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Q&A: Mamnunul Huq

Mamnunul Huq is a co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and currently works as a community health worker at the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health. He was born and raised in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s main port and second largest city and moved to the United States in the early 1990s. He is an advocate for the growing Bangladeshi community in the Borough Park and Kensington neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

How did you start your career as an advocate?

I was actually involved with student politics when I was back home, so I know how to organize people. Once I finished my study back home, I graduated, and started to work at a bank, a financial corporation. By the time I came here, it was the Gulf Crisis, ‘90-’91; the first Bush invaded Iraq. At the time the economy is, whatever we see now. It was almost like that, at that time; it was a recession. I came and became frustrated at the beginning, because for three and a half months, I didn’t work. Because I did not get a banking job, I started to work in a store for a year or something like that.

It was a department of a store, and I became a manager, but then I quit at that time because I got my hack license. So I started driving a yellow cab, and once I started driving a yellow cab, I could see the problems in the industry: the drivers are exploited by some groups of people, like the garage owners and the TLC (city Taxi and Limousine Commission). So I started to organize those people there, the taxi drivers, which are not necessarily just Bangladeshi. So I was one of the co-founders of the union [the New York Taxi Workers Alliance].

A large number of the city’s cab drivers are Bangladeshi, correct?

At that time, Bangladeshis were not the majority of drivers. Now, they are … over 30% of drivers, so they are the leaders now. So I am involved with a Bangladeshi cab drivers association and also the bigger one, which I helped co-found. A big portion of the drivers who live in Kensington and Borough Park are Bangladeshi.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing the city’s Bangladeshi community right now?

We do have a big problem with immigration because a lot of people are undocumented and who are living over here for a long period of time. They couldn’t see their family, couldn’t see their wife, children. They came over here and ended up, you know, couldn’t go back again because they’re waiting for hope. That is their hope, “I’ll be documented, I’ll be documented.” Because if they’re living here six years, seven years, ten years, there is a chance, if they can be documented, they can bring their wife, they can bring their children, they can bring their family members. So that’s why a lot of people hope and a lot of people are living with deep frustration. I meet with the people, and I do a lot of surveys in the health area, and once a week I go to the community to do the health survey, so I know that people are frustrated.

What’s another concern?

Another issue is health insurance. People don’t have the insurance, and in the taxi industry, like 80 percent of the drivers don’t have health insurance. Those guys are working 12 hours shifts, seven days a week, keeping this city moving, but they don’t have any stable income, health benefits, time off benefits, nothing.

You mention health care. How did you end up getting involved with the Center for the Study of Asian American Health?

I ended up working on a project called DREAM, which is the Diabetes Research, Education and Action for Minorities (DREAM) Project. We work to help educate Bangladeshis about these issues.

So I was looking for a job, and they were hiring people. I saw the opening and applied because the criteria they were asking for, I thought I was the person who could get the job and would be better for the project. I knew they were looking for someone with education and knowledge about the community, someone who had good access to the media, community leaders and community organizations. Those things are part of the basic requirement, and I do have that because I am an advocate for people’s rights. I am an activist and an organizer and when they found me I was like the person they were looking for. And because in some parts of the Bangladeshi community, if you tell my name, a lot of people know me because I’ve been involved. I can organize very quickly. So they knew those things and they hired me.

What keeps you giving so much time to these causes?

This is part of my life. I always want to talk to other people and try to organize them for their rights and dignity. I believe it. People do have rights. It doesn’t matter who you are. You have rights as a human. Stuff like working for health. I believe that’s a fundamental right. Having health care. Workers should have rights.