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Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong
January 10, 2019
Call number: 2018.006.55
STRONG: All right, so today is Thursday. It is the 10th of January, 2019. Myname is Liz Strong, and I'm here for the Brooklyn Historical Society's Muslims in Brooklyn public history project. Kobir, why don't you introduce yourself, tell me when and where you were born.
CHOWDHURY: My name is Kobir Ahmed Chowdhury. I was born on [date redacted forprivacy] 1974, in Bangladesh, it's a very small village called Porchok, and then it's Sylhet, Bangladesh. And right after high school, I had a wonderful opportunity, or I was one of the lucky ones to be selected on a visa program, through a lottery system, and that's what brought me here to the United States.
STRONG: How old were you?
CHOWDHURY: Just 17, yeah, 17 and a few months.1:00
STRONG: Tell me about your life before then. What do you remember about yourchildhood and your family?
CHOWDHURY: Well, I was the oldest in one of the biggest families. I was theoldest brother, oldest child of 14 children, you know mixed with boys and girls. Three of them, unfortunately didn't you know, live through, so 11 of us are alive. I have, you know, they're all adults now and I started playing a role of almost a father role if you like, because I started contributing to the family and you know, they were growing up. So my mom was the head of household and I was the second head of household, and it was a very interactive, engaged growing up, learning and living in the same time. There was wonderful, wonderful moments, you know you cherish, and there were struggles also, so it's a 2:00combination of real life experience growing up. You know, that's a good lesson for, for your life, you know, that you live afterward, and I do appreciate what you know my mom have done, and the surrounding communities, the value system that had put forward for a child growing up.
STRONG: You told me that you grew up in a, in a farming community and spent timein the natural world a little bit. Tell me what that was like.
CHOWDHURY: It's, well you know if you live in a village and you know, a littlebit of extensive rain would cause flood, so you know flood, you could fish if you like, if you're around. Obviously, I didn't or my family didn't particularly 3:00involve in, in farming, you know crops and vegetables or rice if you like, but it was right in the middle of it. My dad was a religious teacher, he memorized the Holy Qur'an, so he was a teacher and then he spent some time in the Middle East for work. So it's, it's a village, you're surrounded with all natural things, greens you know, streets and you know, roads, clear roads that are not furnished or completed or smooth, but it was, it was very natural and life was very, very natural and the life, you had growing. Surrounded with natural things was very unique, comparing to what we are exposed to now.
STRONG: Right. So, when you did come to Brooklyn, what was that transition likefor you?
CHOWDHURY: Oh it was, I had no family here, and my uncle knew somebody who, wholived here, so that was like our, our you know, only thing to grab, and he was very kind to, to allow me to come to his house. When I called from England, Heathrow Airport, he was not home, somebody else picked up the phone, so that guy later on, even today, appreciate how he comforted me and he said look, come 4:00it's okay, we'll come to the airport, pick you up. And yeah, they were very cordial, nice, many people live together obviously and first few months, I couldn't complete a whole letter, because I would tear down and you know it's just, it's just so, so far, so different, you know so much that I didn't know about, you know? So it was a struggle but you know at times like this, you would pray more, you would appreciate what you had and look forward to what you were going to make out of yourself and how you're going to make yourself better, and those are the things that would comfort you. Yeah it was, it was not easy, not easy. 5:00
STRONG: Tell me about some of the things you learned to do to take care ofyourself and build a life.
CHOWDHURY: Well, I had no skill, just from high school and you know, you alsohave to worry about paying the rent. End of the month, you know people are nice but they cannot afford to, to support you financially, so with no skills, I would -- and a lot of people were not working at that time, you know not working, not having a job for three months, six months, was very normal. So, after a week or so, one of the roommates said you could come with me to start looking for jobs, and so I did go with him, but I met him in the train station, 6:00I didn't dress properly, so he kind of yelled at me, he said, "Hey, you know, that's not how you guys --" only if I knew. So I came home, changed my shoes and something else, went with him. We went around just looking for a job. He would say that but we wouldn't land on anything. Then he said okay, we'll have a cup of coffee or something, let's go to this mall, they have a nice food court on the seventh floor. Right as we got in, there was a little water fountain with a little stage there, it was Christmastime. So I came in September, Christmas decoration and festivity was very, very big at that time I remember, so there was some kind of dancing performance on that stage. In the wintertime, they'll 7:00close the stage and make it into you know, a performing place. It was amazing and colorful and you know very nice, and so we walked on each floor, we went to the seventh floor.
So, the store we were buying coffee from, he said we were looking for a job, andwho became my boss, he said who? He said, "Both of us." But he, he picked on me and he said look, you can come around, back to the corridor and I want to talk to you for a minute. So I did go and I was so nervous, I was so nervous he, I thought he would first ask me my name, that's what my natural thinking, so I said -- I was prepared to tell him my name but he said, "How are you?" I said, "My name is Kobir Ahmed Chowdhury." [laughter] Just this, -- and he goes, he said you know, "You'll be fine, don't worry, I'm not --" then he said if I could come couple hours, you know from eleven to I think three or something, just to deliver food within the mall for different floors, or maybe sometimes outside.
So that day, I was supposed to go on Monday, I think it was a Saturday or aFriday, so now I have to learn how to go alone. So I came home, I said somebody needs to take me to 34th Street and bring me back home, so the gentleman who picked up the phone from when I was calling from Heathrow, he was very kind, he said, "I'll take you there." So he took me there, walked me around the 8:00neighborhood, brought me back home, and so Monday, I had to go alone. So I realized, I shouldn't just take a chance, I should do one more try on my own. So on Sunday, I just you know, obviously prayed and got ready, put my clothes on and I said let me go. So they said look, get on F Train, 34th Street, and get out and then you'll see this big A&S Plaza right underneath the mall, but mistakenly, I got on the wrong side of the train, and so ended up on 35th Street by Macy's, and that looked very different. And you know, if you don't know how to ask for directions properly, you probably wouldn't get people's attention, so 9:00I asked so many people where is -- or maybe I didn't say it like that. So many people would ignore, they wouldn't stop, they wouldn't say, [laughter] but one person said yes, that way.
So I went and then it looked a little bit more familiar, you know coming fromthe bottom of the buildings. So I, I went around, maybe in five, ten minutes, I did the whole circle, came right back down, took the F Train and came back home, maybe an hour and a half, two hours all together. People couldn't believe I actually went. They're saying you're just making it up, you just went around. I don't know, you know people, so I didn't say anything.
I went to work Monday, it was very hard, you know like not knowing anything, soand if you don't go with the food on time, if you spill the food or if the food 10:00gets cold, people -- there's a lot of situations, you know? Order will get canceled, they will reorder and you know, you wouldn't make any tips, and lots of different situations. So, I did struggle but I have to admit, my boss, he, he wouldn't look and sound nice but he was very nice to me. He comforted me and obviously kept me at the job with many mistakes I have made. At the end of the week, you know there was no discussion of what he would pay me or anything, I just was happy that I have a job.
So, end of that week, I worked I think 15 hours, three hours a day, just fordeliveries and stuff, and he put a lot of singles, one dollar bills, and maybe a five and a twenty on the top, so it felt like a lot of money, and he knew he wanted to make me feel good. So he gave me a lot of money, I thought it was a lot of money I grabbed, that I was -- I told him thank you, I came home. I didn't count it over there, came home, I counted the money and it was $60, and I 11:00realized, how much does a ticket cost to go back home, because $60 times whatever, you know, I think it was five, six hundred dollars or something, and my feet would hurt. Delivery, you know it's a struggle. So I really broke down, I said how long will it take or how much do I have to make, to make enough money to go and see my family again, you know? But you know, things got over and you know, I started making -- I made good money.
Six months later, I became a manager of that store, then he opened a bunch ofother stores I think, in different malls; New Jersey, South Street Seaport, Yonkers, Jefferson Valley Mall, and I managed all of them for him. But before he made me a manager, I was basically when the delivery comes, I'll go, but I'll stand right next to him, by the soda fountain, you know Snapple, we stick those in the fridge and stuff. So I knew everybody, when they're coming, what drink 12:00they are having, and put the tray of French fries out, it's all ready before the food comes. So he was really happy that you know, I would stay focused, but I wouldn't say anything. People would smile and say hello, just afraid of saying it wrong and maybe somebody would laugh, you know, or I would be discouraged.
So my boss, Norman, I guess he knew what he was going to do, whatever, and so hejust pulled me one day, just pushed me in the office and said, "Look, if you don't start talking, you're not going to have any job, you know, you have to start talking." Meaning he wanted me to switch the location now, come on the counter and start taking orders. It's a fast food restaurant, you know fast. At lunchtime, you've got to make all the money. So I said okay and you know, I started, and then he obviously, a few weeks later, he told me to -- I mean, when I said manager, he said, "Look when I'm not here, keep an eye open and tell me 13:00what's happening." And then he started giving me responsibility and I did the whole thing.
Another six months, six months later of that incident, he said he made amistake, he said I can't stop you now. So I think he had a good observation of what potential or possibility, you know grows within people when you give them an opportunity or when you give them a lift or when you tap on their back and say look, you can do it too. This was only a few things that I had around, because you're young, you have no relatives or anybody to guide you properly in that direction and your parents are not around with you. So it's, it's a lot of blessings that I didn't derail from just work, home, work, home, and remain focused, and you know, throughout that time, you know you make friends.
Many had different opportunities, like they had no reason to worry about rent,14:00because they had family or uncle or a relative, they were going to school, they didn't have to work as hard, they didn't have to send money to their family, so they were living like a real child or a real young person, whereas I had to do it all differently. So you know it taught me stuff, it made me a different person, made me, made me more unique, it made me who I am maybe.
STRONG: I'm curious about the neighborhood that you first moved to, was it herein East New York?
CHOWDHURY: Yes, 553 Drew Street.
STRONG: What was it like here at that time?
CHOWDHURY: It's one of the very few houses that are owned by Bengalis at thattime. I think it was Misba's [Abdin] father's house, they bought it a while before that, and this house and just a handful, maybe ten all together, but they 15:00were not like next to each other. Maybe this block one, then another block one, but you know, whoever was coming, they would, they would come because there is, there is certain people living here, just because of these people, they would come here. And you know like you don't really have an opportunity to come and find everybody on the street or everybody in the grocery store or a place you gather and socialize. No it was not like that, you know once, or whenever you have a day off, you sleep well, you have a good meal, maybe you cook, and then you walk out a little bit and then you come home and get ready for the next week, because you have a long week coming. That was the mentality everybody had, and then at the end of the month, you have to pay rent, sometimes you have to 16:00send money end of the money, you've got to figure out with what you have done and what's the next month follows, sometimes people lose jobs in between. So those were the primary and only concerns.
And safety was a big issue, I mean shock, cultural shock was the biggest thinganybody faces, faced at that time when you come. You know it's like I haven't seen a Caucasian, a White American or a person in my country. Yeah, there are light skinned people but it's different than African American, then you have Japanese people here. It's like different human beings are also seen for the first time and there are wonderful things along with all these differences, but when you were exposed and living through it for the first time, with learning the language maybe, and everybody is struggling with the language some time you meet people. It was a big um, it was a melting pot. I mean I knew the definition later but that's what it was, and safety was a big issue, crime in East New York was very, very high. I was told that you know, some people would drive taxi for 17:00a living, that, that I would meet and people, drivers, wouldn't want to take people to East New York. That's where we live, part of it maybe, to the borderline, but that's how dangerous it was. But you know luckily, I was only encountered once by, by a thug if you like. Like, I was coming from work and he just, I guess followed me and almost, I came to the house and that's when he tried to grab my wallet. He took the wallet, so I didn't bother, I come and lock the door and everybody came out with -- there was sticks near the door, whatever it is, just to defend yourself in a situation like this. He just ran away, nothing happened but you know, you would, you would feel blessed that you went 18:00to work, nothing happened in the train, nobody gave you a mean look or -- you know in the train, people stress off each other sometimes, or give you looks and make you very uncomfortable, make you that you don't belong there. So if nothing happened, nothing happened at work, you come home safe, nobody, nobody -- [phone rings].
STRONG: Do you want me to pause?
CHOWDHURY: I think I should have -- sorry.
STRONG: That's all right.
CHOWDHURY: Yeah, so being -- is this on?
STRONG: Yeah, yeah, it's on.
CHOWDHURY: Being able to come home from work safely, without any incident, was asuccessful event and you know, you would hear something happening somewhere all the time, you know robbery, and some of those craziest, you know the worst crime 19:00also took place in the neighborhoods while I was there and many people have lost lives also, not because ah, not because they were sometime, a victim of robbery or anything. Sometimes, people didn't know who we were, we didn't know how to look properly or how to walk and pass by properly, or how to behave American. We didn't have that thing within ourselves at that time yet and we didn't have enough people going to the schools or, or working in the mainstream American territories or companies or professional arenas of workplaces, so we didn't, we didn't really know. But it's a good thing about Bangladesh, as comparing to you know Pakistan or Indians, I still believe that Bangladeshis are very quick to 20:00adjust. They are very open minded, they adopt things very quickly and, I mean we go, we do well, once we are comfortable and have an opportunity, but all of these things were happening for the first time. You know, you come single, you're a middle aged person or maybe, or just you know ready to work, but having a family is the next big thing for you, it's time. Then when you have -- when you do that, then you start having children, it's like ten, fifteen years' time that you build to do that, but while that, that's happening, you are going through all these odds and struggle, and that's what, that's what everybody went through.
So yes, living in Brooklyn, right in this neighborhood, and then I moved toForbell [Street], bought my first house. Actually no, I moved to a house in Forbell, as a paying guest. [phone rings] How do I turn this off? Maybe just take this. Yeah. 21:00
So you would -- you know, I moved as a paying guest, lived for a few months, andthen those whole blocks would be for sale sign and every house is on sale. The '90s was very bad economically. I guess President Bill [William J.] Clinton started improving at that time, '92 that's when he was elected. So one day -- [phone rings]
STRONG: I'll pause for just a moment.
STRONG: All right, we're back. So you were saying all the houses on the blockwere for sale.
CHOWDHURY: Yes. So, one lady came and rang the bell, I came from the secondfloor, she said give this card to your father or somebody, you know who is an adult in the house, and so I looked at the card and then she said look, I'm a 22:00real estate agent and the house next door is listed in our company, we want to sell it, but tell your father to call. So, obviously she doesn't know that I have a father here or anything, but she just thought I was too young to get into a real estate conversation. So I read the card as I was going upstairs, you know it says Maria something, real estate agent, and so I obviously didn't share that information with the person I was living with. I called her I said look, this is the person you met on the other day, she said, "That kid?" She said yeah, I said yeah, that was me, but I'm, I'm over 18 now, so yeah, you could call me a kid, but I'm interested in buying the house. She said, "No, no, these are banks' house, you know it's only investor with good liquidity." I think she said a lot of these things to discourage me and she thought, she said you know, "I wouldn't feel comfortable selling it to you." Then, it's right next door, you know, so I 23:00think I started feeling like you know, I should buy this house, and so I went to a real estate agent who I knew, or somebody told me to go talk to this guy. He said look, he has money saved up, enough money to put a down payment, and then she said okay, if that's the case, we'll move forward. Then I went to another lawyer to represent me, he doesn't want to represent me, he said, "You are too young and this deal doesn't work for first time buyers, and I don't want you to come blame me later or anybody would say it was unethical for me not to tell you what I'm telling you." So the other brother assured him that look, he's young but it's okay, and then the mortgage guy came and it was very hard getting a mortgage at that time, interest rates were very high but the loan amount was very small. I bought it for 115. I put $40,000 down, it was a nice deal, bought it. That's when my dad said look, buy a house and that will give you an opportunity to be able to go to school, because you struggled through the time 24:00that you were supposed to be in school, you didn't do it. So instead of investing money in a business or opening businesses, there is a risk that you would lose or whatever, so buy a house. He told me that he heard at least if you buy a house, through rent you could pay your mortgage and live for free, and so that will give you time and, and will prepare you to go to school. So I listened to that advice and yeah, I bought that house, rented the first floor, lived in the basement, and you know, went to school and I finished an associate degree.
But with that house, again, going back to where nobody was in the neighborhood,not too many people knew what they were supposed to do, so when you buy a house from these kind of deals, you buy it "as is" condition. There was a lot of violations in the basement. I'm not going to mention names, but I went to a 25:00couple of people who own houses, they were not only discouraged, they, they went ballistic, like buying a house it's not something you just do and come and said look, I bought this and this is the problem. No, the bank is going to take your house in six months because you know, if I couldn't remove the violation, that I would default, and that's the condition they gave me the mortgage on, but nobody was there to motivate you or tell you look, let me look into it, let me find out what you can do and you can -- and find help. I was very upset, living from that person who I thought would give me some -- because they have a house. And one guy who would do the work, you know some repairs, he also started acting like okay, you know, you're the homeowner, I'm just the guy who you would tell me what to do and I'll do it, tell me what to do. I mean do I know? No.
So I went to [New York City] Department of Buildings [DOB], I said look I amyoung, maybe I made a mistake about this house, many people told me not to do 26:00this, but I have violations in the basement, you know ECB [Environmental Control Board] violations, DOB violations, what do I do to you know, cure this? Very nicely, like an angel, she calls me, she says, "You know Bill Clinton?" I said yes. She says, "He lived in a basement with his family when he was --" you know with his mother, and she, she said just to comfort me, she says, you know how many basements in the house? I said no. She said, "How many houses in New York?" I said no. She said, "Millions, every house has a basement, many people lives in the basement." Yes, illegal, recreation or whatever, I'll help you. So she looked through whatever, you know they have records, so she said, "Look, you have the same violations repeated, what Department of Building gave, Environmental Control repeated the same too." She said, "The same violation, looking at it 13 different ways, so if you take care of that, everything will be taken care of." So she gave me the form, she said, "Look, don't call for an 27:00inspection until you do what's necessary." She said, "Look, remove the kitchen, remove the showerhead, make sure it doesn't look and feel like it's a living apartment." You could have beds, you could sleep there, you could have the bathroom, but you cannot have kitchen and bath and all of this, you know. So I told the contractor, I said look, remove this, take out the oven, throw this out and that's it, and then I called the inspection and the guy came. He wasn't very happy, he said look, you didn't really do much, but he was confirmed that I did take out the oven, there's no way it was -- nobody could live. So he said next Tuesday you'll get a dismissed thing by mail, if you don't receive it, you could 28:00go back to the department or whatever, inquire. So I got it.
Then, I helped so many people in the same situation, because it's the same way.Now I know who to go talk to, what department, and what the process is, what the application is like, how to fill it out. So I said you know, I'll help people, and then I was known in the neighborhood to, to -- sort of like a violation removing expert. So it did help and that's, that's the story of buying the house.
STRONG: Yeah, and then you eventually started buying and flipping houses --
STRONG: -- and working in mortgages?
STRONG: How did that come?
CHOWDHURY: After -- while I was going to school, I quit my job from my previous,my first job basically, bought a business called Sorbetto, Italian, you know ice cream, gelato, they were going out of business. So I just took their shell, the 29:00kiosk, and started putting different Hershey's ice cream, you know, more reasonably priced ice cream, and it was doing so well, so I did that for about three years, also went to school in the same time. I had my house, so I didn't have to pay any rent. These were good, good years, encouraging years financially for me, but then I lost the lease, they shut down the whole seventh floor, made it into a hotel, connected to the Hotel Pennsylvania and then, I mean I was out of there. While I was out of there, my accountant suggested you know, what are you going to do, blah, blah.
So I got my real estate license, agent license, and I think the interest ratewas very high on the first deal I did, because of whatever circumstances, and so I wanted to lower the rates, so I had to refinance. So through refinance, I learned a little bit more about mortgage and you know a few things, and you know when you're open minded and you are hungry for information and you appreciate when you receive information, people help you, that, that's something, you know. So I learned because people were helping me, I asked questions, they answered me in details, so I learned that subject matter enough so I could even tell somebody else, so this was happening. 30:00
So I got my real estate agent license, I -- I mean, agent license, because I hadthe full-time job still. So I -- the broker who refinanced me, my mortgage, he said, "You speak Spanish, I could use your skill," to whatever, you know, give me referrals and I'll give you a kickback, or whatever they call it. He made me a business card that says loan officer. Certain people, you would expect to, you know look and maybe just say, "Oh, you're working with Maurice now." Instead they say ah, loan officer, how do you -- people go to college and universities to become a loan officer or a mortgage banker. Just because you have a business card, you become -- so a lot of negative things people did intend to encourage or give you a tap and say look, you'll do it, I have done it or you know, you'll make history maybe, by doing it. No, it was not much of that. So I gave him a lot of referrals, but he gave me so little, which confused because then when you 31:00give a referral of a community person, you do all the work; they're just originating the loan. Something was a little concerning, so I shared that with a person in Countrywide Bank. He said yeah, you are not treating -- treated properly. He offered me to work with him at a much better scenario, but that's in Long Island. I was not a comfortable driver at that time so I said I wouldn't be able to risk my job and to start there. So I didn't take that job offer. 32:00
Then, after the business closed, I actually bartended six months at HudsonHotel, on the rooftop, because one of the kids that used to work with me, he was a bartender there, so he took me there, and I was appreciated very much, because I wouldn't sample drinks, I wouldn't, you know do anything bad for the business, you know nothing, you know nothing behind the, the -- behind the manager's back or nothing. So they were very happy I was honest and you know, maybe the personality was good too. So after six months, I saw an ad for Washington Mutual Bank, they were hiring mortgage, home loan, home loan -- loan officer for a home loan center. So I applied at night at they called me to go for an interview at the Harlem branch, but Jackie Fariello [phonetic] is another home loan center manager, calls me and says, "Look, don't go to that place, come see me and then 33:00you go maybe." I said, "Why?" She said, "I'm another home loan, I also can fit you in maybe, let's just meet and see what happens." So I met her, I think it was Tuesday, and I should go to the other interview Wednesday, and through the conversation she said look, "What would you want me to give you as a signing bonus or signing money?" We negotiated that and she really accepted everything I was asking, and I didn't even go to the other interview, I told him I had another opportunity. So I did very good, because I speak Spanish and you know, any, any call that would come in from the -- to the center, home loan center, it would be referred to me, and you know if it becomes a deal, there's basis points you get, you make commissions and all that. I was doing very good and through that time, you know, I had bought a few, maybe not as much, HUD [United States Department of Housing and Urban Development] homes, you know buy them, repair them, and then sell them for a profit. I did a few and I ended up living in one because I couldn't sell it, a single family house, and then I sold it in 2008. 34:00That was the other thing I was doing. Apart from being a loan officer or a mortgage banker in the bank, then comes 2008, that's when Washington Mutual was, you know out of business or taken over by Chase, so I worked for Chase two years, then I said you know what, no more banking.
STRONG: You told me your father wasn't happy with you working with interest. Canyou tell me about that?
CHOWDHURY: Yes. Well you know, when I joined the bank, obviously, the rest of myfamily was very happy, you know our kid is now not only living in the States, he, he's a banker now, you know suits and ties, you know nice pictures you would send to the family and they were very excited. Except my dad would say, you know, working with -- working with interest or dealing with interest, negotiating interest, taking interest, giving people -- paying interest is, is haram, meaning it's forbidden in our religion. I thought it was a religious 35:00thing only, or people who are religious, you know takes it seriously. I didn't know too much of the different meaning, but I realized the reason, you know, because it, it allow you to expend yourself beyond your real limits and then there is a great chance of you failing, and many, many have failed historically and there is a natural chance of you failing, and people who would get loans in, 36:00in aggressive situations, are desperate and you know, it creates very disadvantageous situation for the one who takes the loan and whatever. And that's why, that's why it's haram, that's why it's forbidden, that's why it's better not to. So, I understood it properly and I have seen, you know bankruptcy situations and how people are -- you know banks are friendlier today but you know things were bad. So the concept, no matter how friendlier it is, the concept is wrong, of giving interest, taking interest, negotiating interest. So that, that kind of remained in my head but I wasn't looking to substitute my income or you know, looking for alternatives.
So, my dad passed away and you know, sometimes you reflect and think back andyou know, maybe I was missing him, or I just realized that you know what, that's one thing he would remind me often, but I haven't been reminded a long time and I think that's because nobody else cares as much. So from that point, you know 37:00sometimes little things, minor things, hit you in a major way so I said you know, I'm going to -- you know, he had given me only good advice and you know, buying the house was a good idea right? So, I, I took -- I said you know what, I'm going to just, just work on this. I have told him I would do it, I would look for options, so I said I would just you know. That's the internal, you know reason, but I didn't like Chase Bank's personality or their way of managing business, the aggressiveness they had and like go get, and you know things like this. Sometimes, I felt like you have to mislead people or not tell them the whole truth to open this shell checking accounts and this and that, so I said you know what, I'm not comfortable being in this environment. And then, you know 38:00I'm, I'm -- people -- house prices were inflated, people were getting loans for, for the amounts that the house doesn't even worth, appraisers were working things out with the price. There was a lot of -- I sensed a lot of wrong things, really felt uncomfortable. I said you know what, I could do something else. Everybody, including my wife, said you know, people build up to that position and you know, you are safe, you know your industry now and this is not the time to quit you know, or retire, so I said you know that's fine, I'll leave. Then, then I left and helped people with aggressive loans that are -- that have defaulted, to modify, but you know there was still interest, right? Eventually, it phased out and I said you know what, out completely. Then I had an office on 101 Avenue, shared with somebody else, then I took a second floor office, and then I moved here, in 2012 I was here. 39:00
STRONG: Before you tell me about this space, it sounds like you were getting outof loans and banking right around the housing crash in 2008.
STRONG: Can you tell me about that a little bit?
CHOWDHURY: It's, you know the -- like I was saying before, the bubble wascreated within the industry from all different players. You know lenders, they have prime, subprime lending, A loans, C loans and B loans, you know? They would package all of this and sell them to, to a servicer at some point for a profit and you know, this market was so hot and you know the volumes, everybody was working with numbers. What's the bottom line and what are you closing this month, these codes people would start talking. I heard internally that foreign investors, foreign countries, municipalities and investors are starting to 40:00invest here. You know, you don't know really, who owns your mortgage. So they, they packaged these loans and sales and whatever, and it was really, really all over the place. And you didn't -- you know, stated income, stated income it's not really income, they just instead of calling a grocery, you call it a supermarket, so grocery manager makes -- there's the guideline for salary, there comes a certain limit, but if you're a supermarket manager, it makes you -- it allows you to claim more income. All you have to do is say yes, this is, this is supermarket and you are so and so, and I'm here at work and answer the work phone, that was the verification. This was very wrong, and then appraisals would inflate. In six months ago you bought it for 300, six months later it's 450, and so the difference is equity that you are taking out, sometimes just to you know waste it or lose it or sometimes buying another project. Many people took this opportunity and made a lot of money and you know these reverse loans were, you know, not -- interest only loans, yes. Interest only loans, they were designed for investors, you know you buy it for a short period of time, sell it profit 41:00and move on to the next project, but people started selling this to like first time homebuyers, to senior citizens and you know, people with fixed income, risky you know? Some loans, you would only pay interest for three years, five years or ten years, and then after a certain time, if the property value doesn't grow, you would have to pay everything with interest and principal that you didn't pay, would put people in a very bad position.
I heard a lady once, she just wanted to refinance and I couldn't help herbecause she didn't have what it takes to qualify. She said when I did that other mortgage -- after five years, now her, her mortgage added. You know, like you have three different options; interest only, or min -- no, minimum payment, interest only, interest and principal. So obviously, the third one is high, minimum payment is like credit card payment, it's less than interest only. So 42:00the difference between interest only payment and minimum payment is unpaid interest, will add to your loan. They will allow it for a certain time, until the equity catches up, and then said look, you cannot make that payment no more, now you've got to make the second one or the third one, no the third one with the principal. You couldn't do it in the first, how are you going to do it now? But people wouldn't tell people in a situation where they need to be told and then five years later, where they have much less options to make themselves better, are ending up with situations like this.
One lady said one time she thought it was Jesus Christ came to her living room,when one of those scam artists broke her window and said look, I'll give you one of this loan, now you're paying 3,000, you could only charge -- you could only pay 700 and live your golden age life and do whatever you want to do, or you couldn't do in life without money, you know, enjoy, and that's what she did, she enjoyed. She said she thought it was Jesus Christ who came in that guy's shape and form. Five years later, she realized she owed $150,000 more than what she 43:00had borrowed because the difference added to her loan.
CHOWDHURY: And this, this was only designed for six months investors, you knowyou buy it, do your repair, let it accrue and you know, with the improvement, with the growth in value, you'll make it up and move on to the next. But they were doing this to the real, real time first time homebuyers, or people in situations that are more vulnerable. So all of these things happened, there was a lot of unethical things, and obviously, the bubble had burst. And I remember, I think David Schneiderman [sic] [Alan H. Fishman] -- I don't fully recall his name -- he was the CEO for WaMu [Washington Mutual]. I was in training in Texas and you know how things were declining, they started, you know detecting things? So he was saying that all of us were fine, when property value has continued to 44:00grow, because that gives leverage for you for finance, you know bank or people to lend, but when the property value stopped, or started going under, that's when you couldn't do deals no more and that's when everything stopped. And obviously, if it's worth 300 and you bought it for seven or you have a loan for six, you are in trouble and you couldn't get out of it. That's how -- when people you know, started leaving houses and abandoning properties, stop making payments and defaulting. Then obviously, President [Barack H.] Obama came and started this HARP, Home Affordability Refinance Program, home affordable modifications, HAMP, to, to give people certain guarantees, or work with the banks with certain guarantees that look, people who are under water or have defaulted, work out with them, a low interest rate or you know, very low interest rate, or forgive some of the, the interest or defer some of the interest for later payments. They became very creative in situations like this and allowed people to retain their properties. Again, a lot of people took -- unfortunately, a lot of people pretended like they were in a situation, they intentionally stopped making payments to, to, to make themselves look like 45:00they're defaulting. So yes, many, many took opportunities and many were really getting help, and many couldn't still be helped, because even with deferring interest, forgiving loans or, or spreading it to a higher number of years to amortize, it still, it still didn't make sense for many, many people, so they had, they just had no choice but to give up, sign up a deed in lieu or a short sale or just you know, abandoned. So that's how things ended up when the bubble had burst and then the regulations have you know, started being tightened.
Obviously now, there is no stated loan, your income is one of the most importantguidelines, you know, apart with your credit and down payment, so if you don't have income, some time with a very big down payment, it's still impossible to buy a house today, and that's what you know, putting things back into a stable 46:00marketplace and more qualified people are buying, and people are doing things to qualify. You know, like we used to have to do what they call first time home buying seminars, you know branches. I had six branches in WaMu, on the East Side territory, so people would come to be motivated on how to buy a house, how to build your credit or improve your credit and make your situations more you know buyer friendly, when you are getting ready for the marketplace. But some of these seminars, I remember, if you tell them the whole truth about everything at that market, you almost had to discourage people not to buy at that time, so I stopped doing first time home buying seminars because the whole idea is to encourage people, they go from the seminar, the meeting, and they start looking. Every time they see a for sale sign they say oh, call the broker and then call and say look, I found one. That was the idea, and then eventually you do the loan or help them buy the house, but the idea, I had to honestly start telling 47:00people that look, this is not the time, don't buy it. Then why would you do that? So things, things have you know? You know you learn about all different marketplace. But you know, I feel like you know I couldn't -- I didn't take any of these opportunities. I could have, maybe should have some would say, but I feel like throughout, you know being able to help people and direct them in the right direction means a lot, and I feel like that's, that's -- that should be contagious, that should, that should spread in the society, this goodness, good information, good education. Whatever you learn that benefits you, you should, you should let it go to the next person, so they don't become the victim, and if they're lucky and if they are blessed, maybe they'll take an opportunity with that knowledge and make better themselves, better for themselves or their family, and that's what comforts me and makes me happy that look, you know, I 48:00didn't take any opportunities but I'm happy. I got to bed very quick, you know, I got to sleep very quick, I don't have any interruption or concerns that look, what have I, have I done to who and who have I hurt. You know?
STRONG: Mm-hmm. So tell me about this office that you have now, because you workon the other side of things, helping people trying to manage their own --
CHOWDHURY: Yes. You know, when my son was born in 2002 -- I got married in 2001-- that's when I realized that I have my house, I'm married, now I have a boy who obviously is not going to get married and move out. [phone rings] Obviously, in our culture --
STRONG: Let's pause a second.
STRONG: So you were saying you, your son --
CHOWDHURY: When he was born, I realized, I need to organize these little things49:00that I'm doing. I had little projects in Bangladesh, just to, just to help things out, to help family and neighbors. So I started this organization with his name, you know Tausif Kobir Educational Projects [phonetic], to, to recognize kids that are graduating high school, giving them you know, some starting funds to go to college, with tuition fees. Some, some of them you have buy some, you know, clothes to, to go to college. Girls, a lot of time you know, and I thought if we don't do that, these bright students wouldn't have a shot at going to college. And, and some time, you know it's not much, tuition fee, some money to buy books, well it's not much, but that little bit would stop a bright 50:00mind, you know to not achieve what he or she can achieve. So with that thought, that scholarship thing started. Then I wanted to, you know obviously give back too, to give kids the opportunity that I didn't have, you know. So I started this other scholarship program from elementary, one level, and then to eighth grade level, where if they get 70 percent -- over there at that time, if you got 33 percent, you pass. So, I think they changed it later, but I said if anybody got 70 percent or more, at this they're meeting standard that I'm familiar with and they're at least, you know, learning the subject matter, so anybody who would get 70 percent or more would get a tier of prizes, 80 percent or more would get a little bit different, 90 percent or more would be much more. So, in 51:00three different categories combine, you would have hundreds of children, you know from different -- you know from the whole area, receiving prizes, and that was motivating them and we were creating more competition. It's not number one only or number two only, and you know you make a big program and recognize two and talk about yourself. Instead of doing that, I wanted to energize the base of the students and sort of trick their mind to -- all of them got better you know? I'd rather, instead of giving two prizes to two kids that got 90 percent or 95 percent, I'd rather give 20 of them who got 80 percent, right? So now everybody is encouraged and they had opportunities in different things, and so we did that for about ten years.
And then another project came, thus through the same project and then I waspartnering with, I think it's the Helen Keller Foundation, something, I'm not familiar too much with, they have a project in Bangladesh for eye surgeries 52:00where they'll provide the doctors and logistics. They'll go to your area and they'll, you know sort people out, who needs what. Some they'll just give medication and prescriptions, some they will do surgery. So I thought this is a good project to help out because people don't have an opportunity to go see a doctor. Forget eye doctor, just a regular doctor is a struggle, and many people are struggling and living through conditions throughout life that, that could be treated right? So I partnered with one organization and then they decided not to focus in that direction any more, and those people were asking like can we continue and how? I said look, even if I have to borrow money to have that program going, I would and you don't have to ask any more, because I feel like it's only maybe a little bit more or less, about $2,000 you could send for them 53:00to be facilitated or transport this patient from where they're gathered to the hospital, receive the surgery, stay overnight and then transport them back to a locality where they could go to their houses. So that's working from 2003 until now. It was never less than 50 and never more than 80, so it's between 50 to 80 people would, would get state of the art eye surgeries which they couldn't get otherwise every year. So the organization that I work with, it's in my village and it's called Porchok Friendship Club, they do it very sincerely and we just provide them funds. So the scholarship thing is not going any more, it's just the high school graduates having an opportunity to go to college, it's continuing, and this eye surgery thing.
In the meantime, for about five years, I did open a library. There is no54:00computer, there's no system there obviously. Opened a library, had thousands of different books. My intent, it was in between a bunch of elementary schools around four high schools and one college, the hub was situated like that.
STRONG: This is a library in Bangladesh?
CHOWDHURY: In Bangladesh, yes. We hired a person to, to you know, keep thingsand maintain, but the habit was not there; People would take book and never return. Sometimes they're not reading. You know if they are not coming back, if they are not engaged, I struggle so much to try to, you know, but that didn't work out well.
CHOWDHURY: Because they have tuition programs people do and it's for money, andI think like just passing the exam, extracurricular learning is not a big thing, so that failed and I stopped it because it wasn't doing anything. So --
STRONG: Just for time, I'm so sorry to interrupt you, but we should bring itback to, to Brooklyn, and I haven't asked you about [Masjid] Al-Aman yet. 55:00
STRONG: So how did you become president of Al-Aman?
CHOWDHURY: I think as I have mentioned, I lived in this neighborhood throughout,but being engaged in work life, I wasn't too involved with the mosque and the activities the mosque has. In 2006 or '07, they were having a court case with one of the imam. It was masjid management versus the imam, and a group had supported the imam, a very nice man, I got to know him personally later on. But through a misunderstanding and you know, whatever have you, ended up in the court. So I was pulled in to help explain the situations or what the mosque's interests was at that time, to the lawyer, and it was obviously a court in the -- a case in the court. So after two or three years, a court decision was made and obviously, the imam was not the imam there and he was I guess ordered not to 56:00be around for while the case is in the court.
Anyway, so the court suggested that we make a constitution to operate ourreligious affairs, you know according to our religious ideals that fits, you know, best, and it also said that we would not interfere or intervene in any way, size, shape or form, to, to do that. So they also, for that project, you know, they pulled me and you know, four other, other people from the community, headed by our imam at that time, to form this constitution. It took a long time, about a year back and forth, to make it right so it fits, you know, all the things that are involved. It's a growing community, it has a community that has different age group, different mindset. Some people are really advancing, some 57:00people are really trying to keep things the way they were, you know years ago, and some people are sort of in the middle. So we had to accommodate everybody from this constitution, to have appropriate system to select committees and stuff, elections, selections. So all that, that happened.
Then, on the first time when they were forming the committee with thisconstitution, you know as a guideline, they put me as an election commissioner, one of the three. Then, after the election finished, I became an advisor of the election committee, and then I think a situation happened where there was a tax lien of about $328,000 that was sold to -- not just a lien, it was sold to an investor, so masjid could be, could be auctioned and the investor could any time sell and recover their money. So I had to apply and reverse -- and, and got the 58:00approval of the finance department, tax exemption, at that time with the help of you know, John Liu who was the comptroller, and, and a lawyer friend. We were able to be approved again and they had reversed the whole thing from 2001 to 2010, the whole $328,000, and we were debt free again. So after that, they told me to continue to renew it every year, which I have done until 2014, but from '15 to current years, they're not renewing it because the exemption is, I guess they have changed or surprisingly, they have changed to making the building required to be constructionally done, and you have to have a certificate of occupancy to qualify. That's what we are fighting and we have a lawyer fighting 59:00now. She suggests that state law implies New York City cannot change this to hurt nonprofits and mosques and churches and temples, to be caught like this and some time you know, be in the risk of losing.
So in 2014, I believe, there was an attempt to bring me in the committee, butsomehow it didn't happen. They went off of the constitution a little bit and they said those three selection, selection committee members, should just choose from the nominees and whatever, and they just did something you know, it was done. Then the next year, the next two years, 2016 come and people said no, that we cannot violate the constitution, it is to follow. So the committee was formed, I was -- you know the system we made is you don't become a president, you don't become a secretary or a treasurer, you become part of 17-member group, 60:00executive committee. That 17, you know, with discussions or whatever form they, they use, could form a portfolio by which a president, vice president, secretary, assistant secretary, treasurer and assistant treasurer. But in a normal world, you know open, raising hands, it's become difficult, who is supporting who and who is not, so we gave the option, like you give an anonymous ballot with 17 people's names and whoever gets the most "P" will become the president, whoever will get -- and so nobody knows who is supporting who and who is not, so you have a good, you know friendly, open relationship to work for the next two years. So that's what they did and surprisingly, I got 13 Ps on the first -- you know, 2016. Many were surprised but you know, because I didn't want it, I didn't campaign for it or I didn't tell anybody look, you know look out and if my name is there. So that's how it was, you know surprising to many, but 61:00I think it was Allah's will and he wanted me to be playing a role there.
So I did -- you know, one of the very first things people wanted was theconstruction to be done. You know it's a structure but it doesn't have any legal standing, you know plumbing was not approved, electric was not approved, a lot of the things were done with consultation from the professionals, so it was just a building and we thought it's mosque and it has carpet, it has lights, and we are using it and it's done. So when I looked into it, you know architect was not in place properly, he was not actively working, a bunch of other, other things. You know people have, a lot of our community people have construction experience repairing, you know installing this, breaking this, demolishing that, but having built -- having to build a structure, nobody was involved that had done it before, so that's what took it you know, from where it's supposed to be to where 62:00it is. So, having working with -- worked with the architect, hired a construction supervisor, so with his help and professional consulting, we hired you know electrician, plumber, HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning] person, a mechanical company to do the heating and ventilation system, to be able to sign off things and make it more legal. So that's what we are doing now, and I think last year in March, the two term, two year term went again, and people just said look, you know, you just -- because you can only stay two terms, two year term twice, and then you cannot, and so they said look just, we don't need to change nothing, just continue and finish and hopefully set some good examples for later people to come and follow. I think that's what I'm focused on, because I believe construction is going to be, is going to be done some time, through our effort or you know if we can't get to finish everything, 63:00you know you'll be in a place where it will get finished, but you know how do you build community? How do you, how do you keep energized, people who would occupy this place that you built and struggled so much; if you don't do this it's really purposeless, and that's what happened in Buffalo, where people are moving to, to live a better life, because all of these churches are sold and Muslims are buying these churches and becoming mosques or Islamic schools. Why? Because at certain point, certain Christian generation didn't prepare their next generation to occupy these churches, and that could very well happen here, it has happened in Europe, in many directions, right, this way and that way.
So, I believe our bright young educated ones to, to have enough religiousvalues, education, practices, you know sharings, could you know, sort of make 64:00something into this community that is you know, energetic, positive and lasting. And that's what, you know encouraged me to have these youth programs in our masjid. We have had youth programs, we worked with them, with our youths more effectively. We have sisters program every Sunday, we call it SLT, Sisters Learning Together. You know, they are led by sisters who went to high schools, colleges, they're mothers now, they're professionals, they're housewives, but they're educated here. They do not have, you know back home accent, their English, they speak English properly. So they are attracting our daughters and sisters who are going to high school and colleges. They sit together, they discuss random things, anything you know? I said look you know, you don't need to discuss any subject matter and make it look like a curriculum because that 65:00will discourage everybody to come. So it's going very successfully.
On the boy's program, we call it AKT, Acquiring Knowledge Together. It's beenmore successful because it started a little longer and you know, they invite scholars from all over the world, sometimes from different coast, to fly them in. We are planning on having conventions to -- but that's when masjid construction is done, and I feel like our youths are more open to me, to my committee, to this time around than they have been four years ago, five years ago. But I want this to be much better, where these young people are coming to lead, you know some of them are ready, some of them, we have to pull them in, bring them and tell them to be involved. If they're not involved, they're not attracting the next people. So that's, that's what's happening. I think my focus 66:00is to build a community as much as you're building the mosque construction and, and have a balanced society where you know, your boys are involved, girls are involved. Yeah, there are restrictions on how, who can get involved, you don't need to compromise, but without compromising the values and fundamentals put forward by your religious codes, you still could you know, really, really up-bring the values and, and make it the best. I believe it's possible only in this country. A lot of these things, you know you would think Bangladesh or other Muslim countries are Muslim countries and this and that, but yes it's just a default situation. Here, you could create to be the best, to be, to be something that nobody has been, even as Muslims, you know? Like my beard for 67:00example, you know I didn't have it when I was a banker, so a lot of this, this was confusing to a lot of people. Some of my relatives thought I am going, you know a little bit out of way. Some of them were concerned that this kid was a banker, bright you know, he maintained himself a little bit, I went to the gym and stuff, but like what happened, he's just, you know long beard. And it really created confusion, but I feel like my American friends who knew me, who knew who I was from my childhood, who I have grown up with, they say yeah, we have seen that pastor kind of mentality in you, or we -- from your converses and we knew you were a Muslim guy, but you just didn't practice what you preached and we like you better now, because you are practicing. I feel like this kind of 68:00acknowledgement and open mindedness is not available anywhere else in the world. That's why I am Muslim and I'm a better Muslim when I'm a better American, you know? Be, being a good Muslim has, has a lot to do with being a good American, because this, this good American value is also good American Muslim value. So by being one, you are not abandoning the other one, you are actually enriching the other part and then you are becoming a unique individual they can call Muslim Bangladeshi American, and I think that's what my focus is. This is how I would want my children to, to be a complete, well-rounded individuals. Yes, if they're scholarly and they're bright, or brighter than me and others that's fine, that's their advantage, but rather than you know, rather than being one sided or good 69:00at one thing and completely ignoring the other aspect of life or a human being or an individual, I rather you become the complete, well rounded, social, religious human being that, that could be a Muslim Bangladeshi American, and that's the mission every day.
STRONG: Can you give me an example of a time that you have seen faith guidingyour children's lives in a way that is new and important to you?
CHOWDHURY: Faith, yeah, I mean you cannot be guided without faith, because youknow, it's like if you ask for direction, you have to ask the person who knows how to direct. So yes, faith is the, is the only means of direction I think you should take, and I'm having my children learn the foundations. You know, my son 70:00tells me he is studying in Bangladesh, the Islamic studies here. He started in South Africa, a little bit also and eventually, when he is a little older, maybe we will send him other places. You know by the time he is done and he's an adult and he's educated, I want him to learn at least five, six languages proficiently, efficiently, so he could, he could spread himself, what he learns. You know, I would hope these are good things and a good person that he would become, and this was contagious. It is not to preach and convert people to what your belief is and how you believe, no. It's, it's this is yourself, you know, what God have created you as a human being, not a Muslim necessarily right away you know, or you know we believe all children are born with, with faith, but then they are directed differently. But, but I think you -- you know, I want my children to be guided by, by their religion, and proper code of religion you 71:00know, by educating yourself of that religion, instead of getting, you know misinterpretation of it or, or religion from what other people think of this religion, no. Study the religion, practice it, then you are an example and you know, our, our model in our religion is our prophet, and we follow all the other prophets footsteps, because they were godsend and they came with the revelation and they were there to guide also. Simple, one similar, or same message basically, different time, different you know region, different parts of the world, different age, different way of how they preach, but it's the same concept. So yes, your religion should guide you and if you are guided with any other thing it could be temporary, it could work, it could fail, but if you are guided with your religious values, with God's fear in your heart and hoping to 72:00satisfy God with your actions, it's the only way to be guided.
STRONG: I'm curious to learn also, about the City Line neighborhood and how it'schanged. I mean you described a time when it was mostly single men here. Now there are -- you have a family, many of these men have had families here and there are so many Bangladeshi members of the community here. How has City Line changed over the years, how have you seen it change?
CHOWDHURY: It's you know in the beginning, when you have a house for sale, youwould have people, you know Guyanese people bidding, Spanish people that are bidding, but now I could guarantee you, if anybody is selling, it's only our people buying, because we live in a mosque-centric religious way of life. Yes it looks different when you look at the social aspect of it or family aspect of it, but the foundation is religion. So within this vicinity, you have around ten different mosques. Yeah, this big mosque has the most participants, but there 73:00are many others that are you know, full, booked with their capacities, and that, that's one reason why people are moving in and building mosques and living you know in that life. And there are maybe nine, ten times as much people that are now coming to the mosque that are living also. So yes, you know initially, you had one grocery store, many houses. Now you have many 20 grocery stories, medical offices, real estate offices, you have these dollar stores, there are supermarkets that are owned by Bangladeshis now. Houses are, are you know, bought by only Bangladeshis and families are moving in here. We have children that are going to school. Within the vicinity, I think if you look into a couple of middle schools and, and sporadic elementary schools, 70 percent of the student's populations are Muslims, Bangladeshi for the most part. They are 74:00trying a pilot Halal food, they chose P.S. 214 because that's where the most Muslim children are going. So it's, it's a family life, it's a business growth, growing community, and every other aspect. And I have I think you know, these men, as we discussed, they have gotten married, they have children, they are all living here, you know, another percentage of children that are educated. Sometimes they move, they want to move to a better place or a little quieter place, and we have our children moving to Long Island and other places.
Another profession our kids are joining is NYPD [New York City PoliceDepartment], you know traffic police, school safety guards, because you know, that's where we are at. I mean doctors and engineers, you have, it's a trend, 75:00everybody wants to be a doctor, an engineer, graphic designers. One kid told me that my parents ideal situation will be a doctor, an engineer, but they don't know how creative I am in terms of my graphic designing skills. Only if they knew, they would probably give me the same respect or be as happy as if I was a doctor. So these things are booming, you know all these different thoughts are happening and they are realized in families, in individuals, and as a community. So City Line, call it City Line, call it Ozone Park, call it East New York, it's Bangladeshi Muslim communities that are making things happen and you know real estate developments and you know, we have a nonprofit now, but it's very, you know well established. I joked with them I said look, you don't have competition. The grocers have competition, every other business has competition, 76:00but you don't and you have an advantage, to be able to help people and build your agendas or your visions to be successful and you know, have access to resources, because there is no competition. I heard they are expanding in other boroughs and it's a good thing. It's like you know, it's my help desk. In my office we do, we do nonprofit work. I started before practice but I'm an individual and I can't just focus, or my vision is not to build a successful nonprofit to help. My vision is to be able to do things every day, wherever I am, whenever I'm exposed to it.
So when I opened this office, I thought you know, we should have something forpeople, what you cannot fit in your service menu, you know your tax, yes, 77:00immigration forms to fill out, that's sort of specific things, but many things that happen, that will happen in the community that I'm exposed to, that I have not been able to find help when I was in situation, how are you going to address these things? So we opened something called Community Help Desk, and I think every office should have a little mentality like that. So now with that, we started doing you know resumes for people, we started connecting them to different government agencies, or you know just help them with basic things, maybe notarizing a form for school admission or printing out the form for school admission, or just you know, I could do first time home buying, you know like five, six years later, a lot of the families are ready to buy a house, because they have money saved up and you know, they're many times making money in an American standard, but they're not spending in the same manner, so the tendency 78:00of saving for your children or next generation is a cultural thing, it's still happening. So, giving first time home buying counseling is a wonderful thing. I believe it's a win-win situation, because if you're a home buyer, if you're a community member buying for the first time, is educated, knows how to sign a contract, knows what to expect from the lawyer, from the appraiser, from the mortgage banker. He is making an informed decision. I don't do mortgage because I don't want to deal with interest, but my knowledge that I could transfer or, or continue with, with another person who is going to do it no matter what. It's helpful and if you have one educated or informed home-buyer buying, he's going to use the same resource, the same knowledge, for his refinance or his investment house, or when he is cosigning for somebody, or when he is talking to somebody else. So it's really a good thing and I believe this is how you spread 79:00it and you know, it doesn't -- these things do not remain in one person, you know it goes and obviously your intention is to go in that direction. So it's happening, it's happening very much, and that's what Community Help Desk is. So every Sunday, I mean after the -- without the taxes, and I'm usually closed, we work on appointments. If anybody says look, we want to sit down and discuss this and that, we are open and you know, it doesn't create any conflict. Some people say look, business and you know counseling is not going to work, but thank God it's not affecting me in a negative way. Even if you don't call it Community Help Desk, I will be helping whoever needs help anyway, so it's a good, good thing, and it's a win-win. Yes.
STRONG: How are you doing for time? I know you have to open your office at some point.
CHOWDHURY: Eleven. We have another 15 minutes.80:00
STRONG: Okay, so one of the questions I wanted to ask you is you know, as theseinstitutions and these mosques are opening and your community is expanding, how are relationships with people of other races and religions in the neighborhood? I read that there were noise complaints from the adhan, but you know what other things have you encountered?
CHOWDHURY: You know, you encounter a lot of different things and some of thosethings have related you know, related to confrontation that had resulted into, you know loss of lives, right? But I feel like we are in a much different position today than yes, sometimes unfortunate things happen, but you know, when we have a mosque and we have people participating in hundreds, five times a day, you know that is an indicator that you are living in a Muslim community. That's what we are identified as anyway, but when we do Muslim things, how would it be 81:00wrong? But yes, one can be -- one can think about it differently. So when we starting calling adhan loud, we call it anyway but when we started using the amplified speakers, it was, it was a new thing for, for our non-Muslim neighbors. They know we come to pray, they know it, but this was the first time. When you hear it the first time, your first response is to react to it, and if you disagree with this you complain, right? So yes, we have had hundreds of complaints to the precinct, so you know they would come, they said look, lower the volume, we have ECB came, set it to 54. We are doing it as 54 decibel point, which was adjusted by ECB, but you know that would still trigger a complaint from somebody, and you cannot do anything about it. So ECB actually took us to court with that also, but you know, we have done our effort. We took our imam, I went with a few other people, to the precinct and said look, let's show you what 82:00it is, we have played it in the computer, imam called it, it was only a minute and a half or a little bit more, and everybody that was there listening to it with curiosity, they said look, I'm not disturbed. If anything, it's tranquiling, it's, it's a different feeling, but it's not a disturbing thing, but you know it could disturb somebody. So we said look can we, because they come to you, can you mitigate, can you be in the middle, can we tell our neighbors that look, our intention is not to disturb, it's just to call to prayer like churches do, synagogues do, temples do. It's our way of calling to prayer. Someone said why do you need to then all the time, why do you need to do this? That applies for every other religious organizations. So, but then they said they will look into it but they were not interested in meeting us. We have done iftar in Ramadan, during my time every year we do one iftar event with the 83:00neighbors. We have hundreds of chairs, you know in the backyard, front, and it's a bash. This year we have given a couple of recognitions to the precinct and a couple of other community members. We want to open it up and at some point we will do, when the construction is done, maybe an open house. You know by being involved and not only me, others are involving, community board, school board, SLTs, PTA [Parent Teacher Association] organizations, and our children are there, we have business in the community. We are to be involved and it's changing. I feel like we should, we should do more, because if I go to a meeting just the way I dress, you know that's not just attending the meeting, that is telling there is a Muslim Bangladeshi guy from Ozone Park or City Line, or East New York is here, so I'm representing.
Today, I'm going to a meeting at one o'clock I was told. You know, I feel like84:00it's a representation, it's telling others that look, we are with the same concerns, we are celebrating the same things, in terms of community, we are part of you. We are not this other immigrants or these Muslims, we are, we are community members, we are playing a role, an effective role. And I think you know statistically, if you look into -- I don't know any names, but if you, if you do statistics research, it will show that the crime have down, been down, and what changed? It's just that the influx of Muslim and Bangladeshis that are working, paying tax, sending their kids to school, doing the normal human things, you know normal things, not, not doing anything, you know extreme. So that's what's stabilizing the neighborhood and makes things better, and in return all of us, you think when a crime happens, somebody's shot at or somebody is robbed, no matter what you are, Spanish, black, you know, white, yellow, it 85:00doesn't matter, you are affected by it. So when the neighborhoods are better because one group of people or one segment of people contributing a major role, playing a major role or contributing factors, everybody benefits. And I think our neighbors are starting to recognize that, so that when we have the conversation with our neighbors, temples, churches, community organizations, it's different, it's partnership discussions, it's more like let's do things together, let us do it. It used to be like okay, what do you want us to do for you. No, it's let's do it together, that's where it's heading. And you know, we have been involved in mainstream politics also. One of our brothers is trying, you know Hilel Abushek [phonetic] is trying, and I, I motivate him, I encourage him, because even though it's not time yet, you know, but he's, he's brave enough to, to expose himself and he can afford to be out there fighting. He's 86:00running for a public advocate position now, you know it's a branding, he's out there.
So, and you know we have good relationships with our congressmen, we have donefundraising, we have community events, they come to our Eid prayers, they come to you know meet and greet, they come to campaign, we do signature collection, you know fundraising, a bunch of things. So we are doing things in an American way, the mainstream way now. We -- I'm part of an organization actually founded called Bangladeshi American Democratic Council, BADC. It should be more active but you know, it's an active dialogue, you know it helps us group together. When we regroup to promote, you know get out the vote efforts. We, we share information, we give people the link, we you know, sometimes with the computers, print things up, because people, during the election time, primary time, they 87:00ask. So these are the things we provide and I think you know if, if a little bit more of our youth, with their knowledge and resource and, and properly -- you know if they involve themselves, our success in the community, in the mainstream politics, in community building, in being better neighbors, good neighbors, co-mingling with everybody, with love, peace and harmony, would have much more effect. We are in that direction, we just need to increase our effort and things will uh, things will get better. Yes.
STRONG: So, imagine that somebody's listening to this oral history 50 years fromnow, a hundred years from now. What do you hope they take away from it?
CHOWDHURY: Wow. I mean, it could be a hundred years of -- hundred years, youknow later, because we have been living through hundreds and thousands of years. I think you've got to have a purpose of living, because you don't occupy this world forever, and you know you are given the opportunity. You have to try your 88:00best all the time to, to grab it. Sometimes failure is not a failure. Failure is just part of life and part of you know, experience that you go through. You can't define what didn't happen as a failure, it's a record that you made, but what will remain an instrument for you to be evaluated is how much effort you put in, how much did you do to fail. What have you done to become a successful -- sometimes you could just follow other people's success and become successful, but your effort, no matter even if you follow somebody is unique, because it's you doing the effort, using your own energy. You know, you are created differently, so some of the things will be -- even, even doing the same thing, repeating the same good things would be done differently, so I think you know people today, people tomorrow, years later, centuries later, should only try to 89:00do good things that makes you a big successful human being with all the things that are involved in life; family, children, your neighbors, your relatives, your people that you know you mingle with at work, because people will be working all the time, socializing. You want to make an impression that look, you, you want to be a purpose of life. Without purpose, this, this is not you know, a lame duck, you know whatever you call it, it's not, it's not just, you're a human being. Human beings are the best creation of, of God, and you want -- you've got to live up to that, you know expectation of your creator and if you do that, no matter what generation you are in, what kind of technology you will be using, or not, you know you are a good human being, and if the purpose of creation is served you are successful and your creator is happy with 90:00you. Yes.
STRONG: There's so many things we didn't get to talk about. Is there anything inparticular that you would really like to get on the record before we close?
CHOWDHURY: No, I think you know -- one thing I would say, even though we areachieving a lot, we have achieved a lot in Ozone Park, you know Queens, East New York, Brooklyn, City Line, as Muslims, as Bangladeshis, as immigrants, as minorities, I feel like there are still a lot of misunderstandings. I think you know, we have to do best on our side to help others understand who we are as human beings, as persons, as culture, and without compromising anything. This land, this country called the United States of America, gives you that opportunity, opens up these windows and doors for you to prove yourself to be the best of who you are without compromising. So yes, we need to do dialogues, 91:00we need to mix together, we need to do things together, and it's possible without compromising, without giving up on your, you know values, call it you know family values, community values or religious values, it's possible to work together and make -- and take the best of ourselves. And I think I would encourage everybody, you know don't judge me just for my look or, or just for my words. Try to get to know me or give me the full opportunity to get to know you also, because if you don't open up and then you keep a barrier while we are trying to get to know each other, I wouldn't, I wouldn't get to get the benefit, the best of you also. So let me get the -- give me the opportunity to learn best about you and help me if I'm not doing it. Let me -- help me open up and I get 92:00to expose myself as much. I think sharing, knowing about each other, it's going to take us to a common place, which is you know, human relationship, and I think we need to be in relationship than avoiding each other and isolating. Relationship is better than being in isolation.
STRONG: Well thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.
CHOWDHURY: No problem.
STRONG: This was a wonderful interview and I look forward to be in touchthroughout the rest of the project, so take care.
CHOWDHURY: Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you.
Oral History Interview with Kobir Chowdhury
Kobir Chowdhury was born in 1974 in the Sylhet District in Bangladesh. He immigrated to the United States in 1991 and settled in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. He worked in real estate and banking after arriving in New York. He also attended Masjid Al-Aman in East New York and began to take on leadership roles in the mosque in the 2010s, including serving as an advisor to the executive committee and as the president of the mosque's board.
In this interview, Kobir Chowdhury discusses his childhood in Bangladesh; leaving his family behind when he immigrated to the United States alone as a teenager; and settling in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. He expands on his work in the service industry, real estate, and banking after arriving in New York; his continued ties to his home village in the Sylhet District in Bangladesh; and his involvement with Masjid Al-Aman in East New York. He also talks about his Muslim faith, his marriage to his wife, and raising their son. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.
This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.
CitationChowdhury, Kobir, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, January 10, 2019, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.55; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Chowdhury, Kobir
- Masjid Al-Aman (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Child rearing
- Faith-based human services
- Islamic religious education of children
- Real estate investment
- Religion and ethics
- Religion in the workplace
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- East New York (New York, N.Y.)
- Ozone Park (New York, N.Y.)
- Queens (New York, N.Y.)
- Sylhet District (Bangladesh)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories