Bangladeshis are transforming the poorest and crime stricken areas of Buffalo, one block at a time
Categories: Life Stories
New York City
Bangladesh lies in the Ganges Delta – the world’s largest river delta – bordered by the Bay of Bengal, India and Burma. The largely Muslim nation is densely populated, impoverished and susceptible to devastating floods. Bangladeshis began emigrating to the United States en masse in the 1990s through a federal program commonly known as the green card lottery. It issues 50,000 green cards a year through the lottery system to individuals in countries with low rates of immigration. Bangladeshi-Americans now number around 280,000, and New York City is home to the country’s largest population, 70,000.
But Big Apple living is expensive, and for Bangladeshis it’s especially crushing because one in three live in poverty, according to the New York City-based Asian American Federation 2013 Census Data. A two-bedroom apartment can be home to several Bangladeshi families. Fathers often are absent, working long hours as taxi drivers or construction laborers, sometimes both.
“The high costs of living and housing in New York City probably make Buffalo seem attractive by comparison,” said Howard Shih, research and policy director at the federation.
Even for Bangladeshis above the poverty line, life is a struggle.
“I had to work two jobs, day and night, to be able to pay my mortgage,” said Mojib Rahaman, who sold two houses he owned in Queens and moved with his wife and their five children to Buffalo in 2013. “It was very stressful, and there was never time to spend with my family.”
Through word of mouth, and especially in the past couple of years, Buffalo has become the alternative to New York City, said Nuran Nabi, a New York City-area community leader.
“Because life is so tough in New York, Bangladeshis are always looking to move wherever they’ll be able to succeed,” Nabi said. “They’ll move wherever there are opportunities. And Buffalo has become that place.”
The first arrivals
Nazmal Bhuiyan, a taxi driver from the Bronx, was one of the first to arrive.
“I had never heard of this place, Buffalo,” the father of two said. “I thought it was the country area, with a lot of trees and the houses far, far apart.”
He learned of the city a decade ago, when a friend told him about its tax foreclosure auction, where houses were selling for as little as $1,000.
Bhuiyan set foot in Buffalo the next day. And at the auction, he snagged a duplex on Woltz Avenue for $4,500.
“But the neighborhood was bad; it looked empty,” he recalled of his first sight of Broadway-Fillmore, “and all the houses were broken.”
That included the duplex he bought.
Still, “I couldn’t believe it,” he continued. “I was so happy, it was like a dream come true. I went back to New York, excited and started telling everybody – my friends, my family – about Buffalo.”
The news of a city where a house – granted, a fixer upper – costs $5,000 and not $500,000 sparked an exodus. Over the next several years, many more families arrived.
Bhuiyan became a shepherd for his countrymen, leading them to homeownership. He returned to New York City each October, rounding up dozens of families for the auction, and led them on a caravan along the Thruway.
“My house would be packed with 20, 30 people, sleeping everywhere,” he said.
More than 200 families settled in Buffalo through Bhuiyan’s efforts alone, he said.
Many more are relocating as the Bangladeshis’ house-buying binge continues, bringing business to local real estate agents. The aggressive among them are even knocking on doors with cash offers to East Side property owners.