S. Nadia Hussain (center), with her son (front), speaks at the Excluded Women's March on March 7, 2021.
“If there is access and opportunity, people can and will rise…But it shouldn't take an exceptional individual to be able to rise up from difficult circumstances. Access and opportunity must be made available to everyone so that we can all rise up from difficult circumstances.”
-S. Nadia Hussain
We had the marvelous opportunity to speak with S. Nadia Hussain, co-founder of the BAWDI Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative and member of the New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice, about her work as a leader and Women’s History Month.
The BAWDI Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative (BAWDI) seeks to promote, support, and address the unmet needs of Bangladeshi women and children in the Paterson community and throughout New Jersey through grassroots organizing, connection to services, advocacy, disseminating information, and educating community members on social issues, and cultivating a safe space for sisterhood.
BAWDI has been a member of the New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice (Alliance) since 2018. The organization joined the coalition to uplift the immigrant rights movement in New Jersey and help support Bangladeshi immigrants across the state.
BAWDI is a dynamic organization composed of a volunteer executive board of women from the community dedicated to justice and love for the people. The organization connects community members to resources and information and recently fundraised over $8,000 to help meet the community’s immediate needs during the Covid19 pandemic.
On who she is and what BAWDI stands for...
“I am an activist. I am a long-time activist and organizer. I am a co-founder of the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development initiative, BAWDI for short, an organization that supports, uplifts, organizes, and connects the Bangladeshi-American community to resources. We work to uplift Bangladeshi women and girls in New Jersey. We are based out of Paterson, meaning that much of our work is based in Passaic County, but we do work across the state as well.”
“We have been around for about five years now. What is very impressive about us is that we are a volunteer-run organization. Our board members are from the community. Some of us grew up in Paterson; others have lived in the community at some point. All of us are women who come from or have lived in the Bangladeshi-American community in or around the Paterson area - so we are part of the community we serve. A lot of our work is as grassroots as you can get.”
“What is wonderful about us is that since our founding, we have done our work by utilizing city, state, and community resources, and our connections and networks enabling us to be flexible and responsive to do things like rapid-response actions. During the last administration, BAWDI provided support to community members who were impacted by ICE raids and had family members arrested for detention and deportation.
“We connect with groups in Paterson and Passaic County to connect undocumented folk to resources they otherwise would not have. Our Bangladeshi community can, unfortunately, be invisible, even within the immigrants’ rights’ movement. Some may not know that we have an undocumented community; it is often very hidden. BAWDI does our best, really, to give support in a number of ways.”
“Our Bangladeshi community can, unfortunately, be invisible, even within the immigrants’ rights’ movement. Some may not know that we have an undocumented community; it is often very hidden. BAWDI does our best, really, to give support in a number of ways.”
On what brought her to this work...
“My family immigrated from the country of Bangladesh, allowing me to be born here. My father served in the U.S. Army and U.S. National Guard - to this day, I do not know of any other Bangladeshi Muslim-American who grew up on a military base, like myself during the 80s or 90s. I haven’t personally met someone with that background. Even though I grew up here, and had the privilege of citizenship and everything that came with that, I saw the struggles of my family. Many of those struggles connected to being “other” in society. We faced racism, sometimes very openly.”
On navigating the system...
“My parents struggled with the lack of awareness of resources and institutional knowledge about how systems work in this country. Even though they themselves were citizens, even though my father did serve in the armed forces, being American was still a new experience for them. My father suffers from severe mental illness. We as a family faced that stigma, all while not knowing how to access resources and legal outlets. When my mother faced discrimination, which she very often did, we didn’t know what avenues we had for recourse. And even if we had an avenue for recourse, who was going to pay for it?”
“Growing up, I felt that I could not do much. We did not have access to information; we did not have access to resources, even though my parents had citizenship and were educated, which is such a privilege. My father was a doctor in his country, my mother has two master’s degrees in her country, but in THIS country they were not able to achieve that “American dream” that many immigrants strive toward.
On her familial experiences with the carceral state and mental health...
“When I was in college, my father was incarcerated. As we know, mental illness is one of the precursors of incarceration. If a person is low-income, mentally ill and a person of Color - especially if they are Black - they are pushed into the incarceration system. This is of course coupled with this country’s detention systems. To witness my father being tortured and almost killed by guards in a minimum-security prison, when he should have been in a mental health facility, was absolutely traumatizing. All the while, a couple of white doctors, charged with similar allegations (it was alleged that my father had committed Medicaid fraud) and with plentiful evidence against them, got off - unlike my father’s case. This occurred after 9/11 in a very conservative part of Pennsylvania. My father, a severely mentally ill man, was incarcerated for 3-4 years for a crime that honestly did not hurt anybody. At the worst my father should have been fined, not incarcerated. It was a waste of taxpayer dollars to torture a mentally ill man who posed zero threat to society and who was a Army Veteran who served his nation”
“Being in my 20s, in college, all the while this was happening with my father, that sense of helplessness crept in again. I felt helpless about the law, about acquiring a lawyer. I often thought to myself: how many people are victimized by the laws of this county, especially when they try to do everything right? And what does it mean to do everything right?”
“How many people are victimized by the laws of this county, especially when they try to do everything right? And what does it mean to do everything right?”
On understanding race and class oppression...
“I saw what was happening around me. I grew up in coal-country Pennsylvania. I grew up with kids who often didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, or didn’t have family members that went to college. I saw the impact of not having access to jobs. This wasn’t just a Black and Brown issue - these were the consequences of a system that did not, and does not, function the way it was intended to work. Rather than having access to opportunities and a better life, people too often become victimized by the institutions that should be serving them and fall through the cracks of our society.
On founding BAWDI...
My co-founder, Tania Chowdhury, came to me with the idea to start BAWDI. She grew up in the Paterson area. We both realized there was a need for support. There was nowhere for our communities to go. Even though there were some wonderful organizations in the area, there were some language and cultural barriers, as well as a lack of systemic knowledge. There were almost no ethnic-based organizations in the area, or even in New Jersey. There are of course great organizations like MANAVI, which we partner with often and greatly admire. Many organizations in NJ are focused on a particular social issue, such as domestic violence, so for community members that weren’t experiencing such issues, they didn’t have a place to go for support. We saw the need, but no solution - so we created one, and that was BAWDI.
“We saw the need, but no solution - so we created one, and that was BAWDI”
“I have a nonprofit background along with 15 years of organizing. Tania worked in early intervention, was a teacher and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, so she has an understanding of systems. We were then able to build an incredible board of directors, made up of activists and advocates from the community who have the lived experience and knowledge to continue doing the work”
On the COVID-19 pandemic…
“During the start of COVID, when our communities were being disproportionately impacted and died from the virus, especially in a densely populated place like Paterson, whose families are often multi-generational - BAWDI organized a fundraiser and raised over $8,000. Food was also donated to the fundraiser, allowing us to distribute food and funds to our community members in need..”
“There is no traditional win in times of COVID. The pandemic continues. We need our community members to have access to the vaccine. We see in the data that communities of color are not being vaccinated at the rates that they should be. There is not equitable access to the vaccines, and also to the information! It’s so important to have science-backed Information about the vaccines available to our community in a way that is accessible for them.
On BAWDI’s work during the pandemic and community-building...
“There is a Muslim-based organization, Ansaar of Worcester, Inc., located in Massachusetts, that my cousin runs. I hadn’t even reached out to her about our efforts, but she proactively asked how her organization could support BAWDI. They had funds that they wanted to donate to the Paterson community and donated a car load of staple foods to the community - it was our rice, our oils, and other ingredients that were given out to the community. We also had local businesses sell us these goods at market price and didn’t mark up the costs. We were able to get food to our people in an affordable way, all the while supporting local Bangladeshi-owned businesses. BAWDI followed the lead and stayed in touch with North Jersey Mutual Aid, which has led incredible continued efforts to uplift those in need around here.
“Despite the existence of these community organizations, there is a challenge in ethnic communities being siloed, so trying to get them information and resources especially during COVID is often a big challenge. You need to develop and maintain trust. You need to have connections made already. Sometimes it's even just speaking the language. Without that trust, it becomes difficult to connect people to the resources and information that could be made available to them. That was our win - that we came together, raised the money with no overhead since BAWDI distributes everything directly to the community.. Every cent went to help those who needed it.
On addressing needs, wherever it may be...
“An elderly man was asking folks outside of a grocery store if he could get a ride home. Yet, because of the pandemic and rightful fear of COVID, no one stopped to help him. A Pakistani American community member stopped and gave him a ride home. When taking his groceries inside, she found the elderly man’s wife on the floor where she had apparently been for a while due to illness. They were both in their 80s, they didn’t have any family, and so they were on their own. Even though they spoke English, they didn’t know where to find information or resources, like where to get the social security they were owed.
“BAWDI does everything together. One of our board members, Minowara Begum, really took the lead on this situation. She advocated for this family, checked in on them, talked to them so this couple would feel less isolated. We worked closely with the Pakistani woman who initially found them, and she helped drive them to appointments, as well. One of our board members, Amber Huq, is a social worker. She helped the elderly couple access social security and get access to resources like food and Medicare. They should have gotten it before then, but they needed critical support navigating the system.
“We were also able to get the wife to a hospital and empower her to go. She was so scared at first. She eventually was able to get the care she needed. Who knows what would have happened if she stayed on that floor any longer. I credit Minowara, BAWDI members, and everyone else involved for saving this couple’s life.”
“BAWDI will work its hardest to advocate, in a way that I wish someone would have advocated for my family. It is very personal. There is no hierarchy of ‘helping’ - we are just ensuring that the community uplifts itself. We are helping each other. None of this is charity. This is how community should work”
“BAWDI will work its hardest to advocate, in a way that I wish someone would have advocated for my family. It is very personal”
On how we can support BAWDI’s work...
Every donation that BAWDI gets goes directly to the work. If families need money for rent, we allocate our funds to helping families pay their rent. Donations enable us to continue our work.. Donations are always appreciated, but also following us onFacebook and Instagram and spreading the word about the work we do can help. A big part of the work is getting the word out there. If you know of any Bangladeshi-Americans in your communities that need support - community members, activists, and the like - you can always connect them to BAWDI.
“Much of our work is getting our name out there. We are only as powerful as the word that goes out and our network. We are here and will do our very best to continue this work. Also, plugging BAWDI into opportunities when possible is another way to support us. Of course, we are mindful of our capacity. We are all volunteers at BAWDI.Being on people’s minds for opportunities, and having folks know we are here is important to us.”
On the relationship between the Alliance and BAWDI...
“BAWDI has been with the Alliance for about three years, starting in 2018.”
“I have always been a fan of the Alliance and its impactful work with immigrant rights and uplifting the community’s visibility and dignity. That work is important to me. When the Trump administration implemented draconian policies - galvanized by the tools left behind by prior administrations - BAWDI knew we needed to connect with the Alliance. BAWDI saw roundups, mass deportations, ICE raids in workplaces and homes, and ICE agents manipulating people to target them for detention and deportation. We saw that, and it was horrifying.”
“We found out about a father that was detained by ICE after being here for almost two decades. His wife was also undocumented, and their children were mixed-status. Our biggest concern was that the mother was going to be deported. She and her husband were going to check-ins with ICE, and it was at one of these same check-ins that her husband was detained. I was trying to get him a lawyer so he could stay with his family. By the time we got him a lawyer, ICE had moved him to another state. He was deported so quickly!
“While BAWDI was supporting this family, the Alliance became an important resource. The Alliance connected us in-roads into these detention centers - which we desperately needed. I reached out to the advocates in the coalition and asked them, what do you know? They were so helpful throughout it all. By working together to support this family, BAWDI became involved with the Alliance.
“While BAWDI was supporting this family, the Alliance became an important resource.”
“When the father was deported, our next concern was that if the mother was deported, her children would be pushed into foster care. With the help of the Alliance, we organized a rally when the mother had an ICE check-in. The rally got a lot of press coverage in New Jersey and even got a story coverage in Bangladesh. There was something really powerful about this moment. When it comes to immigrant justice, people who are not in work do not realize how far-reaching the immigrant community is. There is not only one face of immigration. There is not just one story. Seeing a Bangladeshi immigrant family - a South Asianfamily - on the front page of these newspapers talking about the atrocities that happened to them was, in a way, powerful. It showed the public that behind the racist rhetoric and divisions, there were actual families being impacted by draconian policies”
“When it comes to immigrant justice, people who are not in the work do not realize how far-reaching the immigrant community is. There is not one face of immigration. There is not just one story.”
“That is where the link between the Alliance and BAWDI was formed. We all came together. We supported each other. We joined the alliance officially after that. We wanted to do our part in uplifting immigrant rights for everyone in the state”
On being a leader in the social justice movement...
Well, I don’t really know if I am a leader. But I am honored to be working with incredible people and share any talent or skill I have to contribute towards building a better world. Building a society that works for the people instead of against the people. This is all a labor of love. We do this from a place of love. We do this because we want to see a world that works better and a world more at peace with itself. Even if that is a massive undertaking and one that has vexed humanity since its existence.
Nadia’s favorite quote...
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. I truly believe that. I am kind of emo, to be honest. I am not as optimistic as people think. I am a realist. But if there is anything that I can do to be part of bending that arc, that is enough for me. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was part of a collective effort. Even those who lost their lives, who were murdered, those we may never know their names. They helped bend the arc, too. The effort and sacrifices were made, and the fight continues.”
“We are in a fight for human rights. Even people just saying “this is wrong”, is one step in the right direction. One step closer to justice. Hopefully, as a human being within my full capacity for however long I am here, I can help move us towards love, dignity, and care for one another.”
On the meaning of Women’s History Month...
I think Women's History Month is very important. When I think of Women's History Month, I think of it as Trans-inclusive. Transwomen are women. That’s it. When I think of Women's History Month, I also think of non-binary folk. The truth is, the way our patriarchal system works, it oppresses anyone that does not support the patriarchy. For me, I acknowledge Women's History Month as uplifting everyone that is resisting the patriarchy.”
“For me, I acknowledge Women's History Month as uplifting everyone that is resisting the patriarchy.”
“Even growing up as a woman in this country, despite all the privileges, it has still been an up-hill battle to be a woman. When I look at our politics, people running for office, and the sorts - it's still such a men’s game. The New Jersey legislature, for example, isn’t even close to having women equally represented. It is maddening.”
Having a month that acknowledges the accomplishments of women and having the opportunity to educate folks about those accomplishments is great. During Women's History Month, I learn about amazing women I have never even heard about. It's a time to uplift everyone who identifies as women. While acknowledgment is maybe the lowest common denominator , it can be used as a jumping off point to educate and eventually address systemic issues.
Nadia is currently reading...
“I am reading The New Jim Crow (by Michelle Alexander)! But I have two kids so its difficult to read for my personal enrichment!”
On one of the most impactful books she has read...
“I love The Autobiography of Malcolm X. To have a historical figure be part of writing his own story, and who was killed very shortly after, is impactful. To have such a resource is important to me, and to have the opportunity to share it with others is even more so important. It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum, there is this book here waiting for you. Reading about Malcolm X, his childhood, early life, and later life was powerful. Anybody can do something to change the world - as cheesy as that sounds - that is what I got from his story.
“So much of what we fight for is about access. It is not about innate ability, but rather lack of access. If there is access and opportunity, people can and will rise. Malcolm X was an exceptional individual. Absolutely exceptional. But it shouldn't take an exceptional individual to be able to rise up from difficult circumstances. Access and opportunity must be made available to everyone so that we can all rise up from difficult circumstances.”
On what brings her joy in these turbulent times...
“My family brings me joy, even though they drive me crazy because we all live in the same household, and I probably complain about them all the time. My husband brings me a lot of joy. We have been together for 11 years. We have healed each other. He came to this country and was undocumented for so long. His mother struggled as a domestic worker, too. It was tough. So often, our trauma can sink us, but in our case our stories and our history uplifted us. That and also I’ve accessed a lot of therapy, so yay therapy! I am grateful for him. I am grateful for everything we have, and will accomplish. I am grateful for everything we have gone through and will go through together. I am grateful for our two beautiful children. Having the opportunity to see my babies smile. Watching them grow. Having their grandparents around. That is what matters to me in the end, my family. So much of what I work towards is leaving a better world for them. A world that does not target them. My joy is my family.
“So often, our trauma can sink us, but in our case our stories and our history uplifted us”
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