Hurricane Katrina Wrecked New Orleans' Bangladeshi Immigrants

Partha Banerjee

Weekly Kagoj (Bengali), September 7-13

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and destroyed the city on August 29, it also devastated the city's thousands of immigrants and their lives. Many of these immigrants came to the U.S. from countries ravaged by Katrina-type storms and their aftermaths. Now, they are faced with similar experiences, all over again.

The Bangladeshi immigrants of New Orleans are one community that got wrecked.

"We see this back there all the time: havocs, misery because of the big monsoon storms. We never believed we'd see such a catastrophe here that turns our lives upside down," said Moti, an undocumented immigrant from Sylhet, Bangladesh. He would not disclose his full name.

Moti fled Metairie, a northern suburb of downtown New Orleans the Sunday before the hurricane struck. He left behind all the belongings in his first-floor apartment that was inundated with five or six-foot-deep water. He doesn't believe he'll be able to put his life back together soon.

He believes many others like him had a similar fate.

"I didn't have much in the first place," he said. "But now, I don't even know where to begin. I lost it all."

The Bangladeshi students attending various schools including Tulane University also left the Orleans Parish en masse the day before the city was evacuated. Most of them are now staying at friends' or relatives' in Houston, Texas, Jackson, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Apart from losing their belongings that include books, term papers, bikes and blankets, these students also lost their meager income, which worries them a lot.

"Students' biggest worry is though, if New Orleans is shut down for a long time and they can't go back to their schools designated by immigration [authorities], they'll be considered illegal, without valid papers," Md. Shahed, a part-time Tulane Student, said. International students study in U.S. at schools specifically mentioned on their I-20 immigration papers. Under normal circumstances, while on their student visa, they're not allowed to study anywhere else. They're not allowed to work outside, either.

"I think these students should be relocated properly just like any other American students [impacted by Katrina]," Mamud, another student at Tulane, said.

Shahed fled New Orleans in the nick of time only to find himself and some twenty other students huddled in a Bengali doctor's house in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a town that took the hit of the deadly hurricane's eye. He thought out of an estimated 1,000 Bangladeshis in Greater New Orleans, a few long-time immigrants lost everything.

According to him, a couple of doctors living close to the instate highway near the hurricane eye saw their houses completely blown away.

"We're lucky to have survived," Shahed said. "But [in spite of the] generosity provided to us, it's not the happiest situation. We have to find a way to put our lives back together soon," he said.

Shahed described how the city residents and its immigrant students did not really get any serious warning about the oncoming storm.

"Tulane students just got one five- or 10-minute alarm, and basically that's it," he said. "We were playing soccer with a bunch of kids even on Saturday. Never thought it was going to be so bad."

Two days later, Hurricane Katrine walloped the city. New Orleans residents, who are used to relocating to nearby places at hearing official warnings, did not know what was coming at them."

"We moved to Houston three or four times before," Mariam Nessa, a Bangladeshi immigrant mother from Kenner, another suburb of New Orleans, said. On Sunday, just the day before the hurricane stormed the city, she left with her husband and child for Houston again, to stay with some friends. This time, however, she doesn't know when she can go back to her home, if ever again.

"They tell us now that we can go check on our home in Kenner, but I'm afraid we'd get mugged or something if we went," she said. "I don't know what to do. They say houses are being vandalized and the water to drink is not safe. I have a child and I'm afraid."

Hurricane Katrina impacted Bengali immigrants in Baton Rouge, a city about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans.

"Our population has suddenly gone up twice, three times because of the people who escaped New Orleans and came here," Khasruzzaman Chowdhury, a university professor, said. "This is unprecedented -- traffic jams and all. Where are they going to put up so many people in grave needs?"

Chowdhury and his family had no electricity for nearly a week since Katrina hit Louisiana. "We moved from friends' to friends' to eat because we have an electric oven and couldn't cook," he said. "But our discomfort is negligible compared to theirs," he agreed.

Chowdhury and his wife are now helping Bangladeshi and other South Asian immigrants to rehabilitate. He's using his connections to help those who need it.

"We're also reaching out to other poor communities," he said. "I have students from poor families and they're in serious trouble."


Also read Partha Banerjee's article in MM: