New York Bangladeshis Mobilize to Aid Factory Victims

By Sharat Chowdhury [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

NEW YORK -- On a Friday afternoon, nearly two weeks after a deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh, Kamil Ahmed went with his family to a mosque in Brooklyn. He grieved for those who perished and prayed for those who survived the disaster.

And he made an urgent plea to his fellow Bangladeshis for donations.

One by one, he handed out empty letter-envelopes after the prayer meetings, telling those he knew that “small, big, or any amount matters.” Some immediately gave dollar bills, while others wrote a check. The money will go to Savar Victims Fund, a relief campaign that Bangladeshi Society, Inc. (BSI)— a national group of Bangladeshi immigrants based in Queens, N.Y. — established a few days after the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka.

The death toll from the disaster stands at 1,127. It is the deadliest industrial accident since the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984. Five factories were operating in the Rana Plaza, located in the town of Savar, about 20 miles outside Dhaka, when the structure fell.

Donations to Savar go directly to the Prime Minister Fund, a general relief fund that the Bangladesh Embassy in New York has created.

“We will go from one mosque to another to ask for help,” said Ahmed, 62, president of BSI. “Most of us are working-class people. We’re not wealthy, but everyone is supportive and willing to give something.”

That Friday alone, he and his friends were able to collect about $1,200, which he described as a significant step toward their ultimate goal of somewhere “between $20,000 and $25,000” before May ends. Similar efforts are underway in other Bangladeshi communities outside New York, says Ahmed.

A fundraiser has also been planned for May 28, with about 300 Bangladeshi business-owners expected to attend.

Ahmed notes that BSI’s social welfare secretary keeps track of the donation records and sends receipts to donors. To ensure that donations go to the victims and their families, some BSI members have even volunteered to fly to Bangladesh to help with the relief efforts.

“They’re offered to pay for their tickets out of their own pockets,” says Ahmed.

Mosque Attendance Up After Collapse

Muhibur Rahman, imam at Baitul Zannah Mosque in Brooklyn, says in the days following the garment factory collapse, mosque attendance rose dramatically. Many asked what they could do to help.

“Before our prayer meetings, I make an announcement about the donation drive,” says Rahman, 65, a native of Bangladesh. “This is a devastating calamity. It is important to stand beside them [victims] and those who are affected.”

Rahman also expressed support for greater efforts to pressure the government in Bangladesh to address the issue of building safety. Officials reportedly ignored safety violations issued just days before the collapse of Rana Plaza.

Says Rahman, “Some say that it’s the negligence of the building owners. I think the government needs to enforce strict laws and regulations.”

An Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, meanwhile, has been adopted by global clothing retailers, demanding a five-year commitment to safety inspection and $500,000 per year toward safety improvements. A number of major US retailers have declined to participate.

“We pray,” says Rahman, “that Bangladesh and its people are able to recover soon.”

Bangla Media

Abu Taher, editor of Bangla Patrika, says his publication, as well as other U.S.-based Bangladeshi news outlets, have served as a collective “bulletin board to inform and connect people in the community.”

Immediately after the rescue and as soon as victims were identified, media here began to print the names so readers would know whether they have friends or loved ones among the dead.

“It’s a long list. But that’s something that we didn’t see anywhere else,” notes Taher.

Bangla Patrika has also helped in spreading the word about fundraising efforts— telling readers how can they contribute, where they can send their donations and how they can volunteer their time.

Data from the 2010 U.S. Census show there are about 15,000 Bangladeshis in the New York area and about 148,000 across the United States.

“People are calling us and asking for information,” says Taher. “Our community has been responding really well.”

Closer to Home

Helal Uddin was born and raised in a neighboring village close to site of the Savar tragedy. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says, when images of the collapse first flashed across his television screen.

He says poverty is a reality for most residents of the area, and that the garment factories were often the sole means of making a living. Reports note employees in the factory earned an average of $37 a month for their labors.

Friends and neighbors, meanwhile, have since shared more details with Uddin, a small business owner in Brooklyn. One neighbor told him he’d received a call from someone in a nearby village, with relatives who died in the accident.

“We’re glad someone was able to make the connection and has informed us what the victims need. Food and water are not a problem right now,” Uddin recounted from the conversation. “But many have lost limbs.”

Uddin and others have now joined in efforts to raise funds, hoping to help pay for medical treatment and, where needed, prosthetics.

“We come from the same area,” he notes of the victims. “In a way, we are a family.”