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Mohammed Abdul Jabbar Oral History Interview

Oral history interview with Mohammed Abdul Jabbar on July 11th, 2022, conducted by Subat Matin. Mohammed Abdul Jabbar was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh. His family is from Sandwip and growing up he would visit Sandwip to see relatives and visit his village. Jabbar’s grandfathers from both sides of his family were known in the Sandwip community in Brooklyn as the first “Columbuses” since they were the first people from Sandwip who immigrated to New York during the late 1940s. Jabbar proudly talks about his life in America and the opportunities he got after arriving to the United States in 1997. Jabbar regrets not getting an education in America which he believes would have helped him learn English better, but he is grateful to provide educational opportunities to his children and wants them to succeed in their academic career. Jabbar still resides in Brooklyn with his father, wife and four children.

Date: July 11, 2022
Type: Oral History
Creator: Subat Matin
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Date: July 11th, 2022

Interviewee: Mohammed Abdul Jabbar

Interviewer: Subat Matin

Location: Brooklyn, New York

MATIN: Today is July 11th, 2022, tell me your life story.

JABBAR: Hello, my name is Mohammed Abdul Jabbar I was born in Bangladesh in Chittagong so my childhood was in Chittagong, I went to school there in Muslima [?] School, first I went to Parthrokata School [?] then Muslima School [?] then City College lastly, I came here in 1997... 97’ right. Between then when I was studying in school then it was fun, in Bangladesh during my childhood school was always fun, I had fun with my friends, I enjoyed it later when I became older when I was like in class 8 no maybe 9 my parents came to America by visit [visa], then me and my three brothers lived in desh [Bangladesh]. Obviously, when parents come to America people feel lonely and that’s how we felt. It was us three brothers and one sister in Bangladesh. Between then my dada [paternal grandpa] came to America in 1946 and nana [maternal grandpa] came in 1947. It was surprising because dada came in 1947 and nana came in 1947, how come we came in 1997? The history of this is that my dada and them stepped off of ships to come here. After stepping off they didn’t know this country’s law and after stepping of the ships they most likely went to the corner of Atlantic and 4th Avenue, stepping off... after stepping off there they meet with a few black people who told them to stay, that time there was a fear of immigration if anyone found them then they would take them [to authorities] that’s why they used to stay hidden. After staying like this for like 14-15 years they couldn’t get their green card and in order to get their green card it was very difficult for them after 30 years.

For 30 years they had no relationship with desh, my dad was three brothers and they lived for that long without their father. Between then my dad’s mother, my dadi, passed away, my dad that time were three brothers and one sister, now there is two brothers because one brother died from cholera. So, after my dadi passed away my dad two brothers so they were raised by their uncles. When my dada came here, we couldn’t contact him because that time there was no system to contact them so we there were letters, but that was not a lot because he didn’t have a lot of education. So, when they used to write letters, they had to go to someone else and that time there were no other Bengalis so that wasn’t possible either. Throughout the years they contacted us in different ways that time there was [turn call?] ... or something I heard and they used to contact us that way too, but even then, it would one or two years later between then there was no other contact with them. By doing this throughout the years my dada went back to Bangladesh with his green card. That’s why I was saying that my dada came in 46’ but my dad didn’t come to this country until 87’ visit visa because they didn’t know how the immigration systems used to work so they didn’t know how to come to America or how to bring their children. They didn’t have a lot of education and didn’t have any idea about the immigration process. America’s immigration process is nicely done, but they didn’t know how to use the system and no one was there to tell them either. The same problem was with nana and dada.

The funny thing is when my dada and nana meet here, both of stepping down from the ships, after steeping down they become friends. After a while and they had become friends, they talked and my dada told my nana that he wants to get his son married and my nana said I have a daughter, they were in desh... my parents. My parents both stayed in desh and my nana and dada stayed here. So, they said do one thing get your daughter married to my son and then they contacted someone and said in this houses daughter we are going to get my son married to her so then my dad married my mom and they never saw each other, like that my parents got married and over here my dada and nana become friends. Slowly throughout the years everyone was becoming older and my dad came with visit visa and us three brothers stayed in Bangladesh with my sister. We stayed without our parents for a long time, the way my dad lived without his father, we also lived without ours. The reason was America is everyone’s dream country, we used to heard that from our dada and my nana would say too when he visited desh. America is the dream country, after hearing that everyone liked it, the people in this country is gentle and really helpful. We used to enjoy hearing this and we always thought about coming to this country, between then my parents my parents already came here with visit visa and they couldn’t go back to desh. After finishing college, I also came here through a visit visa. The day my father got his green card, my dada applied for them later... I’m talking about in 98’ from 46’ to 98’a long time, between then if my dada wanted, he could have brought everyone, but they didn’t understand the immigration system. That’s why when my father got his green card in 1998, when I also come for visit, I also got my green card, that is my green card history.

Later my we used to visit desh time to time and come visit. The first time I came in 97’ but in 98’ when I went to visit desh I got married. Then look, it was the same, my mother liked my wife, I never saw my wife and my mother told me that I saw a girl for you and I’m going to get you married to her and I was surprised because I had just come from America and I told her how you are going to get me married to a girl that I never met before. My mother said no I liked her and after my mother said something then I was like okay and so I got married to my wife, never saw her by the way, I got married and after then I went to go see her. In that way everything is good Alhamdulillah.

Then after coming here, in 97’ when I came, I started working in construction and I still in work in construction and now I am in a good position and everything is well, but there is one thing that I remember when I first came here my mother took me to after school and told me study here. At that moment I felt a little proud because I came from Bangladesh with a bachelor’s degree, in Bangla medium, I’m going to go to school here and learn a, b, c, ds? I still went and the first day they told me to read a, b, c, d and I minded a little because I got a bachelor’s degree and now, I have to read a, b, c, ds, but that was my life’s biggest mistake.

Like I was saying in 97’ after I came here my mother took me after school and I told her mother their making me read a, b, c, ds here which I already learned from Bangladesh, but that was my biggest mistake in life now that I understand. If that day I had properly learned the a, b, c, ds then today I could’ve properly spoke English. Now the things I’m saying and things I can say [in English] are just through what I hear, but I didn’t get properly educated to learn English because of that mistake of not doing the after school, that was mistake and I still feel that. That’s I tell everyone all the time that you should learning from the beginning with a, b, c, ds. When anyone comes... but I didn’t do that and that was a mistake. From there I started getting into construction, I used to tell my mother that I’m going to work at a store and she said no you work in construction you don’t have to work in a store, so that’s how I started working in construction. Now I am established here and now I have three sons and one daughter, everyone is growing up here. My older son is 18... no 21 years old, my middle son is 13 years old, my daughter is 12 years old and my youngest son is two months almost two and a half month. I am with everyone and living happily. Everyone is getting their education here, better life, because in America the education system lifestyle is really good and fair.

In Bangladesh it’s a third world country and we have to face a lot but hopefully we never those here. Especially in New York here all the immigrants are broad minded and they help each other. That’s why a lot of people ask why do you live in New York? I support living in New York because as immigrants everyone is nice to each other, they help each other, here compared to other states we live here like brothers. Like today I went somewhere for work, so he was telling me... he was an immigrant and I’m an immigrant, I was telling him hey look we’ll help each other out because we have a good life in this country, this country gave us a lot. I am really satisfied by America because this country gave me a lot. I had good treatment. My children have good education, especially my daughter who had a health condition the treatment they gave my daughter I won’t ever forget. That’s why I always tell my children that this is our country now and we will do everything for this country. To help this country, to establish it, we will try... whatever we have get got to do for them. This is our country now. In this country... I am a son from a third world country, Bangladesh a third world country, that is my motherland. So, Bangladesh is third world country when we come to a first world country then everything here is a better life. That’s why everything is still continuously the same and we are fine.

MATIN: So, when you first came to New York what did you think of American culture and American people?

JABBAR: First I really liked it because after we were born in Bangladesh, we saw one group of people and here we saw different groups of people like black, white, different color people and everyone is gentle and said hi and hello and talked me nicely. I also said hi and hello back that’s why I was surprised after coming here. Everything used to look nice to me, my parents lived here and the biggest thing was when I saw my parents here after so long, I really liked it, seeing all of my relatives who were here I saw all of them because a lot of my relatives came a long time ago that’s why seeing everyone, I really liked it. America... especially after seeing the first world, it was really nice, with high rise buildings and everything I liked it a lot.

MATIN: What did you like about New York the most?

JABBAR: In New York I like the most because here it felt like kind of like Bangladesh, close houses and a lot of people. In Bangladesh there is a lot of people and here it’s like that as well, there’s a lot of stores. When we first came the Bangladeshi community started developing and there is a lot of our organizations, sporting clubs, restaurants, there is a place called Church and McDonald Avenue where it has become like a Bangladeshi hangout. By hangout I even people didn’t go anywhere so in the evening everyone would go there, drink tea, talk and hangout, it was like a market everyone used to go there and hangout. Every day after everyone came home from work, most of the people worked in construction then so after coming here it was very rare to work another job most of them worked in construction and after working in construction everyone would come in the evening around 4pm or 5pm. We would get come home and freshen up and hangout there for a while. After hanging out we would come home around 10pm, it was the same routine every day.

MATIN: After coming here how did you adjust to the American lifestyle?

JABBAR: At first it was hard because at first their culture I couldn’t adapt and I felt shy and at one point I realized they are gentle, they say hi, in our country we never said hi to everyone, but here you will see, anyone that will see will say hi to you, no matter who you are. In the morning everyone says good morning and we slowly got used to it, that wasn’t in our country. If they see us in the evening they say good afternoon, so after staying with them we kind of established their culture and live that way and now it’s not just their culture, but ours too when we became American citizens and this country is ours so now, we adapted to their culture and made it into ours.

MATIN: Did you come here and learn how to speak English or...

JABBAR: Like I said that say when my mother took me to my evening class when I came back from there, I never went back to school that’s why I tell everyone don’t come back. Wherever everyone is or go through their immigration process they should start learning from their a, b, c ds, that’s the foundation. If our foundation is not good... still to this day that is why I’m suffering now. In Bangladesh the education we got is British English and here is American English which is completely different between British and American English. That is something I used to face and slowly I saw that American English it’s hard to understand it and get used to it because I only knew the British English. If I went to school here than I wouldn’t have this problem. So the biggest problem I faced is that since my mother had taken me to school, told me read a, b, c ds, I went, but never went back to learn and I said that I knew, but that was a mistake and I’m still suffering from that.

MATIN: Did you have family members I Bangladesh that made it difficult for you to leave?

JABBAR: My... when I came, I had one brother and one sister who was in desh, that tine we were all unmarried. That time I used to feel bad that I left my younger brother and sister. Here my parents... I liked that here I was going to come to my parents, but then I was also leaving my younger brother and sister by themselves. When you actually have to leave your family behind that’s when you understand how bad you feel.

MATIN: How many times did you go back to visit Bangladesh?

JABBAR: After coming here one good thing was that after one year since I came through visit visa, I was able to get a green card through my parents then I went to get married and after I got married, I would go after six or seven months, when I left my wife that’s when I felt that’s typical though, my life partner. I went back a few times after I got married... six months... especially when it was the summer construction jobs was better than, but then in winter we used to go to desh and visit then for four months, three months, we went on vacation and go back. That is how some time went by and then I applied for my wife and she came. After she came, we have been together here.

MATIN: Do you think Bangladesh or America is your home now?

JABBAR: Bangladesh is my motherland, but America is my home. In America I’m with my children, our foundation and ground is here. My kids are growing up here, I am here... in desh we don’t have anyone there, but everyone is here so now this is my country and I have to respect it.

MATIN: After you came here how did your role as a husband and father change?

JABBAR: Husband... after my wife came, I use to feel that when I had to go to desh to see her after getting married. She came about six or seven years later, but I used to feel bad because the immigration system was in such a way that it takes a while to come. That feels bad for us immigrants, if we get married then life partner is often left in desh so it feels bad leaving them behind. Then you have to go six months later, it’s a hassle, after my wife came slowly, I had my kids and after that being a husband changed into being a father. Now I have to look at everything through the lens of a father, my kids bright future. How this country gave us things and how we can return it back to them. That’s what I tell them all the time, this country gave us a lot and we want to return the same. I always tell them do something for this country, get your education, get established then you can do something for this country. Those... this country gave us Medicare benefits when we needed it. After I came, I did construction, we didn’t have money and they gave us Medicaid, I was able to get treatment and my kids were able to get treatment so that to me is a big thing to have. I always tell them that they gave us so now we have to give and take. This is our country and we have to give our country. This is now my country so I tell them all the time to be educated and do something for your country.

MATIN: What kinds of Bangladeshi culture and traditions did you want your children to keep and pass onto them?

JABBAR: I wanted them to know that our deshi culture and system, everyone stays together like our system is that our father... son... this country’s system is that when your kids turn 18, they live separately, but I want and I tell my kids that in our culture... still I’m 45 years I still live with my parents, my father lives with me and my son is 21 years old and he lives with me that’s what we follow and I like the joint family and I tell them that we want to stay in a joint family. Always I tell that we are going to live in a joint family and we’ll help each other in anyone’s needs, my son’s needs, during my hard times my son will be there and during his sons hard times I will be there, that’s it. Sometimes you know if they leave for their education that is a different thing even though we stay, we should all stay here together, I request them, but the rest is up to them.

MATIN: What kinds of challenges do you face in trying to preserve the culture for your children?

JABBAR: Sometimes when they come home from school, they talk about wanting some freedom, and I tell them that this freedom is their young age freedom and I try to make them understand, but without sometimes you guys are going to feel alone. Now they think that our father and mother don’t give us and freedom, but when they become our age their going to think that being with their family is a good system. I know that they are young kids and sometimes they want to follow similar cultures of this country and they have to face things. Some people say that we are 18 and 21 [we can do whatever we want], but they don’t understand we were also 18 and 21. At 21 freedom is good, but too much freedom is no good. I try to tell them that and sometimes I face that challenge with my kids. Now they are still fine and I guess we’ll see the rest. Allah knows.

MATIN: Do you think there is a difference between someone who is Bangladeshi-American and just Bangladeshi? Do you think there is a difference between them?

JABBAR: Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi-American, the difference is that people here are gentle, Bangladeshi people are also gentle, but here like I told you before, first world and third world. The third world is that people face a lot of struggles and here in the first world people are more liberal and help each other and they are just gentle. But people in desh living in the third world they suffer a lot and they are poor. The difference between them and people here is that if they want a lot of things they can’t get it, but those are Bangladeshi-American they see things here and learn. After seeing and learning if they... like we learned a lot of things and we know that if we accept people, they will respect us. That is difference between Bangladeshi and Americans.

MATIN: What is the Bangladeshi community like in Brooklyn?

JABBAR: There is a lot now. Like I mentioned earlier when my dada was here... when he came here then there was only three people. One person was here before dada, then it was dada and another person, they were our Sandwip people they... when my dada used to us about the history... my dada passed away in the pandemic last year and sometimes he would tell us about the history of this country. After coming to this country, he did not know how to speak English so the funny thing was he used to tell us when they went to the store... they used to live a basement of a black person, they let him stay. He used to say when he used to go to the stores and started working, they didn’t know how to say egg in English so he used to go and make chicken noises to show that he wanted eggs. The other thing was tuna fish and cat food, almost same case and same everything and my dada told me that there was times when instead of tuna fish they ate cat food, they didn’t know, they didn’t have an education, he said they struggled a lot. Then he didn’t know how to read the road signs so they used to mark it and go somewhere and then come back that way as well. They didn’t know the writing or the systems and the language and they struggled a lot. My nana used to say the same things, both nana and dada used to say it. So, you know like what I was answering... what was it again?

MATIN: the Bangladeshi community.

JABBAR: Yes, the community and slowly they opened a restaurant in Church and McDonald Avenue, moori [?] restaurant then the people like I mentioned before they would come in the evening after work and hangout there. From that now it’s almost a 100,000 people in the Bengali community and there is a lot of organizations like the Sandwip Society, Sandwip Association, Gasua Union, there are probably 13 to 14 Sandwip organizations and over 35 Bangladeshi organizations.

MATIN: Are you in any organization?

JABBAR: Yes, I am with a few that is our Gasua one, Sandwip Society, I am with these organizations. The organizations let’s say during the pandemic we helped people and when people that passed away here to bury them, we take them and help them. We do everything amongst these organizations and help people. These organizations are doing pretty well.

MATIN: As a Bangladeshi, did you face any challenges while living in Brooklyn?

JABBAR: No, I haven’t yet I don’t know about the future, for immigration... I think for immigration Brooklyn is a good place for it.

MATIN: When you used to go to school in Bangladesh what did they teach you about Bangladeshi history?

JABBAR: We read Bangladeshi history about our local history. Mogul history and our Bangladesh, India Pakistan history they used to teach us those. Like how the British used to fight Bangladesh... uh, Bharat [India], and Pakistan, they used to teach us those history, that was the strict and, in our country, how the kings used to fight, we used to read those about the history.

MATIN: When Bangladesh was fighting the war did, they teach you anything about that in school?

JABBAR: They used to tell us about that, about the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, how they used to fight, what happened and where it did, who fought with who, that’s the history we just to read.

MATIN: Do you know anyone who...

JABBAR: Freedom fighter? Yes, there was people from our family, my uncle, our house... in our desh the houses were in a big boundary and the house was there and it was called kachari and people used to say there and there our freedom fighters had a camp and they used to go off and fight in the area around our neighborhoods. My uncle was there, my dad and a few other relatives.

MATIN: When there was famine in Bangladesh in 1974...

JABBAR: That... I wasn’t there then, but I heard whatever was in history. People didn’t have enough to eat, people died because they starved. It was a sad history, people didn’t have any clothes. I mean whatever I saw [read] in history was very sad. It was very sad.

MATIN: What do you think is the most important about Bangladesh’s history?

JABBAR: For me there is two history that is the most important is the one I learned about Bangladesh’s history and about American history and that is important because I live in this country.

MATIN: While in school in Bangladesh, did they ever teach you about American history?

JABBAR: In Bangladesh the only thing they taught us is about the Hudson River in New York City and we learned about that history, there was no other history about America just about the Hudson River, there was a question about where the Hudson River is and where is New York City, that is the only history that we read.

MATIN: While living in Bangladesh did you hear about other Bangladeshis coming to America or to other countries?

JABBAR: Yes, we heard because that time my grandpa, my father, they came to America. The people from Bangladesh is a poor country and their first choice is America. If you ask a person which country is there first choice it’s America and then they will go to other countries. That time America was very tough and it was rare for people to come, they lived in the Middle East or go to England. If you asked everyone where they wanted to go... from my case if you ask me America is a dream country.

MATIN: What do you miss about your life in Bangladesh?

JABBAR: My friends, freedom, when my parents were in America, we used to go to school and hangout with my friends, my childhood was there, the excitement that I had during my childhood I miss that, but now with friends sometimes I see them and talk to them, I called the friends that I am in contact with and now because of Facebook I can see them more, that’s how and I contact them and what I miss because now I don’t have anyone else in Bangladesh.

MATIN: What is your favorite memory of Bangladesh?

JABBAR: Mt favorite memory of Bangladesh is when my son is born, my first child was born in Bangladesh, and when I heard the day, my wife conceived that day I was very happy and within my “para”, para means area, there is a system in our country where we give people sweets, so I gave everyone sweets and enjoyed with everyone, that is my favorite.

MATIN: If an event had occurred in Bangladesh how did you find out about it?

JABBAR: While living here that time the phone system was already available, I found out by talking on the phone, the news system that time was there, media was very fast that time, media came so that time we found out everything through the media.

MATIN: Is there anything about your life that you change? Anything about your immigration journey?

JABBAR: I... yes, there has been changes while living in Bangladesh and even after I became an immigrant there has been a lot of changes, after I came to America, I learned a lot and saw a lot of things, my life’s first time... first one I saw... when I came to the first world for the first time that’s why I like it and I like being like them and I haven’t faced anything, even immigration I didn’t face a lot so everything has gone a gentle way.

MATIN: What is your proudest accomplishments?

JABBAR: I’m proud of being able to provide an education for my children and everything else in the hands of Allah. I was able to bring them to a better country and give them a better education and better life and we’ll see how much they are able to do. But I am happy that I can... that peoples dream that is in the top because America is the top country in the world. We are and are able to give them a better education, their all getting bigger and I gave them everything. That’s why I feel proud.

Collection: Subat Matin Oral History Interviews
Donor: Subat Matin
Item History: 2023-05-30 (created); 2023-06-01 (modified)

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