a community. Through his food cart, he is an established figure in Little Bangladesh in Jackson Heights. People in the community recognize him and interact with him. He is referred to as Jhal Muri Dada (Jhal Muri grandfather) or Baul Dada (which literally means singing grandfather because of the Bangladeshi folk songs he sings).
When DRUM launched its fundraising campaign for him, community members rushed to the rescue and several people have offered to buy his tickets for his flight home. But as Sanwar’s return ‘home’ draws nearer, it’s something that he continues to be ambivalent about.
To physically return ‘home’ is simple enough; one gets on a plane and in a matter of hours or days one is there. But to mentally and emotionally return ‘home’ is a different thing.
After nearly 40 years, is ‘home’ still ‘home’ or is it a foreign country, a land full of strangers? And if it doesn’t prove to be what one expects or wants it to be, there is no option to return to the place that has been home for most of your adult life.
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