My mother, Shamima, is a Muslim Bangladeshi immigrant who came to the United States in 1996. She came to the United States after she got married to my father who already resided in Indiana. I asked my mother about her experiences when she first arrived in the US, especially as a Muslim:
“It was hard because I had to leave my family. I left Bangladesh alone on my first international flight. I was nervous when my husband was not present when I arrived at the airport. I didn’t speak English very well, but there was an American man who was very helpful. Even though his family had flowers and welcome signs and were waiting for him, he patiently provided coins for me to call my husband until I was able to confirm that my husband was on his way.”
Her experiences reminded me of me being in new environments where I did not know anyone. For example, I moved to Chicago over a year ago, and it was difficult for me to adjust here as I didn’t know anyone in the city. Although Illinois has one of the greatest numbers of Muslims in the US, I’ve learned that the neighborhoods are delineated across ethnicity and/or religion, and a significant number of Muslims live in the suburbs-far from the city. My own struggles made me wonder about what her expectations of America was and how that differed from her experiences when she first immigrated to the U.S.:
“I thought everything in America was like what they showed in Hollywood films with huge skyscrapers. However, when I arrived, it felt rural, but it reminded me of home in Rangpur, Bangladesh.”
My mother and I share how there are parts in the US that remind us of Bangladesh. It is a nostalgic feeling, just as my mother reminisced. She then spoke about the religious gatherings of the Bangladeshi community in Indianapolis.
“I really like how the Bangladeshi Muslim community held halaqas (small gatherings to study Islam) and practiced their religion. We would go to the halaqas on some of the Saturdays and Sundays. Their purpose was to connect the teenagers to Islam in the community. Even though the parents were practicing, their children did not follow some of the fundamental tenets of Islam.
I really liked the gatherings because people would come, even though they had busy lives. All of the families pitched in a potluck style dinner for each of the halaqas. Some of the topics covered included prayer, and we discussed Islamic practices that my nani (maternal grandmother) and nanu (maternal grandfather) taught me. I picked up on proper pronunciation of Arabic terms.”
I appreciated that my mom spoke about the halaqas and the concern for the youth in the community as a challenge. This has been a consistent observation that I have seen amongst parents of the Bangladeshi Muslim and the Muslim community as a whole – a worry about youth and religion. As a solution to such worries, it is common for people to send their children to Muslim Sunday schools. My sister and I, for example attended one of those religious weekend schools until 10th grade. This allowed us to learn about Islam and interact with Muslims, outside of the Bangladeshi community:
“There was a factory warehouse that was rented in Fishers, which was converted to a makeshift masjid. There were other masjids, but they were very far from where we lived. We would go to ISNA occasionally and we would go to Al-Fajr on weekends, for my girls’ Sunday school.”
My mom also spoke about other challenges that she navigated:
“I learned that there are desserts and cream in food that are haram (forbidden) and that there are certain pork-derived foods that I had to avoid. I could not always eat out in restaurants because the food may contain alcohol or other haram substances, even in food that may seem halal (permissible). I did not have to think about haram and halal food in Bangladesh so that was one struggle that I faced.”
My mother also spoke about the religious practices, particularly the hijab and how she has seen that evolve. She did not wear hijab when she first arrived in the US, so being Muslim was not as much of a salient identity for her:
“When I was a new immigrant in Indiana, very few of the Muslims wore hijab, but now many do comparatively.
I started wearing hijab in 2013, but I have always had a desire to wear it for a while. I decided to finally wear it because you (her daughter) decided to start wearing it. When I first wore it to work, I approached my managers, and they had to look up whether it was permitted. There was a rule that bandanas weren’t allowed, but they allowed me to wear hijab for religious reasons.”
She and I started wearing hijab together, and it symbolically demonstrates both our love for our religion and for our Creator. I realize each Muslim has unique challenges and experiences. Although my mother had religious, food, language, and environmental barriers, she was able to adapt and grow as an individual. She is grateful even after the hardships she faced as a Muslim immigrant, and her optimism is what enabled her to prosper. My mom espoused intersectional identities as a Bangladeshi American Muslim woman which became inspirational to me as subtle reminders and indicators of the hardships she had to overcome in her life.
 Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is an Islamic organization in North America founded in 1975, and hosts programs such as the ISNA Annual Convention, Conferences, Education Forums, Online Programs, Youth Camps & Events.
Mayesha Awal received her B.A. in both Psychology and Government from Georgetown University, and her M.S. in Healthcare Management from Indiana University-Bloomington. Prior to working as an Analyst, Mayesha has contributed extensively to international and domestic experiential-learning trips related to public health. She has also worked in a large hospital system, in its continuous improvement department. Overall, Mayesha has developed skills in research, data analysis, project management, and field experience, in her experiences as an intern.
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