QUEENS, New York – When the first wave of Bangladeshi immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1970s, many of them settled in Astoria, Queens — one of New York’s most diverse immigrant neighborhoods.
Today, the eyes of the world are on their country as Pope Francis wraps up his six-day visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Although this immigrant community is more concerned with their own local affairs and hardly seem aware of the pope’s presence in their homeland, once informed about it, they had some strong opinions about what he ought to say and do.
On the evening of Francis’s first day in the country, I ventured out to Boishakhi, a popular Bangladeshi restaurant in Queens, now home to the largest Bangladeshi community in the United States. After speaking with a dozen individuals, I discovered the overwhelming majority of this random sampling of diners were oblivious to the pope’s trip, but that didn’t stop them from offering an opinion once they realized the pontiff’s presence in Bangladesh might actually have the capacity to effect change.
I first approached one table of eight men, who warmly asked that I join them for a cup of tea. After polling the group, only one was even aware of Francis’s trip to Bangladesh.
“I think I read about it in the papers, but I didn’t know it was now,” he told me.
“Well, now that you know that he’s there, what are you hoping he says or does?” I inquired.
These men eye one another before nudging the most charismatic member of the group and asking him to speak. “His English is the best,” they insisted.
“I will tell you not what I hope, but what I expect,” began Mahfuz, who preferred only to give his first name.
“I expect that he will speak about the human disaster of the minute,” he said, “about the population of Muslims who have been uprooted, brutally raped, and brutally killed.”
Mahfuz, who is 49 years old and has called the United States home for the past 24 years, immediately tapped into the very same theme that has become a focal point of this papal visit without any prompting.
The crisis of the Rohingya Muslims — more than 600,000 have fled Myanmar to escape ethnic cleansing and seek refuge in Bangladesh in the past three months — has dominated Francis’s trip and international headlines over the past week.
“We need real action,” Mahfuz told me. “The pope has enormous power to influence the world powers to put pressure on Myanmar.”
While his fellow dinner guests are silent, they all nod their heads in agreement.
“We must remember what happened in Rwanda and this must be stopped,” he added. “Recall the United Nations Charter. If a country is no longer able to control what is happening in their country than it is no longer just their business.”
I then inform him that the pope first visited Myanmar before traveling to Bangladesh and that some have criticized Francis for not specifically identifying the Rohingya by name.
“We don’t mind if the pope doesn’t say Rohingya,” Mahfuz replied, “as long as he says that they are human beings and this must end.”
Later in the evening I spoke with the manager of the restaurant — who, after making sure I didn’t want a second portion of fish and vegetable samosas, sat down to speak with me.
Again, she is unaware of the pope’s travels. “The one from Italy?” she asked me in surprise.
When I probed further to see if she had any expectations for his visit, she was largely nonplussed, but then added, “He will be very welcome in our country. We have people from all sorts of faiths and backgrounds.
“It will be hot, but hopefully he will enjoy the weather,” she added.
On Friday, Francis met with a group of 16 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and apologized for the “world’s indifference” to their plight and for the first time on his trip, referred to them specifically by name.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” said Francis.
Reflecting on the power of papal words, Mahfuz recalled the 2013 collapse of a five story commercial building in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital that killed 1,134 individuals and injured nearly 3,000 more.
At the time, Francis issued a strong rebuke of the working conditions and called for structural change.
“A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month,’” said Francis. “This is called slave labor. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us — the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!”
“Things have changed since then. No more buildings have collapsed, there are more tests, and the country is better off now,” Mahfuz said. “When the pope speaks, his words will be taken seriously. We salute him for wanting to bring peace.”