NEW YORK—Starting a new life in an unfamiliar land with a different language, culture, and customs can be difficult at any age. While their husbands and children may find it hard to adjust, women over the age of 40 face a particular challenge integrating into American society.
Different cultural norms can leave immigrant women without the skills they need to integrate into American society. Lacking education, skilled in the domestic sphere but unsuited for the modern business world and unable to pick up the language as quickly as a younger and more flexible mind, and, “add some gray hairs, and that's it,” says Tamanna Yasmin of Sheba USA. Yasmin underscores the difficulties immigrant women over 40 years of age have in today's tough job market.
Yasmin is the founder of Sheba USA, an organization that helps Bengali immigrants, especially women, adjust to their new life in America. Sheba provides language classes, computer classes, various kinds of job training and placement, as well as a place for women to come together for mutual support.
“Our main focus is to empower women,” says Yasmin.
Yasmin conducted a study of the immigrant population in the Jackson Heights area, which is nearly 70 percent immigrant. She found that men and young women were much more likely to find employment than women over 40.
“They want more energetic people, more young people, but they don't understand that above 40, they're more trusted, more dependable, [and] more responsible,” explained Yasmin. She says a lot of older women she works with hide away at home. They are isolated.
Nahid Akthan, 46, misses her family back in Bangladesh. They provided a support system, a “helping hand” she says. Her husband drives a cab, though his health is failing, and she will need to supplement the household income.
Overcrowding, economic instability, and violence in Bangladesh made some members of Sheba, Akthan included, feel quite fortunate to win the immigration lottery. A new life in a new land nevertheless holds its own trials; Akthan found the language barrier the most difficult when she first arrived in the country.
She hopes to start baking pitha and selling it to make a living. Pitha is a type of cake native to Bangladesh, which is made with rice flour and comes in a variety of flavors from banana, pol pitha, to coconut and ginger, poda pitha.
Oven Full Of Hope
Immigrants, according to figures released by the city, staff about 70 percent of the food industry in New York. The ladies at Sheba have tried to get the pitha-making business off the ground, but have run into roadblocks along the way.
Yasmin points out that it would be a comfortable environment, “where they don't have to face the harsh reality” of a life that is so foreign to them after decades of growing accustomed to the ways of their homeland. The major obstacle is getting affordable kitchen space during the day. Evening prices are cheaper, but the women have domestic obligations in the evenings.
The women remain hopeful that they will find the funds to get the project in gear, and in the meantime they support each other through companionship and a common understanding and goal.
A Helping Hand
Nargis Rahman, 52, came to New York in 1996 at the age of 37. Though originally from Bangladesh, she served as a doctor in Saudi Arabia for 17 years alongside her husband. Educated and skilled as she is, she was able to find work in New York relatively easily. She has joined Sheba simply to support her Bengali sisters.
While in Saudi Arabia, she learned many delightful recipes from ladies of different ethnicities living in the nurses' dormitory. Cookies from the Philippines, cake from Egypt, Indian sweets, and Lebanese delicacies—she wants to help with the baking initiative at Sheba.
Though she did not have the difficulties starting her new life in the United States that some have had, she had her own trouble adjusting to the culture. She cried often for three years after her arrival.
“I felt ashamed to go outside,” says Rahman, who was accustomed to covering herself from head to foot according to Saudi law. In Bangladesh, about 20 percent of women cover their heads, she explained. She had become so used to the custom in Saudi Arabia that she found it humiliating to assimilate to the American way.
Also painful, was the absence of a call to prayer resounding through the city. She prays at home now, but still misses the sense of shared Muslim faith she once had with her surrounding community.
She rejoices, however, over the strong Bengali community here in New York City, as well as places like Sheba where women can feel comfortable together and share their experiences.
Gianne Pollack is not Bengali, though she has fallen in with the Bengali crowd and hopes to make her living baking pitha.
Pollack hails from Brazil. She is not of the traditional vein, and is a photographer by trade. She set out on her own at the ripe age of 53 for a new life in America.
She found Sheba online after a year with another organization that helped her learn some English, but did not provide her with a sense of community.
“In Brazil, I have good life; here, I am poor,” said Pollack, not as a lamentation, but rather as the statement of a simple fact. In spite of her age, she has no qualms about her fresh start and says she still has lots of energy.
This vivacious lady had a twinkle in her eye and a bright smile as she recalled both the delights of Carnivale back in Brazil—an annual festival she missed in early March—and the action and excitement that brought her to New York City.