U.S. Bangladeshis Track Climate Changes Back Home

January 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By New America Media, Ngoc Nguyen

Mohammed Khan was a child when the deadliest cyclone ever recorded struck Bangladesh (at the time East Pakistan) in 1970. The cyclone brought torrential rains and winds stronger than those seen during Hurricane Katrina. As many as half a million people were killed. Then river waters rose and claimed the land.

“My family lives on an island called Bhola,” Khan recalls. “They have some land, but a lot of the land was taken by the river during a great flood.”

Khan, 51, who now lives in Queens, N.Y., has a daughter and more than 200 family members in Bangladesh. He’s worried about how his large extended family will fare when the next cyclone strikes, and he fears climate change will worsen such disasters.

“As the water levels rise in the next few years, much of southern Bangladesh will go into the womb of the river,” he says.

Concern about climate change among the public has waned, but the issue is foremost among many Bangladeshi Americans, because of the vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate change. Some community members are organizing seminars to learn about how rising seas and extreme weather will play out in their home country, and they’re making their voices heard on the political front.

Bangladesh is often considered ground zero for climate change. Crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers, much of the country is a massive flat delta, extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. As global warming pushes sea levels higher, Bangladesh would have the most land inundated among its South Asian neighbors, according to the World Bank. If sea levels rise by one meter, as much as a fifth of the country could be submerged, displacing about 20 million people.

In the last few years, awareness about climate change has grown among Bangladeshi Americans.

Hasan Rahim, a software engineering consultant based in San Jose, says Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was a wake-up call for him and many Bangladeshis in Silicon Valley. Rahim, who also teaches math and statistics at San Jose City College, says he organized screenings of the film in his community.

Rahim connected the film’s dire predictions about climate change to his homeland. “We live here, but we have roots there,” he says. “We are connected and we have got to become more aware of [climate change impacts].”

More than a dozen rivers, including the mighty Ganges, Brahmaputra, Jamuna and Meghna, flow across Bangladesh, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The southern part of the country is a massive delta, with its fertile land known as the country’s rice bowl.

“It’s really a concern. We’re a small country with 150 million people, so lots of people would lose their houses, land, and become homeless,” says Abu Taher, editor of the newspaper Bangla Patrik, in New York. He says people want to know the future consequences of climate change on the country so they can tell family members to take precautions.

When he travels to Bangladesh, Khan says he notices changes in the environment. There used to be three crop seasons, he says, but now there’s one. “Normally, we would have floods during the rainy season, but now there is no one season for floods anymore,” Khan adds.

A construction worker, Khan also heads up a group made up of immigrants from Barisal, a southern province that is frequently hard hit by cyclones and flooding. The group has organized seminars to learn more about how climate change will affect Bangladesh. From the United States, Khan says he sometimes feels powerless to help his family back home.

“There’s nowhere for them to go. Bangladesh is a small country,” he says. “Where would they get the land? Who will give us the money? I can just advise them to use the deep tube wells to get clean water.”

Khan says his group wants to share the information with U.S. elected officials, and tell them they want the United States to curb its own pollution and help vulnerable nations.

“America as a leader should help all the poor and affected countries, including Bangladesh,” Khan says. “Affected families are dying without food, without a roof over their heads. We should provide financial assistance and even bring them here.”

In the last two decades, Bangladesh suffered the most deaths and greatest economic losses as a result of extreme weather events, according to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2010.

At the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, the United States and other developed nations pledged $100 billion in aid to countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“It would make all the difference in the world if the aid were used not to buy finished products like solar panels, but to develop local indigenous talent,” says Rahim.

Bangladeshis have already had to adapt to higher sea levels, Rahim says.

“People who raised chickens are now raising ducks,” he says, and farmers are experimenting with “floating seed beds” to save crops during floods.

Until more funds are directed to helping people adapt to climate change, more frequent and more intense storms and floods will create more environmental refugees.

Queens resident Sheikh Islam says refugees have already poured into the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, which the World Wildlife Federation ranked as the city most vulnerable to climate change impacts out of 11 Asian coastal cities.

Islam says there’s more recognition now that climate change is causing the refugee surge into the city.

“They thought the migrants who came to the city were just jobless and landless. Now, the government is mentioning that they are jobless and landless because of climate change,” he says.

Islam says there’s also a growing perception that Western developed countries bear more responsibility for the problem because they contribute the most to carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

“Now, people know about climate change and they are talking about it,” Islam says. “Three to five years ago they don’t talk about it. They thought it was our problem. Now they think it is a global problem.”

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Islam in the Polls: Muslims Can Change Negative Views with Deeds

April 24, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Islam in the Polls: Muslims Can Change Negative Views With Deeds
By Hasan Zillur Rahim, Apr 17, 2006
Editor’s Note: Recent polls show that increasing numbers of Americans hold negative views of Islam. That isn’t surprising, writes New America Media contributor Hasan Rahim, considering which Muslims get all the press. Rahim writes on Islamic issues and has been an editor of Iqra, a national Islamic magazine.
SAN FRANCISCO—Americans know more about Islam than ever before — and they don’t like what they see.
A new CBS News poll conducted in early April suggests that 45 percent of Americans hold negative views of Islam, compared to 33 percent in the tense aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March also showed a growing number of Americans (46 percent) expressing unfavorable opinions of Islam.
The situation has become so bleak that Muslim religious leaders sought the help of a Nobel Laureate to stem this rising tide of negativity. The Dalai Lama, 71, led leaders from Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Native American traditions at “A Gathering of Hearts Illuminating Compassion” conference in San Francisco recently. The leaders appealed to Americans not to equate Islam with terrorism.
What makes these polls so scary for Muslims is that the queried Americans confirmed that they were better informed about Islam now than they were five years ago.
In other words, despite all the mosque open houses, outreach and interfaith programs, books and articles on Islam, the idea that increased knowledge will lead to greater tolerance toward Islam and Muslims has become more elusive than ever.
Is there a contradiction here? Not really, if you think about it.
Consider the situation from the point of view of an average American.
During the week of April 10-16 alone (a remarkable convergence of Passover, Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), the average American learned that Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al Qaeda terrorist, had “no regrets, no remorse” for the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
There is the consistent horror of Sunnis and Shias dismembering each other in Iraq and Pakistan, always when the gathering is large, as during the Friday congregational prayers.
There is also the daily genocide that the Muslim janjaweed militia wages against the indigenous tribes of Darfur, Sudan, most of whom are also Muslims but of darker skins.
Yes, most Muslims are as outraged by these horrors as the average American in question. But isn’t it too much to expect that this typical American will continue to be reassured by our words (the fanatics are not of us and we are not of them, and besides, every faith has its fanatics) while the horrific deeds continue unabated?
He sees what Muslims are doing to Muslims, how some of them are spewing murderous hatred for the West, and while he may hold his own country responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq, it does not diminish his growing conviction that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence. Talk of peace and harmony can only go so far; he is more persuaded by the grim reality on the ground.
In the same week, however, quiet (and recurring) events of different sorts were taking place throughout America, far removed from the gaze of the mainstream media.
In a crime-infested neighborhood in East Oakland, Calif., for example, two Muslims stand at a street corner, giving out free popcorn and cotton candy to passersby. Their only goal is to spread some cheer and hope to their down-trodden neighbors. With help from their activist friends from the nearby mosque Masjid Al-Islam, they host year-round soup kitchens for the poor and the hungry.
We also learn that Habibe Husain, founder of Rahima Foundation, has received the Human Relations award of California’s Santa Clara County. Her organization distributes clothes, food and other necessities to the less fortunate residents of Silicon Valley and adjoining areas since 1993.
In cities like Sacramento, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, local Muslim doctors provide poor and uninsured residents with free medical care. And through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Muslims also volunteer their time and skills to build homes for the homeless.
Is average American aware of these “events?” Perhaps not. After all, we Muslims providing humanitarian services are doing so not to enhance our standing in the polls, but as a religious calling to help the less fortunate.
But these acts do teach us an important lesson. While it is undeniable that there is a need to educate Americans about Islam and Muslims, perhaps our efforts will go further if more of us engaged in deeds rather than words.
Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, an act of charity is worth a thousand sermons. So here’s a humble suggestion to my fellow American Muslims: Let’s cut down on the number of seminars and conferences at our local mosques by about half, and replace them with charitable acts that help the homeless, the needy and the destitute. That will require more effort than writing a check or listening to an Imam expound on the same tired topic. But in the end, it will make us better Muslims.
Perhaps it will even improve our standing in the eyes of our fellow Americans.