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Like A Good Neighbor

How a button factory gave rise to a Bangladeshi community in Hudson—and how a local arts activist is helping that community cope now that the factory has closed

By Mike Greenhaus

Button down: The shuttered Emsig factory. Photo by Andrea Fischman

Walking though the streets of Hudson’s north side, you’d think Shershah Mizanurrahman has lived here his entire life. Shershah smiles at his mailwoman, waves to his neighbors and maneuvers through the city’s backstreets like a seasoned tour guide. But for almost a year and a half, this relatively low-rent neighborhood is almost all Shershah knew of this increasingly popular Columbia County city, which has been transformed in recent years by second-homeowners, tourists and the more than 70 antique shops that line Warren Street. Since coming to the United States in December 2000, Shershah has walked the streets of Hudson’s north side every day, sometimes to visit his Bangladeshi neighbors, and other times to work at the Emsig Button Factory, the manufacturing giant that brought the native Bangladeshi to America. “When I was in Bangladesh, my uncle told me about Emsig,” Shershah says. “He helped me get a job here, and he got me an apartment three months before I even came to Hudson. For three months I was paying rent on an apartment I wasn’t living in.”

Like his uncle before him, Shershah was lured to Hudson by the prospect of working in the button factory. Throughout the 1990s, the company made an effort to bring Bangladeshi workers to its Hudson plant, a campaign that created a subculture of more than 200 Bangladeshi. With Emsig acting as the glue that kept the Bangladeshi community together, Shershah settled quickly into Hudson’s daily life. Within a week of arriving in America, Shershah landed a job at the button company, and along with 76 of his Bangladeshi neighbors, walked the daily, mile-long route through Hudson’s north side to the Emsig factory, located on the outskirts of town. With work so easy to come by and their community in place, the Bangladeshis essentially were protected from the cultural barriers many immigrants struggle to overcome.

But then, the Bangladeshi immigrants’ world of buttons started to come undone. Throughout the summer of 2001, Shershah says, he heard mumblings of Emsig’s impending closure. On Sept. 6, Shershah was part of the first wave of employees the company laid off, leaving the 34-year-old uncertain about his future in Hudson. By February, Emsig had closed its Hudson plant, and an entire community of Bangladeshi was stranded, barely visible to the rest of the community and worlds apart from the antique shops and weekenders of Warren Street.

“For a while I thought I might have to leave Hudson,” Shershah says. “When there aren’t jobs, people start to leave. It’s hard to work outside of Hudson because we don’t have cars. A few people have moved to New York City.”

For a brief time before he was laid off, Shershah seemed to be living the American dream. Short, skinny, and often smiling, Shershah beams when he recalls the strange path that took him from Bangladesh to Hudson.

Almost two years ago, Shershah’s wife, Zulekha Akther, was selected to come to America through a Bangladeshi emigration lottery system. In December 2000, the couple arrived at JFK airport, and that afternoon they traveled to Hudson. Less then a week later, Shershah and Jahangir were hired by Emsig, and in June 2001 the couple had their first child. Unlike many Bangladehsi immigrants who choose to try their luck amid the bustle of New York City, Shershah enjoyed Hudson’s quiet life and the close-knit Bangladeshi community that had carved a niche in the city’s affordable north side.

“Bangladesh is a very poor country,” Shershah says, as he reminisces about his homeland. Shershah is fond of his country, but was grateful to escape its political and economic troubles.

Dressed in soft black pants and a blue shirt clasped together by two large buttons, Shershah seems surprisingly untroubled as he walks through the empty parking lot of the Emsig factory. A long, meandering road connects the now-shuttered plant to the rest of the city’s north side, as if to deter strangers from wandering into the factory’s lonely shadow. The low-rise building sits like a citadel at the end of the long driveway, overlooking a few barren fields and weathered buildings. Though not far in distance to the pricey antique shops of Warren Street, the factory site seems almost to inhabit a different planet.

Based on the strong work ethic of a few Bangladeshi men who traveled to Hudson in 1991, Emsig actively recruited workers like Shershah for a decade. Through bulletin-board postings and word of mouth, workers came from Bangladesh to Hudson, carving their own niche within the city’s population of 7,500. As more and more families settled and new children were born, the Bangladeshi community grew to more than 200 people.

“Ten days ago, my neighbor had a baby,” Shershah says one July evening. “My community’s people helped me when my son was born, giving us rides to doctors and hospitals, and we do the same for him. When we are done with work, we all go over to see the baby.”

Laying the foundation for a permanent Bangladeshi community, a few men even erected Hudson’s first mosque in an apartment basement. Though Shershah says the mosque looks more like a house than a traditional place of prayer, it serves as the center in which the Muslim community gathers.

“We pray together every Friday at 1 PM in the mosque,” Shershah says. “Every day we pray in the morning, but on Friday we pray in the mosque.”

Home sweet Hudson: Shershah Mizanurrahman (front right) with his Bangladeshi neighbors. Photo by Andrea Fischman

Within the Emsig factory, the Bangladeshis were a visible presence, using their native language to communicate with one another. But, to most of Hudson’s residents, Shershah and his countrymen were phantoms. Though a few men and women got jobs at local stores, most of the Bangladeshi families remained cloistered within the seemingly secure world of Emsig, which paid wages as high as $10 an hour.

But, just as the Bangladeshi community began to prosper, Emsig closed the plant. Several days after Shershah received his pink slip, the garment industry was turned upside down by the events of Sept. 11 and the economic uncertainty that followed. Emsig already had been struggling; The New York Times reported that the company lost $1 million in 2000.

“I learned I was losing my job on Sept. 6 and my wife learned she was losing hers two days later,” Shershah says. “My country’s people are very industrious. They don’t like not working.”

In the months following Emsig’s closure, Shershah and his neighbors searched for security in Hudson. Though Emsig brought a few Bangladeshis to its new headquarters in Connecticut, more than 75 Bangladeshis were left without work and with unemployment checks as their only source of income. While on unemployment, Shershah received only $138 a week. Few in the local Bangladeshi community had learned to speak English with enough fluency to communicate with their non-immigrant neighbors; the language barrier prevented many Bangladeshis from getting jobs. Furthermore, the largely carless community had only a few-mile radius in which to find work. Finally, in February, Shershah realized that what his community needed was a voice, and so he sought out Linda Mussmann.

The president of Time & Space Limited, a Hudson-based multimedia arts organization active in local politics and community issues, Mussmann first became aware of Hudson’s newest immigrant community through a group of Bangladeshi children who attended Time & Space Limited’s programs. She had also had a chance encounter with Shershah during her unsuccessful campaign for Hudson mayor in the Fall of 2000.

“I saw Linda at CVS and she was campaigning for mayor,” Shershah says. “She handed me a pencil, and it had her number on it.”

After months of unemployment, Shershah approached Mussmann about helping his people.

“While I campaigned for mayor, the Bangladeshi community was very gracious,” Mussmann says. “Shershah lived across the street from me, and [after Emsig closed], he invited me over for dinner.”

Together, the two Hudson residents set out to help secure the future for Hudson’s Bangladeshi population.

For much of February and March, Mussmann spent time with the Bangladeshi people, figuring out how she could best help their community. She frequently ate dinner with Bangladeshi families, pushed potential employers to consider hiring them, and whenever possible, provided space at TSL for the Bangladeshis to meet and become more actively involved in the Hudson community.

“We like having them [the Bangladeshi people] here, and want to make sure they stay,” Mussmann says. “I’ve been going with them on interviews, helping with the language barrier.”

A well-known member of the Hudson community, Mussmann alerted the media to the Bangladeshis’ plight and spread their story through her own TSL newsletter. Mussmann also began a push to get some of the Bangladeshis up to speed with their English.

As Mussmann and Shershah spearheaded an effort to get the Bangladeshi people employed, other problems emerged. As incomes shrank, unpaid bills increased, and worries mounted over money and health care, the latter problem compounded by the communication barrier between Bangladeshi immigrants and hospital personnel.

“It’s frustrating when I can’t understand what people are saying,” Shershah says. Using his hands to explain his thoughts, Shershah motions that it’s not his intelligence that’s holding him back, but his limited English vocabulary.

Much of Mussmann’s time with the Bangladeshis has been spent talking to doctors and potential employers, using her voice to express their thoughts.

“Our main goal is to let people know that there is this incredible workforce out there,” Mussmann says. “Through Shershah, I got to know most of the Bangladeshi community.”

Giving time and space: Linda Mussmann. Photo by Andrea Fischman

Mussmann helped set the Bangladeshi people up with job interviews at nearby factories like Sunoco-Crellin and, in March, the factory hired a handful of new workers. In addition, a few more workers were hired at local restaurants and stores. The months of March and April were trying for Mussmann and her Bangladeshi neighbors, but the community stuck together, its members supporting each other like an extended family. When Shershah and Jahangir went on job interviews, their neighbors took care of their son and, likewise, when his friends scored jobs, Shershah looked after their families.

After several months of unemployment, Shershah recently landed a job at Columbia-Greene Memorial Hospital, working as a patient-care assistant. One of Hudson’s largest employers, the hospital has proven to be a valuable asset in the Bangladeshis’ search for security. With Mussmann’s help, Shershah and several of his friends participated in a mass interview, which allowed the Bangladeshi applicants to help each other express their thoughts when language barriers arose. Though Shershah earns less money now than he did at Emsig, he is unionized and will earn more the longer he stays at the hospital.

“A factory job I always thought of as dirty work,” Shershah says. “At the hospital, I have to dress clean, and we learn very valuable skills.”

Shershah’s job also holds modest potential for career advancement, and a chance to learn computer skills. Other Bangladeshis also have found jobs recently at the hospital as PCAs and in the housekeeping department.

In the few months that he has been employed at Columbia-Greene Memorial Hospital, Shershah feels he has become more connected with Hudson.

“The other day we went to a street parade, and Shershah recognized many of the people on the floats,” Mussmann says. “Because of Shershah’s job at the hospital, he is very visible, while at the factory he was invisible.”

After almost six months of working together daily, and socializing nightly, Mussmann feels close with the Bangladeshi people.

“I’m Bangladeshi,” she jokes.

In May, Mussmann hired several Bangladeshis to cater an 80-person reception at Time & Space Limited. The reception gave a few Bangladeshis an opportunity to showcase their culinary skills, and is the first step in what Mussmann hopes will lead to a Bangladeshi restaurant in Hudson. Recently, Zulekha also was hired to work in the kitchen at the Red Dot, a local restaurant.

“Their culture has their own delicacies, and a restaurant would provide a lot of people with jobs, ” Mussmann says. “An Indian restaurant would be a great way to let to community know they’re out there.”

Like Shershah’s new job, the banquet was a success, but the Bangladeshis’ struggle is far from over. Even after five months of job interviews, nine of the former Bangladeshi button workers are still unemployed, and the community is still working to overcome the language barrier.

Today, Shershah and Zulekha split their time between working and taking care of their family. Everyday Shershah walks to work from his home on the north side, arrives at the hospital at 3 PM, changes into his scrubs and works an eight-hour shift. Unlike his job at the factory, the hospital job requires Shershah to maintain a neat appearance, and it is evident that he is pleased to do so, and considers it a reflection of the pride he takes in his work.

As he prepares for his evening shift, Shershah recalls his fondness for Mussmann and her TSL staff. Sitting with Mussmann in the TSL office, Shershah seems at home in Hudson. The events of the last nine months have left Hudson’s Bangladeshi immigrants shaken, and uncertain about the future. But they have gained strength from their own support system, and Mussman’s tireless example of neighborliness has given them faith that they gradually will be able to assimilate into the community at large.

“Being a Midwesterner, it’s natural for us to be worried about our neighbors,” Mussmann says. “In 1948, my family farm was blown away by a tornado, and people we didn’t even know came to help us pick up the pieces. When there’s a problem, it’s everyone’s problem.”

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